Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III has got to be one of the strangest sequels ever made. Now, it’s rare for a third entry in a franchise to live up to its predecessors (which is very much the case here), because by the time a series reaches its third entry, the studios are usually just trying to cash-in on the name.
What makes TMNTIII such an anomaly is that it takes this to a whole new level. It really is cashing in on the franchise name alone. Aside from the main characters being the four titular turtles Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, and the presence of Master Splinter, April O’Neil (Paige Turco) and a returning Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), the film has virtually nothing to do with the franchise on which it’s based.
In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, April O’Neil brings gifts to her mutant friends that she found in an antique shop. One such item is an ancient Japanese scepter, which April plans on giving to Splinter. As it turns out, this scepter is of the magical, time-traveling variety.
The scepter exists in two different time frames, one in the present, and one in ancient Japan. When someone from both eras touches the scepter at the same time, they switch places (and, for some reason, their clothes as well). Just as April is about to give Splinter his gift, she trades places with a Japanese prince named Kenshin (Henry Hayashi).
Naturally, the Ninja Turtles need to go back in time and retrieve April, and end up swapping places with the honor guard of Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono), Kenshin’s father. To make sure the time travelers don’t cause too much trouble for Master Splinter, the turtles bring in Casey Jones to help their sensei.
Meanwhile, in ancient Japan, the turtles get involved in a scuffle between Lord Norinaga’s forces – who are being influenced by a western weapons trader named Walker (Stuart Wilson) – and a local village in danger of being destroyed by Norinaga’s war. All the while, April meets up with a distant ancestor of Casey Jones, who just so happens to be in Japan.
Truth be told, it actually has more of a plot (or, at the very least, the setup of one) than the previous two films. But that’s as far as any compliments can go.
The first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies weren’t particularly good, but they are harmless fun and, if you’re a TMNT fan, they definitely feel like TMNT movies. The same cannot be said for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.
For starters, there are the visuals. Although they weren’t the best practical effects of their day, the costumes and puppets provided by the Jim Henson Company in the first two movies still look impressive. TMNTIII can’t even boast that, as the new costumes and puppets, no longer provided by the Jim Henson Company, are a marked downgrade in quality. The Ninja Turtles look way too goofy, and the puppet for Master Splinter is clearly unfinished (we only ever see his top half this time). It’s a visual mess.
Now let’s look at the villain scenario. Walker and Norinaga are as stock and generic as villains get, and I honestly can’t describe them any deeper than one’s a Japanese lord, and the other is a British weapons trader who is often accompanied by a caged bird, because there is nothing deeper to describe.
Even as a kid, I couldn’t wrap my head around how the mutated Super Shredder didn’t survive the climax of the second film, considering he survived much worse as regular Shredder in the first film. But even if Shredder didn’t return, there were no shortage of villains in the TMNT franchise to draw from. At the very least, they could have come up with original villains who actually fit into the nature of the series (like Tokka and Rahzar in the second movie).
Of course, this all goes back to the setting of the film. While time traveling to ancient Japan seems like something the Ninja Turtles would do, the lack of appropriate characters for the franchise really makes the setting a waste. It really is just the Turtles and April in ancient Japan, with nothing to speak of that even remotely resembles the look and feel of the franchise.
The action scenes have also been dumbed down far below even the second movie (in which the Turtles never used their weapons). Here, the fight scenes are just stupid gags (the Turtles enjoy giving “wet willies” to their opponents). There’s no seriousness to them.
Worst of all are the Ninja Turtles themselves. Sure, the Ninja Turtles have always made cheesy jokes and one-liners, but here it’s taken to absolutely ridiculous levels. The Turtles just never shut up, and are constantly making stupid jokes and references that make no contextual sense. And they never let up.
Not only are the constant barrages of unfunny jokes annoying, but the fact that all of the Turtles are constantly cracking them means that all four Turtles become indistinguishable, with none of their individual personalities ever on display.
Are there any good aspects to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III? Well, some of the antics between Casey Jones and the temporally displaced honor guards can be kind of funny (I especially like when the honor guards discover television). And I suppose the friendship between Raphael and a small Japanese boy is kind of cute. That’s about it.
The first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies are by no means classics, but if you grew up with the franchise, or are currently growing up with the franchise, they provide plenty of fan service and nostalgia. They actually feel like Ninja Turtles movies, and silly as they may be, they can provide some fun for fans.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III can’t even boast any of that. The dialogue is nothing short of obnoxious, the practical effects look notably worse than the previous films, the villains are nonentities, and the whole thing lacks anything that resembles the franchise other than the Turtles themselves. Even as a kid I didn’t enjoy this movie because of how far removed it was from the source material I loved so much in my younger days.
The first two TMNT features are guilty pleasures. TMNTIII, however, is just a curious, nostalgic oddity.