Looking back at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Matt's look back at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies continues with the third installment, which still brings him out in a cold sweat...

Not often, but occasionally, I’ll wake up exactly at the stroke of midnight, panicked and struggling for breath. Unsure of where I am or what’s happening to me, I bolt up in bed and try to gather myself. I take in my bedroom, placing my location and calming myself enough to correct my breathing. My ribs ache a little, like they’ve been crushed by a great weight, but one that has been lifted. I’ll look over to the other side of the bed. Somehow, my girlfriend always manages to sleep through it.

I slide back down and settle, as gently as I can be, trying not to wake her. My mind still feels cluttered and manic, not yet slowed down from the sudden influx of sensations. It’s happened often enough now that I know I’ll not be able to get back to sleep. I lay awake for hours waiting for the morning to seep in through gaps in the curtains.

On nights like those, nights where I lay awake for hours and hours, I find myself haunted by the memory of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (occasionally subtitled Turtles In Time). A film that, even as a Turtlecore child, I never had any time for. A film that I’ve pondered for hundreds of lonely, sleepless, depressing hours, wondering just what the hell it was all about…

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With April O’Neil heading off on holiday, the Turtles are facing two boring weeks with no interaction with the outside world. To help keep them occupied, April brings them all some nick-nacks from a flea market. Unfortunately, wouldn’t you know it, the artefact she’s bought Splinter turns out to be a time sceptre, an ancient time travel device.

It’s not long before the Turtles have to travel back in time to rescue April, who has been sent to Japan in 1603. Landing in the middle of a samurai battle, the Turtles struggle to get to safety, losing Michelangelo and the time sceptre as they do so.

Caught up in a battle between two warring clans, with English traders instigating trouble further in an effort to convince Lord Norinaga, the aggressor in the clans’ dispute, to buy guns from them, the Turtles manage to rescue April and relocate Michelangelo. However, without the time sceptre, they’ve no way of returning home to New York.

Back in the Big Apple, Splinter has called in long time Turtle ally Casey Jones to help with the five Japanese warriors who have appeared in place of the Turtles and April. Casey teaches them about the modern world, showing them ice hockey on TV and taking them out to a bar.

After taking shelter with Mitsu, the leader of the smaller, less villainous clan, the Turtles attempt to build their own time travel device to send them home. When that doesn’t work, they find that Mitsu’s father has been hiding the time sceptre all along, hoping that the Turtles will stay and help them defeat Lord Norinaga.

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Walker, the leader of the English traders and all round dastardly devil, has Mitsu kidnapped, taking the time sceptre with her and using her as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with Lord Norinaga. The Turtles lead Mitsu’s clan to rescue her, recover the time sceptre and send Walker on his way.

There a couple of elements in place in this third Ninja Turtles movie that are really good and I feel like there’s a real effort to improve on the previous entry in the series.

With regard to sets and costumes (for people), Turtles in Time is pretty great. Lots of Japanese warriors and large, elaborate sets make this arguably the best looking film in the series. To bring the Turtles back to this time period is a nod to the comic book series and it’s a credit to those involved that such care has been taken in doing so. It’s clear to see where a large section of the film’s budget was spent. Similar care has been taken with the battle scenes, which aren’t short on extras or carnage.

Perhaps the biggest positive of Turtles in Time is the return of Elias Koteas as Casey Jones. Although he’s given nothing of interest to do, he’s still so charismatic and it’s genuinely exciting to see him back on screen in this role. Koteas also plays the character Wick, a double-crossing English rascal. There’s not really an explanation as to why he’s playing two characters, and things aren’t helped when April O’Neil seems to recognise him (a point which is never followed up on). Although it’s an odd decision, anything that keeps him onscreen for longer works to the benefit of Ninja Turtles 3.

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Also returning for this entry is Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello. It’s another welcome return, too, although one that sees him surrounded by a considerably weaker voice cast than the first time round. Michelangelo actually sounds pretty good, but Raphael and Leonardo really don’t sound like they should. Splinter appears to be suffering from some kind of throat ailment which has transformed his voice from that of a wizened teacher to that of just a normal guy trying not to cause a disturbance in a library.

As well as sounding a bit odd, Splinter now looks like a rather adorable and incredibly marketable plush toy. This is the same character that flipped The Shredder over the side of a roof in the first film, taking a moment to tell him “Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you. For when you die, it will be… (sees The Shredder reaching for a knife, allows him to tumble to his doom)…without honour.”

This incarnation of Splinter would not be able to deliver such a badass speech, nor would he be able to despatch a foe so fierce. This fuzzy, cutesy version of Splinter doesn’t work at all. That being said, if there were a plush toy of this Splinter, I would love to have one. Having a Splinter to cuddle up to may help me with my sleeping problem.

The Turtle suits featured in Ninja Turtles 3 are the first to be created by a company that aren’t Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they are awful. There are gaps between the headband and the face, they’re not coloured well at all, and the mouths look freakishly misshapen. The Turtles also appear to be covered in strange blotches, which are grouped and patterned in such a way that it’s difficult to accept them as anything other than crotch rot.

The treatment of the Turtles in this film is actually really poor. As well as the suits not looking the part, the characters have all become incredibly annoying. Gone are the amusing gags, replaced by lame quips like “son of a snapper!”  There are multiple instances of Michelangelo attempting to do a Hawaiian dance in response to things that have less than nothing to do with Hawaii.

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Michelangelo gets a human love interest in this film, which is both unnerving and unnecessary. I think that there is story to be explored that involves one of the Turtles feeling something for a human, exploring the difficulties of being teenage males who are part human and who have no female counterpart of their own species, but Turtles in Time is in no way equipped to handle that story. My uneasiness was compounded by a scene that saw some of the other Turtles react to seeing April’s bare legs with a Wayne’s World style ‘schwing’. 

It’s commendable that the makers of Turtles in Time have tried to make a more serious Turtles film, a bit more like the first one. Unfortunately, they’ve not committed to it. By taking the silly, wacky Turtles from the second film, turning them up to eleven and then placing them into a serious story, you get a clash of tones that makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

However, unlike the second film, which also wasn’t so good, the serious tone of this film means that it’s not even fun to watch. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, then, is a dreadful film, and one in which the main draw, the Turtles, are the element of the film that are treated with the least care.

Although it brought in slightly more than double its $21m budget at the US box office, the film had the weakest performance of any of the Turtles films. The whole franchise was being run into the ground at this point, with a glut of poor quality output (including a quantity over quality attitude to the cartoon series), resulting in complete Turtle burnout amongst the fans. This resulted in a much needed break from the cinema screens that would last for more than a decade.

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