Monday, May 5, 2014

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze" Retrospective

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And here we are, the sequel to the first "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". The common consensus among 90s kids like myself is that this film was a good movie, and while I'm not saying it's a bad movie, I am saying that it pales in comparison to the first film. This was the film in the Turtles trilogy that I had the hardest time remembering, I did remember aspects of it (such as Vanilla Ice's unforgettable cameo) but other than that this film just didn't stand out to me much. But I'm not going to insert my subjective reasons for not holding this film in high regard, I am instead, going to hold this film up to it's predecessor and see how it stands and provide some objective reasons why this film just isn't what people think it is.

After the success of the first film, despite Roger Ebert giving it a 2.5 out of 5, a second film was well on the way coming out in 1991, just one year later after the first. This one year later release I think is what hinders the film as the script does appear to be a bit rushed in several places. Todd W. Langen returns as writer but with such a close release time to the previous film, I doubt Todd was able to work his magic like he did with the first film. Also, Todd is the ONLY writer on the film. While films nowadays are usually done by single writers, movies back then would usually have a team of writers providing input to the story and development, no method is superior to the other as both have their pros and cons, but it worked perfectly in the first Turtles movie and well...failed here.

The reception from the first film left parents perturbed on the Turtles, and it's not hard to see why when in the opening credits Donatello says "Bitchin'!" and Raphael screams "Damn." at least a good 3 times in the movie. Liberal swearing aside, the "violence" was also a major sticking point for parents, many parents in the early 90s wouldn't allow their children to watch "Power Rangers" for the same reason. In order to cater to a more family friendly audience, the producers toned down the violence and made the film much more cartoonish and a lot more light-hearted than the first. This is one of many points of contention with this film, it's lack of maturity and realism. While I in NO WAY expect a movie that features man-sized ninja turtles to be realistic, the first film did have a sense that it was grounded in some sort of plausibility.

Deviations from the first film are evident in the opening fight scene sequence. In the first film we don't actually see the turtles until after their moment of triumph, in this film we get a NICE wide well lit shot of the turtles leaping into action. In the first film the Turtles are actually portrayed as being legitimate ninjas and this is re-enforced with Splinter telling them to be "strike hard and fade away" and to "stray from the shadows reluctantly". The impressive fight scene in the first film isn't even seen as the Turtles are able to beat up, subdue the thugs, protect April and leave before anyone else arrived, ALL WHILE NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE. That's REAL ninja tactics, as their first order of business was to knock out the lights. The well lit fight scene in this movie, while it's fun and enjoyable, it does diminish the strong ninja precedent established in the first film.

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The Turtles did ALL OF THIS in pitch blackness.

The film's opening protagonist is a new character named Keno and for all intents and purposes, Keno is a good character as he provides a companion for Raphael. Keno is shown to be good hearted with a strong moral code and he's also a competent fighter. The early 90s often included young character for young audiences to project themselves in that role OR be role models for them, unfortunately most young characters essentially become "handbags" for the heroes and are usually HUGE liabilities. Keno, thankfully is not a "handbag" and we get this idea at the very beginning of the film as Keno takes out some Foot Clan remnants with minimal effort. When Keno is CLEARLY out numbered THAT'S when Turtles arrive. I'll touch on Keno more later.

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The film picks up pretty much where the first one left off (albeit a few months give or take?) with The Foot Clan slowly rebuilding, now under Master Tatsu's lead and The Turtles without a home after their previous lair was ransacked. April is living with the Turtles in a much better apartment (after the previous one was burned down by The Foot Clan) and The Turtles themselves are still working as crime fighters. Splinter still comes off as wise as ever but the dynamic between Splinter and April is interesting as they are pretty much the mother and father of the Turtles (with April in less of an authoritarian position than Splinter) it's interesting to note that even April listens to Splinter with a form of reverence.

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Splinter reveals to The Turtles that he has discovered their origins from a company named Techno Global (TGRI), Splinter (again, being wise) kept the canister and very circumstantially (like the first film) April's news report on TGRI and The Turtles' story comes together. This revelation does come as a bombshell to the Turtles and to the story at large BUT the use of such a plot device wasn't used to it's full potential. Splinter's initial apprehension to the existence of the ooze is that the city could face great danger but he never states "from what", the "from what" is that perhaps the Turtles aren't as unique as they thought they were and perhaps MAYBE there are other life forms like them out there. That would've been an interesting place for this film to go and in one regard it does go there and in another regard it does not.

This could've also been a nice bit of character development for Raphael, as his central conflict is his loneliness and the futility of their existence, if the ability to create more turtles is introduced, Raphael could potentially have a mate. This is a subject addressed in the 1987 cartoon Season 4 Episode 18 "Raphael Meets His Match" when a female college student is mutated into a salamander, she and Raphael form a bond, but like most cartoons in the 90s, she's never addressed again. That being said, Raphael gets some character development here and again becomes the film's opening protagonist. Raphael teams up with Keno to infiltrate The Foot Clan to put an end to them once and for all. Like the first film, this is essentially a crime film with Keno playing the role of undercover cop and Raphael playing the role of FBI handler.

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The character dynamic between Raphael and Keno echoes back to the relationship between Raphael and Casey Jones, originally contentious but both parties recognize that they're both in the vigilante business. Although, Raphael's relationship with Keno isn't contentious at all. Casey Jones' absence in this movie is another point of contention, considering that the first film ended with Casey and April officially entering into a relationship and it would've been nice to see how the two of them developed AND it would've been great to see how Casey's relationship developed with the Turtles (specifically Donatello). In the first film Casey's original interaction was with Raphael and he immediately came to his rescue after spotting Raphael being ambushed, however once Raphael was out of the picture, Casey immediately gravitated towards Donatello and the two of them bonded over fixing the van and discussing TV shows while trading insults.

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Keno doesn't hinder the film and is a great character, but swapping Casey for him wasn't the best move and again, I imagine if they would've put a little distance between this film and the first, they probably would've been able to get Elias Koteas for this film (after all, he returned in the 3rd). That being said, Keno's martial arts ability and his connection to the streets makes him a valuable ally to the Turtles and Raphael seizes this opportunity despite his brother's disapproval. Switching gears for a moment, the antagonist of this film is once again The Shredder (surviving his according to Raphael "swan dive" into a trash compactor)

SIDE NOTE: In the first film, The Shredder was essentially thought to have been murdered by Casey Jones after he "accidently" turned on the trash compactor and hilariously said "Oops!" as he did so. Remember, this is a kid's 90s cartoon turned into a live action movie that was mature enough to include vigilante justice in it.

While The Shredder is the film's primary antagonist, he is very much in the background and in the foreground is the film's missteps, Tokka and Rahzar. Tokka and Rahzar are a snapping turtle and a wolf mutated by a kidnapped TGRI scientist and turned into Shredder's personal turtle foils. However, Tokka and Rahzar don't come off as threatening or impressive and instead they are used as comical but effective allies for The Shredder, and the comedic element is made clear when Tokka and Rahzar declare Shredder "Momma." leaving Shredder to lament the fact that they're babies. This is a dramatic turn from the first film that showed The Shredder to be a pretty ruthless warlord and extremely in control of his emotions, quietly voicing his disappointment and biding his time for the perfect opportunity to strike.

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While Shredder's initial plan to create mutants to fight mutants is logical, his execution is slip-shot. Shredder in the first film notes that the Turtle's fighting skills are reflective of Hamato Yoshi's, being a Shadow Warrior himself, Shredder is aware of the YEARS of training it'd take to achieve that level of skill (PLEASE make note that Shredder in the first film HAD YET to actually see the Turtles fight and only heard about it from second hand sources). What I'm saying is that The Turtles had been training for 15 years (note, Splinter says he began their training THE MOMENT he realized they were growing in intelligence and size) while Shredder has no way of being aware of how long the Turtles have been around, he does have a gauge of the fighting ability. In short, Shredder in the first film, would've trained Tokka and Rahzar BEFORE sicing them on the Turtles.

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Tokka and Rahzar's immaturity was inserted to make The Shredder less scary (much like Lord Zedd in the 2nd Season of The Power Rangers after his marriage to Rita) and to maintain the light-heartedness throughout the film. It doesn't help that our first introduction to Tokka and Rahzar doesn't showcase them in the best light. When The Turtles are confronted with Tokka and Rahzar, they're initially at a loss on how to combat them but that's only due to them being super strong and incredibly durable and not due to them being actually formidable in any real sense, much like The Shredder was in the first film when he effortlessly owned the four of them in combat (and nearly killed Leonardo). The turtles are easily able to outsmart Tokka and Rahzar.

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Getting back on track, Donatello gets a bit of a conflict when finally confronted with their origins from Prof. Perry. Donatello, being the analytical mind that he is, is visibly upset by the fact that they (the turtles) are basically a big mistake. Donatello is one of the hardest turtles to pin down in terms of personality and that's mostly because Donatello is a very face value person (what he says is exactly what he means) he's not ridden with the internal conflicts of Raphael and Leonardo which allows him to be far more objective than his brothers. Unfortunately, Donatello's distraught over their origins isn't given time to grow beyond anything but a single scene, but it was nice to see some depth to Donatello's character.

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The conclusion of the film doesn't carry the same weight as the first film, in the first film, the Turtles fought several Foot Clan members and then came face to face with the ultimate challenge, The Shredder. The Turtles didn't even defeat Shredder, it was Splinter who foiled The Shredder. In this film, the Turtles are thrusted into a fight club to face off against Tokka and Rahzar as The Shredder has ransomed the city with them. In order to defeat Tokka and Rahzar, The Turtles are forced to make them ingest an anti-mutagen. In order to achieve that end, the turtles freeze the anti-mutagen and put them in donuts as ice cubes (foolishness, as they could've just filled the donuts with the anti-mutagen like a creme donut). Leonardo declares that they must observe "the ancient ritual of the pre-fight donut" much to Shredder and The Foot Clan's confusion.

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The forced humor is also a point of contention as this movie does go out of it's way to be silly. The first film's humor was organic and usually cut the tension and cheek-hold of certain scenes and other times it was just there because it's what teenagers do. For example, when Raphael finally awaken and Leo hugs him, Donatello and April are right there with Donatello saying "it's a Kodak moment.".This was after a LONG period of darkness, so to conclude with some light-hearted laughter, it tells us it was gonna be okay from here on out. In another scene Donatello notices Casey's apprehension to sleeping in the sewers and points out that Casey is a claustrophobic, to which Casey replies "I haven't even looked at another guy!" (mistaking Donatello's observer as calling him a homosexual), which is funny because it shows Casey's small mindedness.

But in what way is "the ancient ritual of the pre-fight donut" funny? Even Tokka and Rahzar are too smart to fall for that kind of nonsense. Not to mention, Shredder's choice of location for this "fight club" is HIGHLY questionable as NARY BUT ONE WALL LENGTH AWAY is a (apparently underground) Vanilla Ice concert (what sense does that make?). While I appreciate that introduction of "Go Ninja, go Ninja, go!" to the lexicon of the 90s and I can't help but enjoy a Turtles dance scene and shaking my head at ever thinking Vanilla Ice was The Man, this is OBVIOUSLY forced and really doesn't have a logical reason for being in the movie (other than the soundtrack).

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Ah, The 90s.

The battle with Shredder is even less impressive as a keyboard and an amplifier cracked at full volume manages to send him flying through out the window. Shredder ingests the last vial of ooze and aside from mutating his body...it also (somehow) mutates his clothes (sense?).
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This form has been commonly dubbed as Super Shredder (and many people are unaware that he was played by then WCW's very own Kevin Nash). The fight with Super Shredder isn't a fight at all and ends with Shredder basically killing himself by constantly smashing the pier and failing to recognize that Turtles are amphibians and while he's mutated...he's still human and can't breathe underwater.

In the end, the 2nd film has it's good point but with a rushed production and VERY unfortunate consideration of prudish parents, this doesn't live up to the maturity of the first film. However it is still enjoyable fare for any Turtles fan. After this film, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise would (at least in my mind) try to return to form with character development and semi-mature story-telling in the (HEAVILY polarized and often hated, but in my mind superior to this movie) 3rd film. Until then...

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