DVD Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Film Collection -- 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition (2009)

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Titles Included in 4-DVD Set:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993)
TMNT (2007)

For whatever reason, I’ve never felt compelled to keep a diary. Like most movie buffs, my passion for cinema has been present for so many years that all I need to trigger an oral diary entry is the title of a work and I can tell you precisely where I saw the film in question, whom I was with, and what was going on in my life at the time. And since my life has been best bookmarked by the movies, I’ve learned that landmark events don't necessarily coincide with cinematic masterpieces which is precisely the reason that the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film holds such a special place in my heart. Viewed on the big screen during the film's opening weekend alongside my older brother who loved the TMNT series even more than myself-- when I initially saw the movie theatrically, it marked two big firsts in my life.

Intriguingly, one of those “firsts,” was something I just discovered recently upon reviewing the new 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition DVD set of all four films. Via the WB press release, I learned that at roughly the age of eight, I had witnessed my first-ever independent film in the theatre. That's right... it is a little known fact but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is indeed an independent film. And while granted, it’s not exactly the Sundance fodder we usually imagine and the movies that followed the original were the opposite of independent, the film triumphed as the fifth internationally highest grossing picture of 1990. Managing to hold its own opposite such lauded competition as Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Goodfellas, Home Alone, Days of Thunder, Total Recall, Pretty Woman, Misery, Dick Tracy and The Godfather III, its global success as one of the year’s top grossing works was an unexpected achievement that additionally ensured it was the most financially successful independent film released to date.

Of course, weighing these facts now professionally makes me further appreciate just how big of a phenomenon I'd enjoyed in my youth yet despite the fact that it’s a great find to say the least since critically I’m the most fascinated by independent movies, nonetheless this “first” in my life pales in comparison to the previous reason why the movie stood out for me.

Essentially, in a “Turtle-shell” (as opposed to a nutshell), director Steve Barron’s film also coincided with my initial feeling of moviegoing independence as it marked the first film I had the pleasure and rite-of-passage honor of seeing “sans parents,” to quote Dana Carvey's Garth from Wayne's World 2. With our parents down the hall viewing the latest Tom Clancy adaptation The Hunt for Red October, my older brother and I received our first taste of maturity and freedom while watching four giant turtles named after some of the greatest minds in history instead of witnessing the work of greater minds as Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery engaged in a Cold War submarine standoff.

Nope, in trading a submarine for a New York City sewer, our movie ticket purchase marked our young votes for a quartet of turtles in the film adaptation of the comic book and animated series based on characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. In case you’re not as Shell-Shocked as Generation Cowabunga, the TMNT group consisted of the hip and humorous Michelangelo, the moody crime fighting Raphael, the responsible Leonardo, and tech savvy Donatello. The foursome who live with their wise, Yoda meets Mr. Miyagi rat guardian Master Splinter had all evolved into talking, walking, and ninja kicking giant creatures due to a mysterious chemical ooze that had emanated from a broken canister left in a New York City sewer.

Going back to the original source material for the introductory film’s plot to deliver a strong introduction to those new to the series, the movie finds the Turtles taking on Splinter’s arch-enemy Shredder who’d murdered Splinter’s owner back in Japan. As the movie develops, we learn that Shredder has brought more than just his ninja skills over to his adopted homeland by organizing a New York version of a largely teenage-based army inspired by the Japanese Foot Clan which primarily consist of troubled runaways and petty criminals (including a young Sam Rockwell!) in an Oliver Twist meets Pinocchio style underground gang.

And when the strong-willed TV news reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) gets a little too close to the story by exposing the spike in crime as the work of the Foot Clan, the pizza-loving Turtles emerge from their sheltered lives to become heroes in half-shells to restore order and save the woman who becomes one of their two strongest human allies throughout the series.

However, when the Clan discovers their home below the city streets, their second hideout of April’s apartment is ruined and Master Splinter is abducted. Left reeling and injured, April and the Turtles flee to her childhood country residence. Joining up with the group in retreat, we meet the franchise’s MVP in the form of the group’s second human ally played with the right mixture of charisma, rebellion, charm, and humor by underrated character actor Elias Koteas in his breakthrough role. As the formerly brief professional hockey player Casey Jones who’d been injured on the ice, Koteas relishes the opportunity to tackle the Johnny Depp hair and hockey stick used as a weapon in playing the series’ favorite vigilante who first crosses paths with Raphael in a confrontation over the handling of thugs in Central Park before they inevitably realize they’re on the same side.

No doubt making the film appeal to adults who were saddled into bringing their young turtle fans along, the pitch-perfect casting of Koteas adds so much to the film as he embarks on a Moonlighting style rollercoaster flirtation with April. Likewise, a good amount of its success is owed to the amazingly complicated efforts of Jim Henson's Creature Shop that enabled real individuals to wear the turtle suits before the addition of vocal performances by those including Corey Feldman helped enliven the movie in humanizing the humorous, pop culture laced fast-paced work from typical live action versions of comics and cartoons.

And atypical for traditional family fare and therefore hearkening to the fact that the series had fans of all ages, the original film was filled with so much martial arts action that parents were alarmed by their use of the weapons that were as identifiable to the characters as the four different color masks they wore. Thus, one of the marked differences in the film's first higher profile, bigger budget follow-up work-- 1991's rushed The Secret of the Ooze was that it necessitated the Turtles to replace their traditional weapons like nun-chucks and bo-staffs with props like toys, sausages, and more in inventive yet increasingly child friendly fashion basically using the Jackie Chan modus operandi that hadn't yet reached the states in the '91 and '93 sequels.

While the subsequent installments all lacked the originality, sheer entertainment value and overall quality of the first, there was one beneficial change in the look of the franchise. To this end, in the sequel, the cinematic style was visually brightened from the first “murky” theatrical print as cited by Leonard Maltin which helped improve the series considerably as it continued on. Likewise as evolutions in the TMNT universe were inevitable, there were some cast shake-ups as well since the actress who originally brought April O'Neil to life (Judith Hoag) wasn't pleased with the way her performance was edited as listed in numerous locations throughout IMDb. And admittedly since I agree that the first “April” came off as a tad too cynical and hard edged it's completely understandable that she made the decision not to return for the next installment so thus April was recast and brought to life in the next two films by actress Paige Turco.

The replacement was treated as a humorous “in-joke” included in the film as actors on the street call her character by name as "April from TV" just to alert audiences of the change. And while Turco didn't get the chance to add more spunk to her performance (possibly worrying as Hoag did about that "edgy" first cut), she nonetheless makes a cute, bubbly April who admirably stayed around all the way through the third and weakest live action entry, Turtles in Time even though she wasn't utilized to her full potential as the character morphed from serious investigative journalist to just plain silly from II to III.

While the rushed second work was a notable step down in quality, it was admirable of the filmmakers to try and follow through with what had originally been the potential to create a complicated plot by digging further into the origins of the Turtles' mutation from that chemical ooze. However, once the ooze falls into the wrong hands when the Shredder stuns all by coming back from the grave as we'd assumed he'd perished at the end of I, the movie begins growing increasingly ludicrous with the addition of juvenile mutated villains and scatological humor.

Luckily it's still watchable thanks to the fun turn by one of the original film's turtle fight doubles-- Ernie Reyes Jr.-- who delighted producers enough to give him a chance to show off his martial arts skills and adorable charisma as a young pizza delivery character who fights alongside the Turtles in the opening and becomes a temporary Casey Jones replacement. Despite his "teen friendly" persona, there's no replacing Koteas nor Casey but Reyes' Keno is amusing enough so that we look past his limitations as a new actor.

However, overlooking the plethora of product placements in the first film-- the series grew far more obvious about its commercialism with the subsequent works boasting the then popular musician Vanilla Ice in his cinematic debut performing “Ninja Rap” in Ooze to help push soundtracks. And sure enough by the time the horrific fourth all-CGI installment TMNT came around fourteen years after the third live action film, it felt like its sole purpose was to promote a companion video game. But at least in comparison to 1991's Ooze, the filmmakers earned points by still trying to make it feel like it was an extension of the previous film, the animated series and the comics.

Dedicated to the late Jim Henson, the second film sadly marked the last time his creature shop was used so far to produce the Turtles which broke the appearance consistency for the third film. Yet while the Turtles may have begun to change their shells, at least some of the strongest elements of I came back as the movie's main saving grace was achieved by the return of Koteas (in dual roles no less) along with voice actor Corey Feldman.

Nonetheless, a far cry from the original film, Turtles III is otherwise only memorable for its beautiful scenery and appreciation for the cultural background of the characters as the Turtles have to journey backwards in time to feudal Japan to rescue April. However, I think most viewers by this point wished that somehow we could send the Turtles in to save the franchise. And when one Turtle mentions that “westerns are dead” in one of the endless pop culture references throughout the films (that have aged them for today's youth), it comes off more as a citation about the failure of the screenwriting process and the idea that this overly commercial movie just stuck the turtles in whatever genre or plot was hip that week.

The least profitable and lowest rated film of the series, it appeared as though that would be the last hurrah, until more than a decade later, for a reason that most likely can be attributed to love of green in cash form as opposed to the green Turtles, director Kevin Munroe crafted an awkward CGI adaptation complete with another gimmicky bizarre Star Trek meets Indiana Jones plotline.

While the voice talent roster for 2007's TMNT was amazing and included everyone from Buffy's Sarah Michelle Gellar to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's Ziyi Zhang and X-Men's Patrick Stewart, the warning sign appeared right from the start when Laurence Fishburne's nonsensical and overly complicated narrated prologue fills nearly five minutes of running time. Headache inducing and dissimilar to everything else that had come before it in a movie that resembles Spiderman and The Matrix more than the Turtles with a video game style execution, while TMNT might be fun for members of Generation Y who hadn't caught the other films or knew of the franchise's origins, to Generation X everything about the movie looked and felt wrong.

As the newest work included in the set, the sheer DVD presentation alone makes TMNT the most impressive offering in terms of visual quality and special features but it's a useless bonus for the majority of those such as this reviewer who didn't like the movie. And while it was quite a treat to see them all again so many years later, I was baffled as to why more time and technical attention hadn't been devoted to the series for its anniversary release since none of the previous works appeared as though they'd been touched up or remastered in the slightest.

Having seen the first three in the theatre and with only the VHS of the first two with which to compare the DVDs, I was disappointed that the first film especially showed minimal improvement from the video quality, even when the DVD was viewed on an upconvert Blu-ray player. While given Maltin's critique of the film which indicated that perhaps the print was "murky" from the start from budget restraint or poor film lab processing, even tweaking with the color adjustments made zero difference in a weak presentation which made me extremely curious as to whether there's a noticeable difference in the Blu-ray set since I felt like the DVD was on par with the video.

However, when you realize that only one of the four films would be of interest, the Blu-ray set's price tag doesn't entice one to opt for the collection, unless perhaps Warner Brothers is going to release the films individually in Blu-ray. In lieu of bonus features like cast and crew interviews which may have been of interest or even perhaps a few bonus discs of the animated episodes or a documentary on the franchise, the DVD set opted for a kid-centric approach with a DVD travel case that resembles a manhole cover, temporary tattoos and the four different color Turtle masks.

When you contrast these "extras" in comparison with the Blu-ray's "retro pizza box packaging" and collectible sketches and character art, you're left with the impression that this format's set-up was designed to appeal to the far more age appropriate Turtle Generation who grew up with the series and would own the Blu-ray technology. And despite the flaws of the sequels and the relative ease with which critics can take a highbrow approach to snob up and talk down about the Turtles, to quote Sheryl Crow, "if it makes you happy, it can't be that bad" and the series has made so many people happy for 25 years including two suburban kids catching the movie alone "sans parents" that it's not bad at all.

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