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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition

Golden Harvest/New Line Cinema/Imagi Studios/Weinstein Company (1990, 1991, 1992, 2007), New Line/Warner Home Video (August 11 2009), 4 disc set, 364 mins plus supplements, 1080p high definition 1.78:1 – 2.40:1 widescreen, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $84.99

Storyboard:

Cowabunga! Those heroes in a half-shell return, in a new set that collects their four big screen adventures, from the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the recent CGI feature TMNT.

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The Sweatbox Review:

In the late 1980s, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere. Big screen animation was either absent or somewhat in the doldrums for much of the decade, allowing cartoons on television to flourish, especially those paid for by the toy companies, who snuck around television advertising rules to sponsor what were essentially half-hour animated commercials. So it was that the likes of He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, TransFormers and (on the girls’ side) the Care Bears were tied directly with heavy merchandising, all of them filling in gaps on the big screen with one-off trips to the cinema.

Any medium was fair game to find the next big property, and when the Ninja Turtles comic became an animated series it launched a huge phenomenon around the world (where, in some territories, strict rules on depicting violence gave the show a name change, to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles). Whatever its guise, the adventures of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael – the four New York sewer-dwelling turtles turned vigilantes after meeting a dose of radioactive goo – were a certified hit, and naturally a movie was in the offering. Now, with the kids raised on these diets of giant battling robots and heroes in a half-shell grown up and actually running the Hollywood studios, we’re seeing them relive their childhoods in the current rash of 1980s properties returning to the screen.

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This means the Turtles are back – or at least are due to be – in a planned fifth feature length movie, but as a primer to that release, and a way to catch up with their cinematic adventures so far, this collection brings together all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies as a way to celebrate the franchise’s anniversary, it being 25 years since Laird and Eastman’s characters first saw life in comic print. Disc One: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit screens in 1990, a time when I had grown up sufficiently for the original wave of TMNT excitement to pass me by. With all the hype, I was well aware of the film, of course, but my only interest lay in the fact that it was uniquely to be a live-action feature, with the characters set to be realised in animatronic form by the world-renowned Jim Henson Creature Shop.

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The results were impressive at the time and remarkably hold up today, allowing the Turtle characters themselves full expressiveness, from the suited stuntmen performing the majority of the movements, to the articulated technical achievement of the radio controlled heads, both pulled together by a spirited voiceover cast (that includes Corey Feldman) as the Ninjas themselves, and Kevin Clash as their rat mentor Splinter. While this isn’t particularly an origin story, it’s clearly an attempt to allow non-followers to come up to speed, as viewers are filled in on the Turtles’ backstories throughout. The rest of the plot, coming less than a year after Tim Burton’s Batman, remember, concerns investigative reporter April O’Neil and her attempts to track down infamous crime gang The Foot while a certain four masked vigilantes police the city after hours.

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The “Whoa! Excellent!” sewer speak of the Turtles may seem quite quaint to some older ears who remember all that dude talk the first time around, but it’s sure to catch on again with a new generation of fans, though the actual human performers leave a little to be desired: Judith Hoag as April especially never really seems to be investing herself truly in her character, and for whatever reasons it was no surprise to find her switched with Paige Turco for the next two films, who reverts to a much more original comic-book inspired look and performance. Dedicated to Jim Henson (son Brian was also the main animatronics supervisor for the first film), Disc Two: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze plays very much as a retread, obviously not wishing to mess with a winning formula (perhaps Mad Magazine’s parody had it best: “The Secret Is To Snooze”).

The first film had proven to be a surprise sleeper; not an all-out opening weekend smash but the kind of film that kept on in there in the top ten and played for many weeks. A second was inevitable, but it only seems to be Turco’s April O’Neil that’s closer to the comics this time out: gone is the slightly menacing and gritty look and somewhat serious approach of the first film, replaced with a largely lighter tone across the board, from the brighter colors to the even more contrived dialogue. It’s almost as if the producers wanted to emulate the episodes of the animated series instead, going for more action and a simpler script. And if you thought Partners In Kryme’s closing credits “Turtle rap” on the first movie was an embarrassingly dated track now, wait until you see the Turtles leap onstage with 80s throwback Vanilla Ice for a dance off in which Mr Ice seems very out of place and doesn’t hide it well!

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But once again the costumed characters work well, and although neither of the initial two films are not core Muppet productions, followers of the Henson Creature Shop may want to take a look at the quality work they’ve put into the Turtles, and Splinter’s performance especially recalls the quasi-spiritualism of the creatures in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Plot-wise, things are as before, with Shredder and The Foot returning to take revenge while the Turtles attempt to track down further canisters of the green gloop that transformed them originally before Shredder can lay his evil hands on them. For some reason, respected Brit thesp David Warner turns up in all this, as a scientist out to push for an environmentally friendly way of disposing with the radioactive ooze, and proves that all actors have to find a way of paying the bills even though his goofy but always consummate performance actually makes the movie considerably more enjoyable.

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As with many threequels, the third time around meant a new angle was needed to keep the series fresh and differentiate Disc Three: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles In Time from the previous entries in the series. The answer seems to have been found in a crazy time travelling plot device that throws our four Turtle heroes back to ancient feudal Japan, where they face off against a dastardly English lord and must restore a lost warrior to his rightful place. For whatever reason (possibly because the Jim Henson Creature Shop was presumably gearing up for the 1994 The Flintstones movie and an expansion into their own TV properties), the costume effects are this time out handled by the All Effects Company, with differing results.

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While the flabby join around the neck area between the full body suits and the Turtles’ animatronic head pieces are a little more refined (if still very visible), Splinter himself is much inferior, going from a simple puppet to something that attempts to add more movement into his face but comes out looking too overcomplicated, bulky and not as consistent. The Turtles are altered too, with taller heads and more speckles on their skin, which seems more rubbery, sculpted and glossy. These aren’t huge changes, to be sure, but they’re made all the more noticeable by the even brighter lighting design, much more in keeping with the television cartoons than the dark and dingy comics or the first film. But the other changes, mostly in the plot setting, are all for the good, and like many third films there seems to be an unwritten return to the spirit of the first.

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This is also mirrored here by the return of Elias Koteas as the Turtles’ pal Casey, Corey Feldman to the voice cast, and by April’s expanded role, which gives Turco more to do than the character had been called upon for previously. All three of the live-action movies are inevitably cheesy on a grand scale, and somewhat stuck in an ’80s timewarp despite their 1990s release years. Occasionally the bulk of the costumes reveal limitations in the performers’ movements, some of the visual effects work reveals the tight budgeting, and the Shredder/Splinter dynamic is all a bit Obi Wan and Vader, but there’s a kitschy feel to these movies that might capture the imagination. The third, surprisingly, is especially good, which with its new setting and wider scope, as well as not having to worry about how to bring Shredder and his gang back, also dispenses with the flippancy of the second film and feels much more focused, tightly paced and less dated as a result.

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Finally, the Turtles must reunite after being apart for some years, in Disc Four: TMNT, to battle against a series of mythical monsters, mysterious stone warriors and The Foot in order to save the city. Here, Imagi Studios’ CGI animation replaces the animatronic suits, and it’s a medium that certainly fits the general Turtles concept better than any other, primarily allowing for more flexibility and real freedom in the movements. The design is likewise able to revert to the original slimmer versions of the Turtles as seen in the comics: here they are again lean green kicking machines, though there is continuity from the first three films, TMNT picking up as a semi-sequel, explaining away arch-nemesis Shredder during the opening scenes.

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It’s in this opening that the film promises a little more punch than it can deliver: the animation in this sequence very much sets up something much more elaborate than the rest of the movie can match, and as such was no surprise to notice that it was this footage that was leaked out as the film’s initial teaser trailer. There is some great stuff in the rest of the film, though: the animation is by turns sometimes truly impressive on the Turtles, but then unfortunately clunky, mostly on the other, human characters. Despite being modelled more on the comics, a serious strong point, humans such as April O’Neil feel more sucked out from a direct to video title (in fact, a Spanish General early in the film reminded me unintentionally of Bluto from the CG Popeye special and as such wasn’t as imposing as he should have been), and Splinter never truly looks scraggy enough to be an aged sewer dweller.

It’s no surprise to find out that director Kevin Munroe comes from a video game background – there are sequences here that feel lifted right out of a game and the animation often feels like the kind found in mid-level plot progression sequences. The look, also like something from the high-end games world, is all about the textures, though none of it looks remotely real and even the dirt looks too clean! But Munroe directs it well, and when the Turtles hop into action there are some fun set pieces to be enjoyed, the approach reminding me at times of what a manga movie might look like in CGI…not the literal anime translation such as an Appleseed, but something that moves with the kineticism of those films.

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The rest of Munroe’s crew put in decent work too, supervised by Ninja Turtle co-creator Laird in an executive producer role. Klaus Badelt provides a vigorous music score that pushes all the buttons his Media Ventures partners Hans Zimmer, John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams have pushed in projects as diverse as The Road To El Dorado, Shrek and the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, the first of which Badelt scored in the same rhythmic orchestral style. The other soundtrack contributors – the voice cast – are appropriate too, and though the line up includes such names as Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Patrick Stewart and Laurence Fishburne, there is none of the overbearing that can often come from a highly recognisable Hollywood name cast.

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Ironically, it was Mako – the legendary Japanese actor who here takes over as Splinter – that appealed least to me. TMNT sadly turned out to be Mako’s final film, for which he’d completed his voice recording before he died, and it’s a nice touch that the movie is dedicated to him in the closing credits, but he comes across with a little too much heaviness and a serious attitude that doesn’t quite feel suitable to the rest of the lighter tone, even if some of the more surfer-dude talk and humor has been supplanted by the aim for more straight action. While the story isn’t particularly strong, TMNT is a breezy slice of hokum with an exhilaratingly exciting, if formulaic climax which leaves things a little hamfistedly open for the forthcoming next film.

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Though the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon spread far beyond the reach of hardcore fans, the more recent TMNT was an interesting alteration to the previous films. The word is that movie number five will be a live-action and animation combination, a mixture of humans, animatronic suits and CGI, though in what balance has yet to be revealed. One thing is certain, however: in reissues like these, the Turtles are sure to keep finding new fans, and their adventures are set to continue. I shouldn’t think that this collection would convert any non-believers to becoming full time followers (while I did have a bit of mindless fun, I wouldn’t say the films were unforgettable even if the third held the most interest), but long time fans know what they’re in for and should find themselves satisfied with these four slices of Turtle action.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Apart from the supplements that accompanied the release of TMNT on DVD and Blu-ray previously, fans will be disappointed by the complete lack of anything other than generic promos for Warner hi-def, a TMNT Smash-Up game and original theatrical trailers for the first three films. Seeing that this is an all-new collection on Blu-ray, the lack of anything new (or old) seems to me to be a glaring omission when all of the films have been remastered for this release and the discs have obviously been authored especially for this set. So how come Warners have dropped the ball so spectacularly on not taking the time to include any other extras?

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I remember there being so much publicity for each of the three films when they were originally released, including on-set television specials and interviews for at least the first two movies – but where is any of that footage here? And could it have been so hard to gather directors Steve Barron, Michael Pressman and Stuart Gillard for audio commentary tracks on their respective movies? I’m not suggesting that the films themselves or this set warrant any special new retrospective documentaries to be shot and included, but surely there is more than just a trailer in the vaults that could have been included for each film, if only to offer up something more than what feels like a very basic DVD with sharper images.

On the more positive side, Disc Four’s TMNT does come intact with the multitude of special features that graced its original DVD release in 2007 (and, like that disc, are predominantly shown only in standard definition), starting with a full-length Audio Commentary with writer/director Kevin Munroe. He clearly knows his Turtle lore, pointing out inserted references to their previous adventures and the live-action films, and appropriately enough, there’s enough examination of story changes, the thought and production processes and a total lack of dead spaces to make this an intelligently interesting listen to anyone who enjoyed the movie. But while Munroe also speaks about the teaser trailer that was released early to build up excitement, this is the only disc in this set that doesn’t include that very basic feature – go figure!

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The TMNT: Voice Talent First Look gathers the usual soundbites and film clips to emphasise the bigger names in the voice cast, with Patrick Stewart and Sarah Michelle Gellar garnering the most screen time. Like the rest of the TMNT extras here, it’s brief but surprisingly intense and, along with the astute commentary, says about as much as anyone needs to say about a movie about talking turtles in its beneficially crammed five minutes. Next is a series of deleted, extended or rough test scenes, including Mikey’s Birthday Party: Full Sequence, elaborating on the kids’ birthday party, Raphael’s Rough House: Fight Test, depicting an early lo-res concept of a scene that ended up in the movie in very different guise, showing off the more impressive choreography of the Turtles in action, and Monsters Come Alive, a storyboard to final film comparison (again with comments by Munroe).

Producer Paul Wang and Munroe pop up to explain about the unique look the film was striving for in Donny’s Digital Data Files, a two minute clip that goes into Imagi Animation Studios’ software and technical aspects of production, from rough footage to final output, including glimpses at various production test shots – it’s quick, but packed! Rooftop Workout is a music-scored but otherwise mute storyboard for a deleted scene, with only Munroe on hand to explain things, followed by the entire pre-visualised version. The Still Wanna Fight!? Temp/Scratch Test is a fully rendered April/Casey final scene that was dropped late into production, and there’s still more Additional Footage to come: an Alternate Opening To The Movie presents much more of an early Nightwatcher chase sequence in full.

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Munroe narrates, providing context for the material and the reasons for the final changes, and this works as a nice recap, very differently timed to what was eventually used. Accompanying this is an Alternate Ending: Temp/Scratch Test which, going by the unfinished computer rendering, was cut early on into production, and another Additional Scene: Splinter Gets Cake shows Mikey’s sewer skateboarding entrance rendered in greyscale, leading into an extended fully colored final scene that includes several neat ideas.

Finally, and given that the first three discs each contain their trailers, it’s unfortunate that the closest we get to a similar clip here is the TMNT: Internet Reel, which otherwise does play like an extended preview (at almost four minutes) but lacks the anticipation of the annoyingly missing in action teaser that is otherwise talked about in the supplements. While there is certainly a lot to discover about the fourth film’s various production aspects, it’s the earlier films – especially the first one – that overcame practical technicalities in their making, and it’s just such a crying shame that the work of Henson’s Creature Shop or the voices of those first three movies, for instance, are not explored in any detail whatsoever on these discs.

Case Study:

Turtles25-19For all the lack of supplements for films one, two and three, there can be absolutely no complaining about the printed supplements squeezed into the unique box! On first opening the set, I was initially inclined to think “oh, what kind of environmental message are they trying to send with this lousy packaging”, in response to the basic cardboard box presentation. It was only after finding the discs inside – each one featuring a printed pizza as its label – that I realized the box was actually supposed to resemble a pizza delivery box! Once I had belatedly picked up on this – duh! – I appreciated what a stroke of genius this was, right down to the way the box has been assembled with perforated edges, a finger flap cut-out for opening, and some faux grease marks on the bottom/back of the pack.

Inside is even better, with the aforementioned “pizza discs” held on two double disc trays secured inside the flap and base of the box. Here’s where you’ll find the trinkets: a “radical beanie” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles black hat with the logo stitched in, an envelope containing eight character cards (featuring portraits of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Splinter, April, Casey and Shredder, plus bios and statistics), and a “signed” (by Peter Laird) sketch of the Turtles in action. Inevitably, there’s a push for some TMNT merchandise, including the new Smash-Up videogame, and another insert of sorts can be found on the back of the box, which lists all the details and specs, and can easily be folded and kept inside the packaging.

Most classy of all is a mini-reprint of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie comic book. Dedicated to the first film’s director Steve Barron, this graphic adaptation of the script is by the Turtles’ two creators themselves, and it’s a balanced mix of the film’s intent and their own conception (a nice cinema marquee gag being a nod to Batman instead of the film’s choice). Though only in black and white (apparently as per the 1990 original) the glossy paper and color card cover makes this a quality collectible, adding to the uniqueness of the specialised packaging that plays strongly on an appropriate theme inspired by the characters it celebrates. Though the first three discs hold next to nothing in terms of supplements, the delight found in the packaging restores a sense that at least some thought went into this collection.

Ink And Paint:

Not having ever seen a Ninja Turtles movie on DVD, I can’t compare the transfer for this release from previous discs, but the results – for the first three films – are fairly what one might expect. Although the Turtles were a phenomenon, a live-action feature was by no means a sure fire hit, and as such was made to a low budget and on cheap film stock. Director Barron actually stretches the budget very well, giving the first film the look of a much more expensive production, but this is the first Blu-ray I’ve come across that really shows up the grain inherent in the film stock, and what looks to be a light filtering to remove some of that noise ends up making the image appear a little softer overall. Nonetheless, this is probably the best that can be done with the obviously aged element, and the balance between the grain and the detailing in the shadows is competently handled.

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The second film is much more light hearted in spirit and visual style, meaning a more bright and colorful spectrum to begin with, while best looking of the live-actioners is certainly III: Turtles In Time, which has the more interesting palette to play with, and the better film stock results in less grain and a sharper image. The computer generated TMNT was presented on DVD in both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions, but here we quite rightly only get the correct widescreen framing. On DVD, I noted that the compression definitely had problems with some night time shots, and that the image could have done with a little darkening or contrasting overall, as it was a bit on the light and hazy side. That’s all been fixed on this hi-def disc, and although the CG aspect means a total lack of grain, the clarity of the bigger action scenes certainly increases the major feature film production value aspirations.

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Discs 1 presents the film close to its original theatrical ratio (at 1.78:1), and Discs 2 and 3 retain the correct 1.85:1 framing, while Disc 4 stretches out for the appropriate 2.40:1 ratio. As always with our hi-def coverage, not all of the digital stills illustrating this review are indicative of the quality as seen directly from the Blu-ray Discs.

Scratch Tracks:

If there’s one element across all first three movies that fails to break through the budget considerations, then it’s John Du Prez’ music, with simply sounds stuck in TV movie conventions. From hip synthesizers for the Turtles to electric guitar accompanied bad guys, there just isn’t anything particularly cinematic about any of these three scores. The mixes also struggle with the balance between on-set recorded vocals and the later studio dubbed-in additions for the animatronic characters, though this is a consequence of the original productions and not a defect with the audio tracks offered here, which otherwise seem to reproduce the soundtracks as best as can be hoped for and certainly sound punchy in Dolby TrueHD mode. On the fourth film, the voices are all front and foremost in the mix, quite rightly for a completely studio-recorded animation film, and it’s a good track, up to the standards that a big action blockbuster requires at least, and even has some fun with the directional capabilities, with Badelt’s hammering music score the main highlight. English, French and Spanish 5.1 dubs and/or subs are all included on each title.

Final Cut:

Are the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies a collection that rabid Blu-ray fans will be eager to pounce upon? Probably not, but that more and more varied and older catalog titles like these are finding their way to the format demonstrates that it has really started to take a hold with a wide range of viewers of all ages who are naturally pleased that their eclectic tastes are being catered for. In revisiting these movies again, I actually enjoyed the spark of the 1990 first film, though found part two to be a long and drawn out live-action version of a half-hour cartoon episode stretched out interminably, but thought the third film greatly brought things back on track.

The fourth film, even though completely different to its three predecessors in its move to CGI, manages to pull off the transition, and though it doesn’t quite offer top-flight computer graphics, it’s a game attempt to bring the TMNT up to date. This action heavy set might not be for the very young, but then again it is probably older kids (as in younger adults!) that will be mostly be tracking down their childhood heroes in a half-shell and picking up these movies in high definition. As such, the lack of supplements on the initial trilogy is a shame, and the $85 list price is excessive, even with the special packaging and taking online reductions into account, but fans will probably find enough to get excited about overall.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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