Back to the Sewers: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 (1993)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 has many of the same problems Secret of the Ooze faced.  It was looking to capitalize on the turtle craze before it faded out, but now two movies set precedence of what to be expected.  However, rather than forcing itself to try and emulate the previous movies, or force a family friendly routine into a darker movie, this movie picks a tone and sticks with it, for better or worse.

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Tone

If it wasn’t obvious by my opening, the tone of this movie is very different to the others.  In lieu of imitating it’s predecessors, it goes for a more cartoon-like vibe, imitating the silliness and slapstick of the TV show more than the adult undertones of the first film.  The turtles’ look reflects this change in tone, with them appearing overall much lighter, and the lighting being very bright to give a lighter, airy feel, even in the Turtles’ sewer lair.

The story itself is more akin to old samurai movies, like the Seven Samurai, with unexpected heroes coming to foil the greater foe, while having to learn to adjust to a new way of life.  Turtles 3 has scenes of the peaceful countryside interspersed with intense action, which matches the pacing of old samurai films as well.

Overall the tone is the most light-hearted of any of the turtles movies to date, but at least unlike Secret of the Ooze they at least picked a tone instead of wavering between two conflicting ones.

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Story and Script

Presumably, the writer’s turned to a little known story of the original run of the comics that involved time travel, but the story was heavily modified to fit the theme and tone of the movie they were going for.  While this may show a great amount more work was put into this script than it’s precursor, I have yet to find any specific reference to said comic or receive clarification as to which time travel story was being referenced.  Therefore, I can’t yet give any credit on this aspect.

I can say, as I mentioned with the tone, it does seem to follow a traditional samurai movie in terms of major plot arcs.  The heroes first encounter, their struggle to gather resources, time adjusting to the their new surroundings, and the final confrontation has many aspects used in the samurai genre — even if teenage turtles is a bit out of their scope.

Nevertheless, while Turtles 3 still has about as many plot threads as Secret of the Ooze, the over-arching plot is at least easy to summarize and follow — the Turtles must find and rescue April O’Neil from feudal Japan within 60 hours or be trapped in the past.  Granted, this just serves as the basic motivation throughout the movie, but subplots build from this point, rather than just growing out of other miscellaneous plot points.

The other major plot that the turtles are unwittingly sucked into is a complex relationship between Lord Norinaga and the peasant rebellion.  Norinaga is the daimyo of the area whose son Kenshin is busy romancing the leader of the rebels Mitsu — that is until April and Kenshin have their places switched thanks to the magic scepter.  Naturally this creates some confusion, made worse when four mutant turtles, who most mistake for Japanese demons, show up looking for her.  And the turtles have to tip-toe around both sides of the conflict before they fully understand what is happening.

The “main” villain of this movie though is really the English(?) trader Walker, who is trying to play the daimyo and the rebellion against each other, and eventually feeds Norinaga’s fear of demons in order to sell his guns, cannons, and gunpowder at a huge profit.

All of these factors eventually converge into a story that should be pretty easy to tell.  Unfortunately, it’s mangled quite a bit by the script itself.

As previously mentioned, this is a much lighter turtles romp, so it tries to focus on comedy when it can.  The comedy in this movie, however, is very hit or miss.  Any pop-culture references feel very out of place or very dated (even for it’s time).  Jokes about Japanese language typically fall flat as well, especially since the turtles being ninjas ought to know a little of it.  They also have segments with the Japanese honor guards and Kenshin in New York, but these are typically short gags that fail to live up to their potential.

The climax is also a big build up to a very disappointing conclusion, that feels unbalanced.  Norinaga, who has been shown to be the lesser of the two evils, being utterly humiliated by the end.  Meanwhile, Walker, who the audience wants to see get his comeuppance,  being undone by a lucky shot from a catapult.

What’s more, the somewhat complex situation that the plot tries to cover is also littered with cliches.  The villagers are nondescript and uninteresting with only a couple exceptions.  The English traders are rude, crude, and generically villainous, but perpetually stupid to make our heroes look better by comparison.

Speaking of, let’s take a look at our heroes in a half-shell…

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The Turtles

While these are still Jim Henson Creature Shop creations, they don’t look nearly as good, for a number of reasons.  For one, these animatronic heads had to be used on both the honor guard outfits in feudal Japan, and the regular turtle suits as well,  The heads are definitely less distracting on the bulky armor of the honor guards, but simply look out of place atop the suits that aren’t wearing anything.  Secondly, the lighting in this installment is easily the worst of the three, especially in regards to selling the illusion.  The lighting is very even and bright for most of the movie, and in the open sequence in particular.  Therefore, the turtles illusion is never given a chance, as they are placed in the worst possible lighting, angle, and outfits at the onset.

As for the turtles affecting the plot well…

Raphael

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Raphael is given yet another temper-centered subplot, this would be 3 for 3 at this point.  This time, however, they do change it around by giving it some kind of resolution.  Raph destroys the turtles’ boombox at the opening because he’s tired of practicing for seemingly no purpose.  Later, while in Japan, he pulls Mitsu’s cousin Yoshi (played by Travis A. Moon) aside because he’s getting angry with his playmates.  Raph has a little heart-to-heart after realizing what Splinter had been trying to instill in him for 3 movies.  It’s not a terrible arch, especially considering Raphael’s struggles with this in the previous installments.  However, this whole development last for about a scene, and unfortunately simply isn’t handled as well as it should be.  Raphael’s bond with Yoshi is the only part that feels somewhat genuine, and is one of the few highlights of this movie.

Michealangelo

The other turtle that the script tries to develop is Michaelangelo.  This should be a lost cause, as Michealangelo spends almost a third of the movie captured or unconscious.  Nevertheless, the writers attempt to give Michealangelo an unrequited love-affair with Mitsu (played by Vivian Wu).  While this provides a complex scenario for Michealangelo, it seems out of place, particularly when none of the turtles have exhibited strong emotions of this nature before, much less with a human.  What makes it worse is that Michealangelo latches onto a person he knows he can’t be with, as it is established early in the movie that Mitsu and Kenshin are an item.  There could be some potential in this subplot, but it isn’t given any time to develop by the time it impacts the story.

It should be noted also that Raphael and Michealangelo are only given these subplots to force conflict at the 11th hour after a sub-par climax.

Leonardo and Donatello

Corey Feldman returns as Donatello, which is a waste in this movie.  Corey easily has the most speaking lines, because Donatello is in charge of most of the movie’s exposition.  Donatello is also in charge of trying to move the overall plot in the proper direction, so you at least hear more of him than in the original Turtles’ movie.  Donatello does get the only jokes I like in the movie as well, so that’s at least something.

Leonardo does almost nothing until the climax.  He’s still the leader and says leader-esque dialogue, but is otherwise forgettable.  His finishing of Lord Norinaga and dropping into his shell to avoid Walker’s cannon fire are his only highlights.

The Cast

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April is played by Paige Turco, who is given much more to do this time.  Playing the modern woman in an ancient world means much of the performance relies on Paige selling the idea.  Given the script she was working with, I’d say she succeeded.  There was never a point where I felt Paige’s performance was lacking.  At the end of the day though, we aren’t really dealing with April O’Neil specifically in this movie either.

Elias Koteas returns to the role of Casey Jones, as well as playing Walker’s underling Whitt.  As Casey, Elias is completely under-utilized, since Casey is basically baby-sitting Kenshin and the Japanese honor guards while waiting for the turtles to return.  In fact, it’s funny in a fourth-wall-breaking way when Leonardo explains to Casey that he’s basically not going to do anything all movie, leaving Casey disappointed.

Instead, the bulk of Elias’s material is given to the character Whitt, who is a darker character than the rest of this movie seems to allow.  He seems like a regular guy, but inevitably betrays the turtles and captures Mitsu in order to finalize Walker’s deal with Norinaga.  It’s never really clear what the character’s motivations are, especially when he is ultimately responsible for Walker’s demise at the climax.  This is another character with some potential, if the script decided to spend some time on it, but ultimately is forgotten.

Sab Shimono’s Norinaga is a character that is far more interesting in conception than in practice.  In the movie, Lord Norinaga is a feudal lord of an area of Japan in 1603, around the Sengoku or Warring States period.  This timing seems to imply this character is Matsudaira Norinaga who was a daimyo around that time.  However, the location of his castle, nor the events of the movie seem to support this assertion.  His name could also be an allusion to the poet Motoori Norinaga, who studied a wide-array subjects and contributed to much to the culture of Japan, much as Kenshin seems to favor.  Motoori Norinaga, however, did not live until several centuries later.  Most likely, Norinaga is a stand in for the far more sinister Oda Nobunaga who was known for trading with the West for guns and ammo that turned the Warring States conflict in his favor.  The nuances are all incorrect however; as Nobunaga was defeated by his own general turning on him, and was not succeeded by a son.  Norinaga in the movie is portrayed much more low-key than the great general Nobunaga traditionally would be, which may be the cause for finding a substitute.  Sab Shimono does perfectly fine with the script he’s given, but he doesn’t carry enough presence to be anything more than a one-note villain, a kin to Tatsu from previous movies.

Stuart Wilson’s Walker is the only other really note-worthy performance.  Wilson is given plenty of opportunity to chew scenery, and he takes advantage of it.  Walker is one of those characters that just seems to revel in how evil he is, and so Wilson seemed to assume, correctly, that he didn’t need to play this character very subtly.  Despite being one of the worst villains in turtles history, Wilson’s performance of him is hammy enough to make it worth seeing.

Other supporting characters include Vivian Wu as Mitsu, and Travis A. Moon as young Yoshi.  Both of which aren’t terrible, but not exactly inspiring performances either.  There are several other supporting roles as well, but much like Mitsu and Yoshi, they only service as plot devices or comic relief.  This serves as a pretty big blemish on the movie as well, as there are simply too many ancillary characters that are either under-performed or under-developed, or most likely both.

Ranking – 4

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I made no bones about this being strictly my opinion.  Nevertheless, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 is easier for me to sit through than Secret of the Ooze.  Perhaps it’s the setting, despite being somewhat inaccurate.  Perhaps it’s the stricter sense of tone and story.  Perhaps I just liked the jokes better, though not by much.

The major thing that stands out to me when comparing the two movies is that Secret of the Ooze is much more insular, requiring more knowledge of the previous movie or Ninja Turtles lore in order to enjoy it fully.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 stretches outward toward a different genre instead, seemingly most similar to old Japanese samurai movies, with little actual Turtles knowledge coming into play.  Your own enjoyment may then depend heavily on which angle you enjoy more.

Unfortunately, Turtles 3 wasn’t what fans were hoping for, and the franchise would not hit the big screen for over a decade, which we will discuss next time…

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