There’s a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel out this weekend. It’s not the first. Based on the way the movie industry is evolving, it probably won’t be the last. In 25 years, we’ll be gearing up for the third second sequel in whatever the latest take on the franchise might be. Perhaps we’ll be looking back on the latest version with fondness (unlikely as that may seem). But now, the double-whammy of the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and the recent 25th anniversary of one of its forerunners seems to have the world looking at that first TMNT II with some very thick rose-colored glasses.
Gone are the days when children would wear out a VHS cassette if they played it too much. Gone are those golden hours when one would find themselves shouting for one’s mother because the picture had gone all funny and the sound had started to mutate from one key to another. Gone is that tremulous sensation when one knows, in the pit of the stomach, that the grinding sound of demolished plastic is the very sound of one’s favorite movie getting devoured by one’s rotten VHS player, again. Gone, all gone, and we shall never know their like again.
With their loss, the world surrendered one of the surest ways of knowing which movies were its favorites. Reader, if you are of a certain age — above 26, say — odds are that you lost at least one beloved tape to overuse in this way. Those movies may not have been the best. They may not have been the most memorable, powerful, or meaningful. But there’s no surer indicator of which movies you watched time and time again than the ones lost because you just plain wore them out.
Mine? The Princess Bride. Respectable. Funny Girl? Let’s go ahead and say that one’s respectable, too. And then there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. I’m not the only one who loved that movie: plenty of kids knew just about every word, from Michaelangelo’s Casablanca quote (a reference most probably missed until they hit their classic movies phase) to Shredder bellowing, “BABIES! THEY ARE BABIES! GRAAAAAH!”
Its predecessor was somewhat dark — you know, for a movie about teenage mutant turtles who are also ninjas — but Ooze is downright playful, with a new goofy sidekick who is also a pizza delivery guy, some mutant babies, and an extended musical performance by the unforgettable Vanilla Ice. They fight with sausages and perform dance routines and get up to madcap antics aplenty. They observe the ancient ritual of the traditional pre-fight donut. It was so fun.
Thus, it grieves me to report that that fun hasn’t aged particularly well. You’ll be much happier if you save your nostalgia. Keep what the Ooze once was alive in your heart. Let its supposed merits endure in your memory. To be perfectly plain: The Secret of the Ooze does not hold up. Yes, it was so much fun. But here’s the thing: It wasn’t really all that funny. Okay, the sausage fight is still pretty good. But the rest of it feels so manufactured, so flat, as false as the “science” behind the ooze and as full of empty calories as the pizza to which those turtles are so desperately addicted.
It’s not simply a matter of aging out of the film’s target demographic (though make no mistake, this is a movie absolutely aimed at children). There are plenty of stories told for kids that manage to also appeal to adults (as is the case with basically every Pixar film) and plenty more that have an appeal that’s largely ageless, whether transporting viewers to another realm (Labyrinth) or drawing out the inner child (The Muppet Movie). But this is not that film, and whatever spark illuminated Ooze has flickered out. The personalities no longer feel distinct — except Raphael, who sucks — and the science, always pretty junky, now seems utterly ludicrous (and not in a fun way). So yeah, it feels dated, and stale, and generally clunky.
But it’s not all bad! It may not be up to the level of the cool creations we see in films today, but the work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop remains pretty damn nifty. Sure, Donatello and Michelangelo often seem to be the same character with a slightly different voice and mask, but when you’re watching all four of the turtles jump around, kick, punch, flip, and frolic — there’s a lot of frolicking — it doesn’t matter so much. There’s one sequence near the beginning of the film when Donatello takes the place of a weird bopping clown-thing, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it’s so cool and impressive. It’s one of the moments when it’s easiest to forget that you’re looking at a suit with a puppet’s face. Each turtle was brought to life by an in-suit performer and a facial assistant, while Splinter was a straight-up puppet, something else that’s easy to forget. They also stay well out of the uncanny valley, something that can’t be said for the current Bay-influenced leg of the franchise.
Those wishing to revisit the tubular, awesome, bodacious, radical, excellent, turtle-powered turtles of their youth are still best off with the cartoons (and their excellent theme song). There’s a reason people still love these characters, thanks in part to the absurdity of the central premise, but also to their existence as a quartet of mutant Peter Pans. They never age, they rarely take things seriously, and while occasionally Leonardo can be super bossy and Raphael’s kind of a dick, they’re mostly just a pack of lost boys, never growing up and always hungry for the next slice of pizza.
For all its flaws, that youthfulness gives Ooze a spark, and while it’s not enough to sustain the film, it still gives it a leg up over the current franchise. If you can’t resist the nostalgia, you’re still better off going back than diving into the most recent iteration. Some stale jokes are a hell of a lot more entertaining than watching Will Arnett collect his paycheck, right alongside Laura “What Am I Doing Here, I Almost Won an Oscar” Linney and Stephen Amell, who is the freaking Green Arrow. The first TMNT II might not be much better than the current one, but at least it’s not that particular brand of depressing.
So yes, there are upsides to the original, but let’s not get precious about it. There are movies we love as kids that remain wonderful as adults. Warts and all, anytime the chance to watch something like The Sandlot presents itself, you should take that chance. Skip it, and you’re killin’ me, Smalls. But not all nostalgia is warranted, and while this one was worn out in my VHS player as a kid, it’s not worth the repeat visit. Take a pass on that 25th anniversary screening. Stop defending its many virtues. Let it live on in those fuzzy memories, and call it a day. Back then, it was bodacious. Now? It’s a total drag, dude.