First created in comic book form in the 1980s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have grown (or, mutated) into staples of many a childhood through their countless reboots and adaptations, exploding in popularity in the wake of the merchandising coup that was the 1987 animated series.
Their repeated forays from the sewer to the cinema have been… somewhat less successful, starting with the 1990s B-movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles directed by Steve Barron, carrying through to a Michael Bay-produced reboot in the 2010s, followed by a sequel in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
As their latest reboot and film adaptation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (which has already had a film sequel and a 2D animated TV spinoff announced, if that’s any sign of Paramount’s confidence in it) arrives in cinemas we had a go at ranking the cinematic journeys of the Heroes in a Halfshell.
8 | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
The third instalment of the trilogy of live-action 90s adaptations sent the Turtles back in time to 17th-century Japan to rescue April O’Neil, herself sent there by an ancient artefact.
There’s something to be said about the zanier this trilogy became with its premises on paper, the more anaesthetising they are in their execution.
This got savaged on release and honestly deserves no revaluation — it’s lifeless, and it doesn’t help this third entry looks worse than its predecessors, which at least had some interesting animatronics and puppeteering to fall back on, or even some ironic so-bad-its-good entertainment.
This has neither, the turtle costumes looking very noticeably worse, the mouth movements awkward and stiff, even Casey Jones’ wig gets a downgrade. This remains one for only the most dedicated of completionists.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is streaming on Paramount+ or for free with ads on Rakuten TV.
7 | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
This film’s take on the Ninja Turtles is maybe most notable for the nightmare fuel, CG monstrosities that are the heroes themselves which are bafflingly committed to a sense of 'realism' that never escapes the uncanny valley.
Jonathan Liebesman’s 2014 reboot feels wrong-footed by these appearances from the start. In combination with those horrible teeth, lips and noses on the Ninja Turtles and Splinter’s dead, black eyes, it’s simply miserable to look at — coupled with a semi-dystopian vision of New York, defined by an oppressive colour palette of downbeat grey/blue or sickly green/yellow tones.
More than that, it grasps at being more “adult” by amping up the violence but remains juvenile in other aspects (Mikey’s hitting on April O’Neil gets rather uncomfortable). If you can get past their visual representations, there’s some fleeting moments of eccentric personality for Ninja Turtles fans to enjoy (like one of them killing time in an elevator).
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is streaming for free with ads on Rakuten TV.
6 | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Beyond its wild subtitle, Vanilla Ice’s atrocious Ninja Rap is perhaps the most lingering memory of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Beyond that, The Secret of the Ooze is a snooze, the surprise charm of its predecessor long worn off.
The jokes fall flatter (it’s also more racist), though there are some laughs to be had with some of its absurdity – the Ninja Rap mostly, rearing its monstrous head in a nightclub brawl while Vanilla Ice looks on, in one of the most gloriously uncool moments ever filmed.
It’s a spectacle, but probably for the wrong reasons.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze is streaming on Paramount+ or free with ads on Amazon's Freevee.
5 | TMNT (2007)
There’s a surprisingly fun cast behind TMNT, a CG animated feature that actually takes place in the continuity of the live action series as a sort-of standalone sequel.
From Chris Evans as Casey Jones, Lawrence Fishburne narrating, and Ziyi Zhang (!) as a new leader of longtime antagonists the Foot Clan, to Sarah Michelle Gellar as April O’Neil, to wonderful voice actors like Mako and his posthumous replacement Greg Baldwin, there’s a lot to like on paper. The result is admirable if a little forgettable though.
It begins with the gang broken up: Leo is in self-imposed exile, Raph is a vigilante, Mikey is an entertainer and Donny does tech support, all rather funny spins on what they are without each other. An ancient threat (another one!) brings them back together, the story going for a moodier take which sometimes lands on some interesting imagery, though its animation is definitely showing its age.
There are worse Ninja Turtles films out there, and there are far better animated ones.
TMNT is available to buy or rent on digital.
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
The follow-up to the 2014 feature film reboot is that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows isn’t quite so bad. With the cartoonish additions of the alien Krang, the dimwitted anthropomorphic warthog and rhino heavies Bebop and Rocksteady, it attempts to leave behind the rather dour characters of its predecessor.
It’s best when it’s staying light and leaning into comic book campiness – starting with the Ninja Turtles watching Knicks games from the rafters, or later with them making fun of Casey Jones by threatening to eat him, generally having a little fun with the fact that they are pretty scary-looking. There’s even some plot overlap with Secret of the Ooze.
Watch a trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
But, even though it’s a marked improvement, it ultimately lands in rather generic territory (and the less said of the human characters, the better).
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.
3 | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The first feature film adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about as 1990s as it can possibly get (although, Secret of the Ooze’s Vanilla Ice cameo challenges this).
From its protagonists’ lingo which walks a line between surfer dude and Waynes World to the drum beats of its soundtrack, and the costuming (headbands, sleeveless vests with nothing underneath) — and perhaps even some racial insensitivity (unfortunately).
The turtles themselves are a rather delightful creation from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop (made just a month out from Henson’s death), themselves and Splinter being a charming feat of old school effects work, even if they can seem a little stiff to present-day eyes.
Not to mention that it has a surprisingly atmospheric take on its New York setting, counterbalancing the joviality of its lead characters in a way the later Mutant Mayhem would later emulate.
It’s easy to see why there’s cult love for it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is streaming on Paramount+ or free with ads on Amazon's Freevee.
2 | Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (2022)
Rise is a feature film sequel to a recent animated series, but until the new film Mutant Mayhem came along, this Netflix exclusive movie — and the series it stemmed from — were the most creatively invigorated the characters have been in some time, fully leaning into more of an anime-style spin on the characters. Its slick animation and exaggerated character designs make a satisfying move away from the disturbing semi-realism of the 2014 movie.
Its exuberant action and world-ending threat is grounded by a rather focused personal angle, foregrounding Leonardo’s encroaching fear that his arrogance will cost him the lives of his brothers. The threat itself feels wonderfully menacing for a a children’s feature, full of some surprisingly freaky body horror introduced along with Krang and his ability to possess others.
One for animation fans in general, not just people interested in this particular franchise.
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie is streaming on Netflix.
1 | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)
The latest (and greatest) Ninja Turtles movie — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem — focuses in keenly on the “teenage” element of that title. It marks the first time the characters have been voice acted by actual teenagers, and embodies that in every element of its animation. It’s reflected in the their gangly, more varied character design, and through the awkward movements of the turtles’s character animation.
It’s also really, really funny — emphasising noisy chatter between the teenagers in a lot of their scenes together, their reference-heavy dialogue showing both familiarity and fond mockery of each other. The action sequences are no slouch either: creative, and also organic in how they mix in fumbles and improvisation, made all the more exciting by some choice needledrops (a personal fave being M.O.P.’s “Ante Up”).
It's best the turtles have ever been on screen, not just because of its visual splendour but also for how it reinvents and leverages the turtle’s backstory and that of their fellow mutants for a touching allegory about social acceptance and coming-of-age, about finding your place in a world that doesn’t feel like it fits you.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is in UK cinemas now.
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Watch a trailer below.