The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dominated the early 90s. In 1990, they had a live-action movie that was #4 at the domestic box office for the year; its success having spawned a live musical tour funded by Pizza Hut and a sequel in the following year. These heroes in a half shell were ever-popular…
And you can thank two particular things for this awfulness: angry parent groups and a terribly written story.
The Story And Its Origin
The story itself did not do anyone any favors. It was like some gonzo plot from the cartoon! Reporter and turtle ally April O’Neil is accidentally transported back to Feudal Japan, the turtles come to her rescue by also traveling back in time and fighting a Japanese lord and an English weapons dealer in the wackiest, corniest, slapstick-iest, and most wisecracking ways possible!
What’s more, there’s a traitorous lookalike (possible ancestor) to Casey Jones; a plot which distracts with how it goes nowhere while taking up precious screen time. There’s an awkward one-sided romance between Michelangelo and the very human Mitsu character which thankfully doesn’t go the Howard the Duck (1986) level of awkward in an already awkward movie. The turtles get into fights, make unfunny jokes and dated references — “I’ll be back!” says Raph in his best Schwarzenegger voice.
Seriously…that’s the story. The whole story. Someone got paid as a professional writer to come up with all this.
Though bad as this movie is, it actually originates from the Mirage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics! As stated in the movie’s trivia section on IMDb, the plot is based loosely from the story “Masks” found in issues #46 and #47. In this tale, the turtles similarly time-travel to ancient Japan (via some sort of time scepter) and duke it out with a shogun. And, interestingly enough, it serves as an origin point for the Foot Clan thanks to Raphael training its founders! Holy time-paradox, Batman! This could have been a heck of a game-changer, story-wise; alas, the plan was to make a cartoon-y style of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
The first movie resembles something made just like the original comic books: an underground wonder which became a hit. Because that Turtles movie, the story, mostly treats the viewers like they can handle some dark detail. Despite the success of that first movie, parent groups lashed out! Some claimed it was too violent and encouraged such behavior, and others made accusations like how “sexist” it was. As a result, each sequel became progressively more “kid-friendly” to resemble the popular cartoon. Nothing gritty; just campy/goofy!
Jay Bauman (of RedLetterMedia) discussed the Turtles sequels and how parental concerns influenced them: “I know parents were upset about the, uh, the amount of violence. Which is why both the cartoon and the sequels to the movie, that-… that’s when they had to get rid of their weapons and that’s why in the second movie they’re using yo-yos and sausages!”
Here in Turtles 3, nothing is serious or dark. Be prepared to groan as Donatello declares “Help! I’m a turtle and I can’t get up!” and “I think I swallowed a frog! I hope it wasn’t an ancestor!” Or at every single baseball reference Raphael or Donatello make. And certainly how comic the movie tries to be while pretending that the turtle costumes — not made by Jim Henson’s team this time — aren’t embarrassingly fake-looking.
As for anything sexist it’s amazing the writers got approval to include the bit where Donatello and Leonardo, seeing April’s legs exposed, both declare “schwing!” . Where were ya on that one, outraged parents?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 is the absolute worst in the TMNT legacy. More-so than even the short-lived Fox Kids T.V. series Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (1997) with its awful suits and equally goof-tastic vibe. Well-meaning but perhaps overly-worried parents said “water it down for the children, so the moviemakers did and this shell of a badly written movie is the result. It’s good to look back on TMNT 3 all these thirty years later and remember one thing: this is how not to do TMNT! I’d say more, but I’d be beating a dead turtle.
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