Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a movie about turtles. They have mutated, lived to become teenagers, and are trained in the arts of ninjutsu. Let us return to a more bodacious time, when this combination of traits was last seen in live-action cinema.

It's not really worth seeking out, but at least there's nothing to be embarrassed about for those who choose to do so.
Nosir, you want to know what embarrassed nostalgia looks like, you need to take a peek over here. Though while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles certainly has its share of grown-ups who do in fact know better still appreciating it, if with abashment, I don't know that anybody really has terribly warm feelings towards Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, a sequel which commits all of the same sins as its predecessor to a worse degree, while sharing none of its strengths.

Secret of the Ooze opened just 357 days after the first movie, which is your first sign of a problem right there. Not even a full year to develop, produce, and complete a sequel leaves precious damn little time to actually make something beyond the most crassly commercial play imaginable, which pretty thoroughly describes this film. Everything about it feels desperately reactionary: in response to widespread complaints that the first film was too violent, even the limited amount of action present in that film has been pared down and sanded off - the titular characters barely use their weapons in combat, and most of the setpieces are dealt with using the rules of animated slapstick, in those occasions when it is permitted to exist at all. The rushed, largely implicit staging of the final confrontation between the turtles and the film's ultimate villain is so perfunctory that it verges on self-parody.

Beyond the issue of violence, the sequel is obviously interested in taking a step or two closer to the cartoon, far more popular than the comic could ever fantasise about being: the humor is broader and noisier, and the original intention was to bring in the mutant animal baddies Bebop and Rocksteady from the TV show, though when Eastman and Laird vetoed that, the characters were retrofitted with some success into a pair of giant mutant animal babies that are close to being the only part of the movie that works in any particular way; there's a puckish sense of humor to them, both at the level of design and performance, that feels like the influence of the Jim Henson Company was stronger than it had previously been - there are echoes of both Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal in the new critters, and I, for one, am unlikely to ever invoke either of those titles in a negative sense.'

The film takes place vaguely after the first one ended: the sequences with April (Paige Turco, in a flat, syrupy performance that suddenly makes me realise how much grit and depth Hoag brought to the part) letting the turtles and Splinter (still Clash) bunk in her new apartment while they hunt the sewers of New York for a new safehouse, suggest weeks or months, but the re-introduction of the Shredder (François Chau, with McCharen returning for vocal duties) implies that it's the next day. Whatever the case, April's latest news story is on the massive clean-up by the shady biotech company TGRI, which has apparently been shamed into environmental friendliness after years of nasty, anti-social behavior. A certain Professor Jordan Perry (David Warner) is overseeing the clean-up, which we learn soon enough is related to the toxic ooze that initially mutated the turtles, 15 years ago. Splinter wants answers, but the Shredder wants more mutants, and kidnaps Perry, forcing him to great an accelerated version of the ooze to transform a snapping turtle and wolf into the giant but mentally infantile Tokka (Kurt Bryant) and Rahzar (Mark Ginther - both animals are given their nonverbal vocalisations by Frank Welker). With the help of local karate student and pizza boy Keno (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), Raphael (Ken Troum, voiced by Laurie Faso) infiltrates the Foot Clan, but is immediately captured. Leonardo (Mark Caso, with Tochi returning as his voice), Michaelangelo (once again Sisti and Rist), and Donatello (Tilden again, with Adam Carl providing the voice) go to rescue him and are captured themselves; upon escaping, they recruit Perry to help them stop the Foot before Tokka and Rahzar destroy New York, one block at a time. This involves a fight at a dance club where Vanilla Ice is performing.

I wonder if The Secret of the Ooze could possibly have been going well enough to survive a climactic fight scene set at a Vanilla Ice show, in which he improvises the song "Go Ninja, Go!" at what he thinks to be some kind of complex costume-based performance art piece erupting in the middle of his club. I doubt it - Vanilla Ice represents everything most shameful and happily forgotten about the early 1990s, and what he doesn't represent is covered by the club's purple and blue color scheme. As it stands, that scene represents the moment at which the film tilts from a determinedly mediocre live-action cartoon with all the stakes carefully removed (think of the children!) into "what combative, awful motherfuckery am I watching?" Not in a "so bad it's good way", either; for that we must look elsewhere in 1991, to find Mr. Ice, vindicated from his cameo here, appearing as the lead in the romantic comedy Cool as Ice. Which you need to see, because it is amazing.

Not amazing: The Secret of the Ooze. It's stuck in one mode of constant bouncy comedy that wants badly to strip away all the reality that comes from translating animation into live-action (and if the first film is a hybrid of the comic and the TV show, make no mistake: the sequel is an adaptation of the show with some nods to the comic), and which clashes weirdly with the far more expressive, mobile turtle suits the Jim Henson Creature Shop whipped up this time around, and while it has a more complete "A leads to B leads to C" screenplay than the first one (Langen handled this one all by himself), it's no more compelling for it, with a dull, low-key villainous plot that makes Shredder absolutely unpersuasive as an antagonist.

But why should it have a decent plot? This is an obvious attempt to increase the wackiness and back off on any kind of depth or stakes, with director Michael Pressman indulging all the comic bits and encouraging his actors - especially his turtles, both the suit actors and the voice actors - to go bigger and sloppier and more squirrelly (Warner, an actor whose proportion of terrific performances to shitty films is among the highest in film history, is an exception). It's a brighter film, to its considerable demerit: the sets look more like sets, the suits more like foam rubber, and there's never any sense of danger. Which was the point, of course; but not even a little kid wants to watch something without a sense of danger. The Secret of the Ooze is hellbent on being innocuous, high-spirited fun, but it just comes off as shrill and shallow and dimwitted, and even the superiority of its turtle suits to the first movie can't hide the fact that whatever sleepy charms the original possesses have been completely sandblasted away here.

Reviews in this series
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Pressman, 1991)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (Gillard, 1993)