This is the twenty-sixth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were originally created in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of modern superhero comics. The turtles themselves, being mutants, were a play on the mutants of the X-Men books. The idea of them being ninjas as well as the Foot Clan were a play on the Daredevil comics and the ninja group the Hand. Another influence was in the turtles’ mentor, Splinter, who was a play on the name of Daredevil’s mentor, Stick.
In 1987 the concept was turned into a wildly popular Saturday morning cartoon series by Fred Wolf Films. The cartoon brought with it a wave of “Turtlemania” that conquered the world during the late 80s and early 90s. The phenomenon that was Turtlemania caused film production companies Golden Harvest and Limelight Productions to team up in acquiring the rights and producing a big budget live-action blockbuster based on the property.
The original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film was given a $13.5 million budget, which was modest even for the time. The budget was only slightly higher than budgets given to “Captain America” or “The Punisher,” but director Steve Barron – who was mostly known as a music video director at the time – was able to do so much more with the money he had than either of the other two productions.
The prosthetic turtle costumes – “Jurassic Park” and the advent of computer generated imagery was still several years away – were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. This would be the last project overseen by Henson himself, who died in May of 1990. The turtles took three actors each to operate. A body double actually wore the suit and performed in pantomime, the mouth and eyes were operated by an animatronic puppeteer and a separate voice actor provided the dialogue. Only in the case of Josh Pais as Raphael did the same actor who wore the suit provide the voice.
Several of the voice actors included Robbie Rist – who had risen to fame as Cousin Oliver on “The Brady Bunch” – as Michelangelo, Brian Tochi – most well known as Toshiro Takashi from the “Revenge of the Nerds” movies – as Leonardo, Corey Feldman – a popular A-lister at the time – as Donatello and Kevin Clash – who provided the voice of Elmo on “Sesame Street” – as Splinter. While Splinter was a puppet only and had no one in the suit, Kevin Clash did also perform the puppeteer duties for that character.
The film took a decidedly different direction from both the comics – which were very dark and serious – and the cartoon – which was very over the top and silly – combining the two approaches into something uniquely its own, yet recognizable to fans of both. The film was very serious and dealt with a lot of dark themes, but retained the turtles’ humor and personalities – as well as their mutli-colored bandanas – from the animated series.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” debuted in theaters on March 30, 1990 and was a commercial success, going on to make $201.9 million from its $13.5 million budget. It did take a beating from several critics at the time, with Kim Newman from the UK’s Monthly Film Bulletin even going so far as to call the film racist in its depiction of Japanese culture. Roger Ebert disagreed, stating that there was no racism in the film.
Because of the film’s commercial success, a sequel was quickly fast-tracked. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” was released on March 22, 1991, one year after the release of the first. The sequel was given a much larger budget than the original, around $25 million, but the rushed production schedule didn’t do the film any favors even with the bigger budget.
Voice actors Kevin Clash, Brian Tochi and Robbie Rist all returned to reprise their roles. Corey Feldman, however, did not return to voice Donatello and he was replaced with Adam Carl. Likewise, Josh Pais was replaced as the voice of Raphael by Laurie Faso, who had also voiced Tunnel Rat in the G.I. Joe animated movie. Judith Hoag was replaced with Paige Turco as April O’Neal and the character of Casey Jones was dropped form the sequel entirely, despite it taking place mere days after the end of the first. Casey Jones isn’t even mentioned.
The studio wanted to introduce the mutant menaces Beebop and Rocksteady from the still-popular cartoon in the sequel, however due to the legal hurdles that would have been required to license those characters from Fred Wolf Films two new characters – Tokka and Rahzar – were created.
The tone of the film was lightened up considerably from the first, and much more resembled the silliness of the cartoon. Due to censorship overseas – in many European countries ninjas and ninja weapons are banned, prompting the property to be branded “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” in those jurisdictions – and because of severe edits made to the fist film the turtles’ weapons were often replaced in the sequel with odd objects. In one scene, Michelangelo uses linked sausage instead of his trademark nunchaku as a weapon.
Still, even with the lighter tone, Turtlemania was still in full force and the film almost recouped its entire budget during opening weekend alone. It went on to make $78 million at the box office, considerably less than its predecessor but still enough to be considered financially successful. Once again, a sequel was planned.
The third TMNT film wasn’t as rushed as the second, however this didn’t do much to improve the film’s quality. Released on March 19, 1993, TMNT 3 was largely based on a popular video game at the time – “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time” – which had been released the previous year.
The third film retained the lighter and sillier tone of the second, and even got a little lighter and sillier. The turtle suits, also, weren’t quite as realistic as they had been in the first two, having been created this time by the All Effects Company instead of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Once again Robbie Rist and Brian Tochi returned to voice their characters – becoming the only actors to be in all three films – and Corey Feldman returned to voice Donatello once again. Turtles 3 also saw the return of Casey Jones, once again played by Elias Koteas, and Paige Turco reprise her role as April O’Neil. Kevin Clash did not return to voice Splinter.
Despite having a comparable budget to the second – and much higher than the first – and having a production schedule that allowed for more time to be taken in making the film, Turtles 3 failed to live up to expectations. The film grossed just $42 million, barely twice its $21 million budget. The film was also mostly panned by critics, with the critical consensus being “It’s a case of one sequel too many for the heroes in a half shell, with a tired time-travel plot gimmick failing to save the franchise from rapidly diminishing returns.”
Turtlemania had reached its pinnacle, and the ride had started to slow. While there was an attempt at television, it would be another four years before the turtles were once again on cinema screens, and another 21 years before they would see another live action blockbuster.
Newman, Kim (December 1990). “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. Monthly Film Bulletin (London) LVII(683): 344–345.
Ebert, Roger (March 30, 1990). “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. rogerebert.com.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2005)”. Boxofficemojo.com.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (1991)”. Boxofficemojo.com.
“If Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Gets A Sequel, Expect Bebop And Rocksteady”. Cinema Blend. August 11, 2014.