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Who could have guessed that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s small, black-and-white indie comic about anthropomorphic crime-fighting turtles that began as a parody of superhero storytelling would not only be around forty years later but also have the love and investment of several generations of fans? Whether you discovered the Turtles through the toys, the various TV shows, or the movies, audiences have been lucky enough to have at least one defining iteration of these heroes.
Alongside Batman and Spider-Man, the Turtles have had the most consistent luck with their onscreen history. And this week, the Heroes in Half-Shells are back on the big screen for the latest reboot, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. To celebrate, The Hollywood Reporter has definitively ranked the theatrical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies from the most bogus to the most bodacious.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
In theory, sending the Turtles back to feudal Japan should’ve at least been fun, even if it didn’t capitalize on using any of the villains established in the comics or the popular cartoon show. But Kurosawa this ain’t. Stuart Gillard’s threequel manages to be an absolute snooze fest, while simultaneously looking like it was made for all $15, despite being significantly more expensive than the 1990 film. The Jim Henson Creature Shop, which worked on the first two films, did not return for this entry, and boy, can you tell. The story revolves around a magic scepter from a flea market that sends the Turtles and April O’Neil (Paige Turco) to 17th-century Japan. Meanwhile, four Honor Guardsmen take their place in the 20th century. The Turtles ally themselves with a village, seeking to rebel against a greedy daimyo, while in the 20th century, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) introduces the Honor Guardsmen to the thrills of his era. Even at 93 minutes, what remained true as a kid, remains true today, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III feels like one of the longest movies ever made. But hey, at least it ends with a dance party and Splinter doing an Elvis impersonation that even Austin Butler would envy. As far as pizza comparisons go, this is straight-up cardboard.
6. TMNT (2007)
After the third live-action film kept the Turtles dormant from movie screens for nearly 15 years, there was a lot of expectation surrounding their first animated theatrical feature, TMNT. Did it live up to it? No, not really. The animation still holds up pretty well and there are some definite highlights, including the rooftop fight between Raph and Leo, and the vocal performances from Chris Evans and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Casey Jones and April O’Neil, respectively. But narratively there’s very little that’s memorable about it, despite the idea of the Turtles reuniting after drifting apart years ago being a solid foundation. The emergence of 13 monsters from a parallel dimension, also being sought by Shredder’s second-in-command, Karai, who now leads the Foot Clan, brings the Turtles back together, and narratively it isn’t a total misstep. But the film never really settles into a tone, wanting to present both a darker and more mature take on the Turtles, while also falling into juvenile dialogue and plot contrivances. It’s not a bad film, but it’s kind of like gas station pizza. You’re not going to go out of your way to get it, but at the end of the day, it’s still pizza.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Nostalgia is a wild thing. Believe it or not, some folks who will go unnamed actually preferred this sequel to the first film as kids. Upon rewatch they might have been wrong. But, as far as a kids’ movie goes, The Secret of the Ooze is a good time and feels closest to the Saturday morning cartoon of the era. Shredder returns, along with the Foot Clan, looking for revenge on the Turtles, and discovers the secret behind their origins – the ooze, and uses it to increase his power, becoming the Super Shredder – which means more muscles and more poorly placed costume blades.
The sequel ditches much of the darker tone of the first film but amps up the special effects, rolling out a genetically mutated snapping turtle and wolf, Tokka and Rahzar, to battle the Turtles. Still, there’s some depth under the film’s shell, such as the Turtles discovering their creation was an accident and not the result of some higher plan. But none of the character work lasts too long to get in the way of ninja action, or an in-movie performance by Vanilla Ice, rapping the film’s iconic Ninja Rap. This one’s a frozen pizza. Ice, ice, baby!
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
The Michael Bay-produced reboot directed by Jonathan Liebesman ushers the Turtles into a new era for a rollicking good time, complete with all the best and words traits of Bayhem. It’s big, noisy, and sometimes immature, but visual slickness, cool action scenes, and decent humor make up for a bloated plot. The film pushes April O’Neil (Megan Fox) front and center as she investigates the Foot Clan and a group of human-sized, crime-fighting turtles who she discovers were created by her father under the codename, “Project Renaissance.”
In the same way the 1990 film was influenced by its proximity to Batman (1989), the 2014 reboot shares quite a bit of its DNA with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), connecting Shredder (who’s mostly devoid of personality here) to the lab work that created the Turtles, and ending with a final battle atop a skyscraper. Perhaps the film’s biggest controversy was the drastic redesign of the Turtles, whom people claimed looked like everything from Shrek to the Cave Troll from The Lord of the Rings, but in all honesty, just look even more like anthropomorphized turtles. Much like Bay’s Transformers films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t adhere to the ’80s, or take itself too seriously, resulting in a split reaction between old and new fans. Ultimately, the film is a successful reimagining that I’d liken to Totino’s Pizza Rolls. You might say, “hey that’s not pizza!” I’d say, your palate simply hasn’t evolved.
3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
The follow-up to the 2014 reboot saw director Dave Green take the helm, but for all intents and purposes, it’s still Michael Bay’s fingerprints all over the film. The same rules of the previous film apply, there’s just a lot more of…well, everything. This ultimately works in the film’s favor, improving on the prior film by adding even more comic book and cartoon lore by including fan-favorite villains Bebop and Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and Krang (Brad Garrett), an alien from another dimension who teams up with Shredder (Brian Tee) to conquer Earth. Additionally, the Turtles and April get another ally in the form of Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), reimagined as a hockey stick-wielding corrections officer with a mean strike.
There’s a lot going on in this film, too much for the film to ever really slow down for many character moments, but while lacking heart, it’s always entertaining and the most action-packed of the franchise. It doesn’t win over anyone who was displeased with the 2014 reboot, but it’s a worthy sequel for those who enjoyed the first. Let’s call Out of the Shadows a calzone. It’s overstuffed, and some folks still may not call it pizza, but it’s close!
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Thirty-three years later and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still remains such an impressive experiment, it’s hard to believe it actually succeeds. Borrowing from Eastman and Laird’s comic book, and the more kid-friendly cartoon series, Steve Barron’s film settles on the perfect blend of tone. It’s just serious enough so that the stakes feel real but light enough that the absurdity of the concept can be taken in good humor. But most importantly, the world in which it takes place, this version of New York City, feels real and lived in, and was at the time, the best comic book city outside of Tim Burton’s Gotham. There’s such a commitment to the world and characters here, that the simple plot of The Turtles facing off against Shredder and his Foot Clan, which is comprised largely of orphaned teenagers stealing electronics, feels high-stakes.
Grounded gets thrown around as a buzzword often these days, but from Judith Hoag’s April, Koteas’s Casey, James Saito’s Shredder, and the vocal and physical performances of Turtles and Shredder there is a level of commitment and realism that makes the film feel ahead of its time. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is also driven by something most of its successors didn’t quite manage: an abundance of quiet moments. As much as the way of the ninja is associated with action, it’s also a discipline that relies on reflection and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t afraid to allow its characters or even targeted younger audiences to wrestle with the weight of that. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a pizza from your favorite local place. Comfort food that never gets tiresome.
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have penned some of the funniest movies of the past two decades. It makes sense then that their iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, directed by Jeff Rowe, would also be the funniest. It also happens to be the most heartfelt and sincere, thanks to Mutant Mayhem being the first Turtles film where its lead characters actually feel like teenagers.
The Turtles find themselves drawn to the human world, which they’ve been told despises them and must ultimately defend it from Superfly (Ice Cube) and his group of mutants, earning the respect of NYC and each other.
Much like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Mutant Mayhem feels like a breath of fresh air for animation, adopting a unique and memorable artistic style that serves a story that, while containing familiar aspects, feels entirely original in its modernity. While it boasts quite the collection of voices from famous actors it’s really Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Micah Abbey and Shamon Brown Jr. who bring Mutant Mayhem to life as Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo, respectively, bouncing off of each other with playful, overlapping dialogue, and distinct personalities that feel like defining portrayals of the characters. And while the score has never been something that has particularly stood out in the previous films, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross drop beats that are worthy of adding to your vinyl collection. While it’s the most kid-friendly of the Turtles movies, Mutant Mayhem also manages to have the strongest narrative, which will hopefully keep this iteration of the Turtles on our screens for a long time to come. This is gourmet pizza. The kind you make a drive for and take a snapshot of for your Instagram. Dig in while it’s hot!