Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, the sequel to last year’s sleeper sensation about a quartet of radioactive reptiles with a serious penchant for pizza, is, alas, neither as fun nor as faithful to the spirit of the original comics. It’s a bigger, slicker movie, but not a better one.
Though nobody’s about to call it a classic, the first TMNT, directed by rock video veteran Steve Barron, had a punky, funky energy. The martial arts battles were whirling-dervish ballets of foot-flying frenzy; the camera was all over the place, capturing the nunchaku-wielding shellbacks from the goofiest angles, and the supporting cast (Judith Hoag as TV reporter and Turtle confidant April O’Neil, Elias Koteas as a benignly crazed vigilante) gave the film an ingratiating, B-movie feel.
Not to mention the heady novelty of seeing those four humongo green Renaissance guys — Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael — walking and wisecracking in a live-action movie. (The ”animatronic” Turtles are the work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and The Secret of the Ooze is dedicated to the late great Muppeteer.) Inevitably, the novelty of seeing life-size reptiles is gone the second time around. Sadly, so are Hoag (replaced by All My Children star Paige Turco) and Koteas (his Casey Jones character isn’t in this script). Turco’s April is, in the words of my 8-year-old daughter, ”too much of a goody two-shoes.” She’s neither as sexy nor as spunky as Hoag. And director Michael Pressman doesn’t have Barron’s visual wit or style. New York City looks less grungy and dark (many folks, including its producer, griped that TMNT was under-lit), but that gritty ambience hasn’t been replaced by anything else.
Like any sequel worth its salt (and buttered popcorn), TMNT II resurrects its villain, the Darth Vader-voiced Shredder, last seen being gorged by a giant garbage compactor. Lord of a clan of Ninja thieves dubbed the Foot, ”the Shred-dude” returns to battle the Turtles and their sage master, Splinter, a four-foot-tall talking rat. Moist of eye and furry of face, Splinter dishes up Zen dollops to his four pizza-obsessed adolescents, cautioning them to ”not confuse the specter of your origin with your present worth, my sons.”
It is the specter of their origin — a puddle of glowing goo (from a cracked vial found in a sewer) — that is the crux of the plot. It seems that there is more of this gunk — plenty more — in a toxic-waste dump outside town. Enter Professor Perry (David Warner in bow tie, lab coat, and glasses), an earnest scientist whose plan to dispose safely of the remaining toxic vials is thwarted by the razor-helmeted samurai Shredder. Seizing the prof and the slime, Shredder contaminates a snapping turtle and a wolf with the stuff — thereby creating his own mutated monsters. (The snapping turtle is called Tokka, the wolf Rahzar — look for the action figures at a toy store near you.)
Much kick-boxing ensues between the Turtles and various bad guys, along with some moderately funny one-liners; a joking, comic nod to Casablanca; and a lot of surf-speak from the Turtle boys. The climactic face-off takes place at a Manhattan club where Vanilla Ice happens to be performing. Cool dude that he is, Ice improvises his ”Ninja Rap” on the spot, then turns the stage over to the Turtles, who do a little break dancing between the headbanging. It was the appearance of the jaunty-jawed rap star that had my daughter momentarily declaring that she preferred Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II over I. But only momentarily. Then she wondered why Donatello and Raphael sounded different (Corey Feldman did Don’s voice in the first film, but not here; Raphael’s voice also is new) and remembered those great, grainy origin flashbacks — hilarious little scenes for which TMNT II affords no comparison.
Still, the proven formula of action (nonstop), argot (”Cowabunga!” ”Turtle- riffic!”), and p-to-the-nanosecond pop-culture artifacts (a Bart Simpson drinking glass, Wrestlemania jokes) will no doubt have hordes of Turtlemaniacs shelling out Mom and Dad’s money. Is TMNT III an inevitability? As Michaelangelo quips in Ooze, ”Is, like, ‘Schwarzenegger’ hard to spell?”