Not quite kid stuff and not really for grown-ups either, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature took lots of heat when it was released last year. Parents registered some very legitimate complaints: The film’s tone was too dark, the violence was too hard-edged, and the wise old ninja rat, Splinter, was, well, too ratty. Evidently taking this in the spirit of constructive criticism, the producers went back to the drawing board to fine-tune the formula. The result is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, a sequel that is bigger, brighter, and less brutally violent. The movie is is also slicker, sillier, and more crudely cartoonish.
That’s what made it a trade-off for parents who dutifully endured the theatrical experience alongside their pre-teens. But on tape, the balance shifts to the positive. In the comfort of the home, this video becomes an effective electronic babysitter, good for hours of repeat viewing pleasure in the summer dog days ahead. And the best part is that grown-ups don’t have to share the experience. They can just slip in the cassette and slip out of the room, knowing they’ve left their kids with a safely dumb movie.
This friendlier Turtles flick even has a politically correct ecological theme. The ooze in the title (that glowing green stuff that transformed the Turtles back when they were hatchlings) turns out to be illegally dumped radioactive waste, thus making our ninja heroes nothing but nuclear by-products! The awful truth about their past leaves them pretty bummed out, but their mentor, Splinter, saves the day with some words of wisdom. ”Don’t confuse your origins with your present worth,” he intones. The terrapins start feeling good about themselves just in time to face a new challenge from their nemesis, Shredder — who has also discovered the secret of the ooze, and is using it to mutate some monsters of his own.
The inevitable showdown between mutant ninjas and mutant monsters should have kids cheering ”Maximundo!” But as big and noisy as the action gets, nobody actually seems to be getting hurt. Choreographed to a boombox soundtrack, the battle scenes are stylized almost to the point of slapstick — quite a constrast to TMNT, in which heroes and villains alike got punched, clubbed, and kicked in some unduly graphic ways. The violence here is closer to the animated action of the Turtles’ Saturday-morning TV show than to anything served up in the quartet’s original movie.
TMNT II also has brighter lighting and cozier sets (the Turtles’ new hideout is a neat, abandoned subway station instead of that dank old sewer). Some new faces appear as well: Pretty actress Paige Turco plays Turtle confidante April O’Neil; a cute little karate kid sidekick (Ernie Reyes Jr.) replaces the original’s shaggy Elias Koteas; and Splinter gets a make-over, reemerging in this sequel with a less threatening face and a much fluffier coat of fur. The cartoonish rapper Vanilla Ice does a brief turn, singing and cheering the ninjas on during a nightclub brawl. The name of the song? ”Ninja Rap,” of course.
Some things don’t change enough, however. There is lots of pseudo-surfer talk and more pigging out on pizza. If all this sounds more like canny packaging than creative adjustment, that’s what you get for being a cynical adult. As far as kids are concerned, this sequel measures up very nicely, thanks.
And that means there’ll be more. With their revamped formula and built-in audience intact, the Turtles look ready to settle in for a long run of further adventures. Wouldn’t it be a bonus if they went straight to video from now on, so parents could avoid being dragged to theaters full of Turtle maniacs? As Raphael might say, ”No way, dude.” C+