Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)

I’m not sure if there’s really a point to reviewing this, but I reviewed both Care Bears movies, so I have no business using that as a determinant for whether I review something. Still, this film is pretty mired in its time, considering the appearance of Rob Van Winkle. But, here I go anyway.

After the infiltration of their sewer home in the prior film, Raphael (now played by Kenn Troum, newly voiced by Laurie Faso), Leonardo (now played by Mark Caso, but still voiced by Brian Tochi), Donatello (still Leif Tilden, but now voiced by Adam Carl instead of Corey Feldman–dammit!), and Michaelangelo [sic] (the only turtle to maintain actor and voice–Michelan Sisti and Robbie Rist respectively) are hiding out in the apartment of newsreporter April O’Neil (now played by Paige Turco) with Master Splinter (still voiced by Kevin Clash–who also voices, yes, Elmo), while the Foot attempts to re-assemble itself under the still-uncontrolled rage of Tatsu (the returning Toshishiro Obata), using the young Freddy (Mark Doerr) to spy on April. The first fight, though, is between pizza delivery boy Keno (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and some thugs robbing a mall, only to be assisted by our four green heroes when he shruggingly looks for help, finding himself outnumbered. A recollection of past foe the Shredder’s fate in un-ninja-like manner receives an admonishment from Splinter and a cut from the editor–we see a struggling hand moving up from a garbage dump–clearly that of the Shredder (now played by François Chau, so his face is never seen, but David McCharen still voices him), who re-appears at the Foot’s new headquarters (a neater dump?), where Freddy’s espionage leads him to the mutagen that created the turtles in the first place. Seeing this, he abducts professor Jordan Perry (the great David Warner) to create Tokka (Kurt Bryant) and Rahzar (Mark Ginther)*, a snapping turtle and wolf, mutated in a similar fashion to combat the turtles.

Oh, my. Really, I have no idea how to review this. It’s one I can see doesn’t have the best of defenses to anyone who is not already interested (most of whom would have seen it). There’s often a child-like over-emphasis (even for suit acting) when the turtles move (excessive hand motions in particular), Vanilla Ice (oh right, I called him by his real name of Rob Van Winkle earlier, didn’t I?) performing, gulp, “Ninja Rap,” and cast changes galore from the first film–and I hate cast changes. I definitely remember when I was younger being miffed that April looked wrong (Judith Hoag played her in the first film) and that some of the voices changed (though I was less distracted than I was by the change that occurred in Donatello’s voice in the original cartoon). I also was disappointed that Archie Comics character Slash, also a snapping turtle, was replaced with this Tokka character who was not nearly so cool to a seven-year-old (for those keeping score, yes, you can now figure out my exact age if you didn’t know it). Some of the dialogue is clearly written in such a way as to make sense to children and some of the plotting is a little bit ridiculous for anyone with a sense of continuity (say, for those who remember EXACTLY what happened to the Shredder at the end of the first film) and the sense of humour, too, might be a little insulting.

It’s at this point that I come to the crux of the matter. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird started the characters as a sort of joke in the early 80s, and they’ve gone through many contradictory incarnations. It’s one thing to try and assemble a correct continuity of most DC or Marvel character continuities (trying to nail down whether Wolverine is a clumsy but powerful berserker or a lithe, trained ninja, for instance, and then whether he’s got a lethal sense of honour or is simply a raging killer…), which has led DC, at least, to attempt massive crossovers for retcons (how many now?) but it’s literally impossible to reconcile the different versions of the turtles out there. From the original comic alone, after Eastman and Laird started farming out the writing, multiple incarnations appeared. The 1987 cartoons differ from the series that followed them just slightly in tone and attitude, the Archie Comics that were based on those eventually found their own tone (more serious and adventurous, artistically, than the cartoon, which gradually got dumber and dumber and more and more like the turtles were made of shiny balloons in design), the ridiculous Image series (example: Donatello is hideously injured and becomes a cyborg. Really.), the return of Laird to writing the original series in Volume 4, the first film, the second film, the fourth film, the new cartoon (which I think probably strikes the best balance, at least in proportion to longevity), the live action series and so on. The 1987 cartoon series is what most of us are familiar with (I know I watched them endlessly, owning many on VHS), and it’s the most kid-friendly of all versions. In it, much is simplified. The first film brought us a lot closer to the comic origins, albeit without mention of Oroku Nagi (no, that isn’t ignorance or a typo on my part–look it up, or, better yet, read Eastman and Laird’s first issue), and I remember even as a child it made more sense to me.

Secret of the Ooze, though, leaves behind some chunk of the dark tone (in contrast to many film trilogies, some increasingly inaccurately titled like Adams’ Hitchhiker books) the first film brought to many of us who were younger fans, in favour of a group of four goof-off members of the group. Raphael’s hotheadedness (straight from the comics, used in the first film, revived in the new cartoon) is toned down to something more like simple rebellion, sort of suggesting the film’s writer (Todd W. Langen) wanted to emphasize their age without being overly familiar with any teenagers anymore. Leonardo no longer had the serious sense of honour and instead was mocked as the “teacher’s pet” by the film itself (usually a role for Raphael).** It’s a little disappointing in retrospect–especially because it laid the ground for the third film, which was beyond ridiculous (though I admit I never saw it as a kid, but even then was not terribly interested in it). It’s one thing to have one element of comedy relief (Michelangelo, whose name was corrected when Eastman and Laird found out they spelled it wrong), but to make all four into comedians and then to choreograph fights as something that tends more toward joke use of props than anything resembling martial arts is a sort of blow to the credibility of the heroes (much like the Saturday morning restrictions placed on the original cartoon which eventually left them with weapons that served no purpose but decoration–I’d say they were to tell them apart, but the animators could never get a handle on that themselves) and turned it more into a “family movie” comedy fest than a well-made comic adaptation–something we’re continually reminded, even in the modern glut, is in relatively short supply.

For all this, though, this film is a part of my childhood (though I never saw it in the theaters, I distinctly recall picking up the adaptation while grocery shopping and drooling over the images of it, reading the plot over and over) and I can’t speak too ill of it–even with the presence of Vanilla Ice and the totally nonsensical mutation of Shredder’s costume. I love the movie anyway, and think it was the last good one (two out of three ain’t bad, as Meat Loaf might sing) to come from the live action run. But that may be a lot of nostalgia–even if it is though, the movie is not one I revisit and feel uncomfortable with. It’s still very entertaining and well-directed and shot, it just starts to falter when set up next to the prior film and other incarnations of the turtles–but as I say, trying to reconcile all of those is impossible. They are an institution, not a specific group of characters (like trying to fit Electric Company Spider-Man into regular 616 continuity!)***

*Oh and both are voiced by some guy called Frank Welker. You juuuust might know his name if you’re into animation, considering the list of his credits reaches the number 575 for acting alone.
**This furthered my long-running distaste for Leonardo, who I associated with the stoic, hard-ass version of Scott “Cyclops” Summers. I hated them both. The new cartoon has changed my opinion of Leonardo, at least–haven’t read anything with Cyclops in a while.
***Whoops, my geekery just went supernova.

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