One night, two struggling cartoonists had what turned out to be a billion-dollar idea. What if Frank Miller’s Daredevil had human-sized turtles in it? From that question came the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a quartet of brothers named after Renaissance artists who fought the Shredder and his Foot Clan (a spoof of perpetual Daredevil baddies the Hand). Who could have guessed that the self-published comic Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created would launch a phenomenon, one that survived its first boom in the late ‘80s and crash in the mid-1990s? It has since gone on to become an enduring pop culture franchise which is still going strong after several decades. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael have leaped out of the sewers and into every type of media, including video games and toys. Nonetheless, the characters are never more exciting than when they hit the big screen.
Part of that endurance comes from the fact that the Turtles can, and have, been rebooted several times over the year. As a result, the eight Ninja Turtles movies released to date feel very different from one another, even when directly continuing previous films, making for a remarkably diverse set of films. With such variety, every Turtles flick is bound to be somebody’s favorite and there’s something to love in each of them—just like the pizza they love so much.
8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
After scoring an inexplicable hit with the Transformers franchise, Michael Bay decided to do for late ‘80s kids what he did for early ‘80s kids. Bringing as producer his love of messy visuals and unnecessarily complicated character designs to the Turtles, Bay encouraged a reimagining of the brothers as ugly brown and green CG goop, and put them alongside Megan Fox doing her best and Will Arnett phoning it in. Unsurprisingly, the result is a mess; a sloppy story that mistakes self-important melodrama for respect for the franchise, exacerbated by director Jonathan Liebesman’s inability to compose a coherent image.
That said, the movie does have a solid voice cast for the Turtles, with Jackass Johnny Knoxville as Leo, Jeremy Howard as Donnie, Alan Ritchson as Raph, and Noel Fisher as Mikey. The four bring the right youthful energy to the characters, even if Bay and Liebesman never take advantage of it. Throw in William Fichtner as evil businessman Eric Sacks, at least until Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) becomes the chief baddy, and Bay’s take on TMNT makes for a dour watch.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
By the time the third Ninja Turtles movie hit theaters in 1993, the franchise had started to sputter out as kids who made the Turtles into a sensation grew up and took their passions elsewhere. A generous reading of TMNT III could argue that the movie tried to reflect the changing sensibilities of its audience, having Michelangelo gripe about getting old and giving the heroes an allegedly more serious story by sending them back to feudal Japan.
Even if that intention was there though, there’s no denying that TMNT III is a drag. The higher stakes and more stately setting prove to be a poor fit for the Turtles’ shenanigans, breaking the one cardinal rule of the franchise: the Ninja Turtles should be fun. Not even the return of Elias Koteas as Casey Jones can keep one-time fans from ditching the sewers, some for good. TMNT III killed hopes for a fourth movie, signaling a (temporary) end to Turtlemania.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
That said, it is possible to be too silly. After parents complained about the darker nature and foul language of the first Turtles film, director Michael Pressman came on to lighten the mood. Doing away with cursing heroes and a gritty NYC aesthetic, The Secret of the Ooze declared its goofy intentions right away, in which the Turtles dispatched a group of baddies with yo-yos and Three Stooges gags.
The shift in tone mostly worked for kids at the time. And although the cartoon approach limited ninja action from the Turtles, young martial arts star Ernie Reyes Jr. stepped in as sidekick Keno to keep the movie full of karate kicks. And while they were no Bebop and Rocksteady, Tokka and Rahzar gave the Turtles some other monsters to battle, brought to life through great Jim Henson Studios creations. Sure, the plot’s a little too involved for a kid’s movie and “Ninja Rap” is the worst Ninja Turtles musical project (yes, I owned the Coming Out of Our Shell cassette), but Secret of the Ooze made for a good time for fans of the cartoon.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
Realizing how far the studio’s approach went astray with their previous movie, writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec decided to lean into cartoon canon for the second Michael Bay-produced Turtles movie, Out of the Shadows. Gone was William Fichtner, allowing the Shredder to team up with Krang and create Bebop and Rocksteady. Throw in Tyler Perry spoofing Neil deGrasse Tyson as Baxter Stockman and Arrow star Stephen Amell as Casey Jones, and you’ve got the purest adaptation yet of the ‘80s cartoon series to date.
Is it enough to make Out of the Shadows a good movie? Well, not exactly. New director Dave Green adheres to the ugly Bay house style, slathering everything in palate both shiny and sludgy, making for action scenes more abrasive than exciting. Fox and Arnett still seem disinterested in the action, but the Turtles’ voice actors (with Pete Ploszek voicing Leo this time around) get more to do, making for a pretty fun, if still subpar, outing.
4. Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (2022)
Few things better demonstrate the enduring appeal of the Ninja Turtles concept than the many, many reboot attempts it has survived. Although the basic premise stays the same, the tone and even line-up can vary across series and films. In the Nickelodeon series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the brothers gain mystical powers to prevent the coming of the demonic Shredder. The series ran for 39 episodes, and received a direct-to-Netflix follow-up film in 2022, two years after the series finale.
Although it does build on the series, the Rise movie works surprisingly well as a standalone film. It follows Casey Jones (Haley Joel Osment), here a freedom fighter from a future conquered by the alien Krangs, going back in time to rally the Turtles against this extraterrestrial threat. The story gives the heroes a clear mission and arc for Leo (Ben Schwartz), suffering a crisis of leadership confidence. But Leo’s story does drown out most of his brothers, made worse by Schwartz’s irritating performance. Fans of the series may not be bothered by the focus on everyone’s least favorite Turtle, but the movie will inspire few newcomers to go back to the show.
3. TMNT (2007)
Speaking of continuation films, there’s 2007’s animated movie TMNT. Directed by Kevin Munroe, TMNT serves as a sequel to the live-action movies… sort of. The film picks up a few years after the death of the Shredder, and the boys have all decided to follow their own paths. Leo (James Arnold Taylor) protects a small village in Central America, Donny (Mitchell Whitfield) has a steady job as an online IT guy, Mikey (Mikey Kelley) does kids’ birthdays in a turtle costume, and Raph (Nolan North) fights crimes as costumed vigilante Nightwatcher. But when the Foot Clan begins attempts to resurrect an ancient general, the four must reunite, along with their allies April (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Chris Evans).
An animation veteran, Munroe understands the fundamentals of storytelling, giving the movie the best fight scenes in the franchise. And despite the muddy green/gray color palette, TMNT boasts interesting character designs, making it exciting to look at throughout. However, all of those pluses must work against a nonsense storyline (also written by Munroe) that fudges basic plot mechanics. In the end, TMNT’s refusal to directly continue previous films or clearly reboot the franchise leaves the audience confused, wondering what they’ve missed.
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)
Every TMNT entry has understood that the heroes were Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the Teenage part sometimes went overlooked. Sure, they said “Cowabunga” and ate pizza, but they always felt more like a 45-year-old’s idea of adolescence as opposed to the actual thing. Not so with the latest Turtles movie, Mutant Mayhem. Produced by perpetual teenagers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who co-wrote the script with Dan Hernandez, Benj Samit, and director Jeff Rowe, Mutant Mayhem gives us awkward adolescent Turtles raised by a worrying dad voiced by Jackie Chan.
Rowe takes a striking approach to the look of the movie, all thick lines and odd shapes to give it a real sense of texture. While that visual style can sometimes be messy, reducing action pieces to pure chaos, that works for a story about a bunch of teens. Add in voices from a cast of actual young people, and Mutant Mayhem becomes the most energetic and wonderfully youthful take on the Turtles we’ve ever seen.
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
“Hey dude, this is no cartoon.” It’s impossible to overstate how amazing those words were to kids of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, scrawled in white on the bottom of the poster for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which only gave us a glimpse of the Henson Company creations for the film. When the trailer gave us a full look at the live-action Turtles in action, we wore out our Burger King VHS tape rewatching it over and over. We dragged our parents to the theaters on opening night and we gave them terrified, furtive glances when Raph dropped the movie’s first swear words.
That sense of excitement and danger still carries the movie today. Even when high-def screen grabs let us see a human face peering out of the Turtles’ open mouths, the costumes still feel magical. The action scenes look clean and exciting, making us truly believe that turtles can be ninjas. Perfectly balancing the edge of the original comics and the fun of the ‘80s cartoon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still stands as an ideal adaptation, the standard to which all other Turtles movies aspire.