“Ninja rap” might just be the Rosetta Stone of early ‘90s pop culture. For only during this brief and extraordinary moment could a musical act like Vanilla Ice in supersized shoulder pads—and with a slicked-back pompadour that made it look as if he just stepped out of the shower—reign supreme as the fastest-selling hip hop artist ever. Also only in that same context could he then be convinced to appear in a movie where he’d dance on stage with full-grown men wearing elaborate puppeteer costumes that made them resemble a beloved Saturday morning cartoon show.
Yet in 1991 all these things happened, and they were all massive hits. Truly, then, the third act of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Secret of the Ooze is a convergence point for everything gaudy and overwrought in the American zeitgeist of its era. And it’s time to stop pretending like that’s a bad thing.
To be sure, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II did not miss in its heyday. While the picture received a fair amount of (earned) skepticism in the press—it’s currently at 35 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes—it nonetheless earned $78.7 million at the domestic box office alone, or $176.2 million in 2023 dollars. That’s more than Fast X or Mission: Impossible 7 this summer. And I can also personally attest that the movie hit right in the sweet spot for its target demo: elementary and preschoolers. Back then, when kids movies could simply be for kids and not held to the standard of adult drama (or a studio’s entire fiscal year), there wasn’t a child not chanting in unison, “Go, Ninja, go ninja, go!”
Look at you even now, dear reader, unconsciously moving your lips along to that cornball anthem in Ice’s rhythm, just as if tie-dye shirts never went out of style.
Of course “Ninja Rap” and Secret of the Ooze have been fairly castigated in recent decades as everything silly in kids’ entertainment became hallowed ground in adults’ modern geek culture. Over recent years, that’s meant the admittedly far superior first TMNT movie, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, becoming something of a classic. And to be certain, it definitely is the best Ninja Turtles flick ever produced, with Golden Harvest and New Line Cinema being somehow convinced to allow men in Jim Henson suits to flip around the rooftops of Hell Kitchen. As directed by Steve Barron, there’s even a tangible grit to its photography of late ‘80s Manhattan. The Turtles curse, swing swords, and a giant rat named Splinter uses a nunchuck to drop the Shredder off a rooftop.
It’s still a solidly PG children’s entertainment where the villains’ lair is littered with arcade cabinets and a skateboarder’s half-pipe, but the nostalgic romanticization it elicits tends to overlook those details. Just as it overlooks that a talking rat is also shown communicating with the talking turtles by using the power of
the Force Ninjitsu to cast astral projections, and that the aforementioned Turtles also love nothing more than skateboarding and eating pizza.
1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has got an edge for a family movie, sure, but Taxi Driver, it ain’t. But its reputation in geekdom skews toward that because of how silly, and ultimately terrible, this franchise became to adult eyes by the time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III rolled around in 1993.
Even so, it’s time to stop lumping Secret of the Ooze in with that third movie because the Turtles didn’t get to use their swords and sais as much as they did in the first film—or that they danced with Vanilla Ice. Hell, it’s because they danced with Vanilla Ice that the sequel has a trace of pop culture relevance to this day, albeit as a two-bit piece of kitsch for the third graders. But then again, that’s who Ninja Turtles has always belonged to, or at least it has ever since that cartoon show with the catchy jingle in 1987.
And on the subject of catchy jingles, “Ninja Rap” has become a pop culture treasure for a reason. It’s even included as an easter egg in this year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.
Onscreen the scene occurs in Secret of the Ooze because in their battle with the evil Foot Clan, plus new scary mutants Tatsu and Rahzar, the Turtles inadvertently bust into a Brooklyn nightclub in the warehouse district where Vanilla Ice and a pair of back-up dancers are bopping in synchronized unity. At a glance the scene appears to have instantly reached maximum levels of early ‘90s cheese… and then not one, but two guys with rat ponytails show up.
Luckily though, upon seeing a quartet of masked Turtle-men battling even more monstrous creatures, plus an army of masked ninjas, Ice doesn’t panic. Instead, he makes symphonic lemonade by dropping rhymes like these gems here: “YO! It’s the green machine / Have you ever seen a turtle Get Down? / Slammin’ and Jammin’ to the new swing sound.”
It’s terrible. Utterly, wonderfully terrible. It’s also a snapshot of a curious point in time.
Vanilla Ice, a white rapper who came out of South Florida at the tail end of the ‘80s, had just made music history one year before this film with the fast-selling (and soon to be fast-litigated) To the Extreme album. The fact he could reach such heights by appealing to (white) suburban kids who were buying officially licensed 12-inch dolls of the musician in 1991—at least until he appeared nude in his girlfriend Madonna’s Sex coffee table book—speaks volumes about this era. It speaks to the mass-commercialization and appropriation of Black music, the hyper-commodification of the music industry as a whole at a time when ANYTHING was a merchandising opportunity, and it speaks to a mindset where kids’ movies about ostensible superheroes could just be goofy. No need to take it more seriously than Vanilla Ice’s entire career, or the early ‘90s aesthetic.
Hence why the above scene in Secret of the Ooze has the same kitschy appeal as Sonny and Cher showing up in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, or, for that matter, Jack Nicholson getting his freak on to “Party Man” in Batman. There was a time when we could appreciate pop culture purely for the surface level and jejune sensibility it’s intended for. If you wanted something serious, Silence of the Lambs was doing blockbuster business in the theater next door the same month as TMNT II. Meanwhile, the Ninja Turtles, Addams Family, and Peter Pan were all allowed that same year to never grow up.
Thirty years later, it’s time to just embrace it. As a wise rodent once said: “Go ninja, go ninja, go! Look, I made another funny!”