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Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was somewhat aware that the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise was ironic—but perhaps I didn’t realize just how much so. Created in 1984 by out-of-work comic book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the series was originally intended to parody comic book conventions (especially several by Stan Lee and Frank Miller). The duo used what little cash they could scrape together to self-publish a black-and-white comic book for distribution at a convention. It was discovered by licensing agent Mark Freedman, who knew a marketing opportunity when he saw one, and the merchandising bonanza began—including a television series, numerous snack foods, every possible toy (literally—Universal Studios Classic Monsters-themed Turtle figures, anyone?), and three motion pictures. In other words, a series designed to parody the establishment rapidly became the establishment. (It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.)
As I’ve said, I was only tangentially aware of this when I was in TMNT’s target demographic (as I was only tangentially aware of the existence of comic books to begin with), but I knew that the TV series had a sense of humor, and that alone made it an improvement over previous half-hour ads for action figures, like G. I. Joe and Transformers (like all film critics, I was born cynical). It was enough, at least, to get me to buy the actions figures and go to the films. Not surprisingly, I loved the films (I was six years old), but quickly forgot them. Upon re-viewing the second of the series, however, I can report that (not surprisingly) it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as my rose-tinted memories told me.
Like the first film in the series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze falls somewhere in tone between the cartoon series, the original comic book, and The Muppet Show (Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the animatronic turtle suits, and his trademark sense of comic timing shows through in the film’s proceedings). Unlike the first film, however, which seemed primarily influenced by the darker, moodier comic books, the sequel appears to have been largely influenced by the goofy television series. The humor is the primary focus here, right down to the anticlimactic plot (in which the titular Secret of the Ooze is revealed).
Does anyone really need a plot recap? Okay, here it is: Like the first film in the series, this one stars a quartet of turtles, all converted into sentient humanoid beings by a mysterious ooze. Trained by their (similarly mutated) sensei, a rat named Splinter, the turtles became ninjas, working as evil-fighting vigilantes in New York City. In this sequel, their arch nemesis The Shredder (a ninja who enjoys dressing as a kitchen utensil), having been soundly defeated in the first installment, seeks to avenge himself by creating ooze-born mutants of his own—a German shepherd named Rahzar and a snapping turtle named Toko. In order to defeat these new enemies, the Ninja Turtles must learn—wait for it—the Secret of the Ooze.
The film was essentially thrown together to capitalize on the success of the first (it was released less than a year after), and in many ways, it shows. The script is a bit hackneyed, and apparently serves mainly to set up jokes and action sequences. While it eventually builds to a climax, it follows several tangents that never really lead to anything (for instance, when Shredder’s minions steal a canister of the Ooze, they seemingly wait for the Turtles to show up, for no other reason than to justify a lengthy fight scene). This is arguably the Turtle’s funniest film, though, and the comic banter is fast and clever. (Their trademark “dude speak,” of course, is a matter of taste, but it definitely seemed clever in the early 90’s. If nothing else, it justifies the word “Teenage” in the title.) The puppetry, like all Jim Henson’s creations, is top notch, and arguably puts to shame the computer imagery that would become ubiquitous ten years later (though, admittedly, I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing the recent CGI sequel TMNT).
The major failing of the film is in the climax, where it stretches its credibility a bit too far. Then again, if you’re taking the movie that seriously in the first place, you clearly don’t “get it” anyway. We are talking about a climax that features Vanilla Ice, after all—this is a film that isn’t supposed to be great art. Where it does succeed, however, is with fantastic puppetry, some beautiful sets, and some decent humor. Oh, and it sold action figures too—which is the part that really matters.