I’m beginning to think maybe some people forgot how bad the original movies truly got. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was when the cracks started to show in the mighty children’s franchise, signs that creative fatigue had set in, or that the hard work put into the first two films weren’t carrying over. The movie was bad, so much so that it disappointed children everywhere and even broke up happy homes. That’s why I’ve been talking about it so negatively for all these years, trying to make sure people understand how bad the third movie is, but with it celebrating thirty years of existence, I figured it might be a good time to discuss how I’d actually try and fix this travesty without changing it completely.
Where do we begin? Well, the script probably seems like the most important thing, but even a wonderful story can be torn apart by those behind the camera. Everything has to work well together to some extent and that begins with the director and his crew. In this case, TMNT3 was helmed by Stuart Gilliard, a man mostly known for his work on television, and there is a reason for that. After this atrocity, his career would go right back to the small screen, but his failure here is likely because Gillard didn’t set out to make an awesome Ninja Turtles movie, no, he wanted to make his idea of an epic Samurai film. This didn’t work, and although some of the technical aspects were fine, someone else was needed who had more of an appreciation for the source material, or at least the genre. For my pick, I’d either go seasoned with Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) or take a chance on someone like Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man).
While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and switch out the rest of the crew except for maybe the location scout and cinematographer, as this is the lushest and most colorful TMNT film out of the originals. I don’t want to say no one else cared about the project, but they didn’t even spell Michelangelo’s name correctly at the end. The marketing people might not have been too bad, as they did have a Burger King tie-in and it gave kids and collectors alike some new action figures, but the trailers weren’t doing this movie any favors. The writing was on the wall, as TMNT III wasn’t even screened for critics and was brutalized upon release.
On the audio side, we need to try and get the voice actors for the Turtles a bit more into it and nail those lines a little more. It’s great to have Corey Feldman back, but Splinter is not doing it for me. I know there is some controversy around Kevin Clash, the original performer, but we can find someone better. While we’re at it, let’s drop these whacky sound effects, just to help the tone a bit more, that doesn’t mean they all have to go, but most are out. Finally, the soundtrack is fine. I still have a copy of the CD sitting on my shelf and people love some “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora.
One more thing about the presentation, the giant turtle in the room as it were, and that’s how the boys were looking back then. These costumes need an upgrade. It’s sad that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop didn’t return (rumored to be due to money) and the budget probably forced them to lower the bar more, but in our reimagining here, we don’t have problems like that. As the years passed, the comparisons to the older suits became more evident, and the bad lip movements stood out more, making these harder to view. These aren’t the worst-looking versions of the Turtles in live-action, but they’re still seriously lacking. If that wasn’t enough, pay attention to how we never truly see Splinter’s lower body, or when we do it’s hidden by cloth, because they didn’t finish it. Now that’s quality.
So let’s talk about the story. Readers are most likely familiar with this plot, but for those who aren’t, the movie involves April O’Neil (Paige Turco) picking up an old antique Japanese egg timer as a gift for Splinter (James Murray) that turns out to be an ancient scepter that sends her back through time to feudal Japan. When she leaves, Kenshin (Henry/Eidan Hanzei) arrives in her place, both shocked to be in 1603 and 1993 respectively. The Turtles must follow their best human friend back in time, but doing this brings four other people, honor guards protecting the time scepter forward, so Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) is brought in to help Splinter babysit them. In the past, the heroes attempt to rescue April and then help the rebels defeat Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono) and his foreign ally who has all the guns, Walker (Stuart Wilson). Couple this with a few small side plots and the quartet losing their only way home, and we have a movie, one that most likely seemed fine on paper.
This story was partially taken from the Mirage run of TMNT, issues #46 and #47, but that and the episode of the cartoon where the four brothers go back in time are both different from the movie, even if they were going for a synergistic cross-media time travel style party. There was also the Turtles in Time arcade game, released in 1991, that would have made for a better movie, but I’d hate to see the budget on that.
As to not deviate from the original idea of the movie too much, we leave the time scepter as the big McGuffin for the film and ignore the comic, where it is brought into play by a busty ally named Renet, who is a timestress. In fact, the opening of the film works, starting out in 1603 and setting up the conflict with those characters, allowing Mitsu’s (Vivian Wu) rebellion and her relationship with Kenshin to take center stage for a bit. This is important, seeing as the original cut gives us very few reasons to care about what’s going on or to understand why fighting against the Daimyo matters so much. Using this approach will also, hopefully, give Kenshin a better introduction after his horse chase than having him angrily cut down torches.
My plan would be to have April offer her egg timer as a gift only for her to still be sent back in time, but we don’t switch her with anyone. Let Splinter’s big moment be explaining what he knows of the scepter and hinting at the myth of the Turtles as Japanese legends, kappas. He’s wise, so he’ll have already figured out that the boys have to go back in time, because they’ve already done so, and he doesn’t want to mess with history. Donatello still gets to do his science stuff on the time scepter and in the meantime, Casey is called, he comes to help find April as well and maybe even stows away with the brothers against their wishes, concerned for his love. Sending Casey back in time makes the character of Whit more important and allows him to teach his ancestor about being a good guy and not a traitor, giving Koteas a more important role in the film. This could even get into some Back to the Future-style shenanigans with Casey potentially not being born if he doesn’t set his family line straight.
With the main characters having more reason to stay in the past and help out, we don’t need to have them lose the scepter and try to make another one, since they’d realize they can’t make a reproduction have the same magical properties (though Michelangelo should still attempt to cook pizza and talk about opening up a franchise), but rather lose it when Whit kidnaps Mitsu. All of this together should help build investment in the rebellion, the villagers, and against the bad guys.
In between those beats, focus more on the Romeo and Juliet situation between Kenshin and Mitsu, how the latter is attempting to overthrow his father from the inside and the former isn’t just fighting for love, but for her country. This leaves Kenshin to have to grow up in some ways and realize why his beloved can’t just run away with him but needs to stay and fight. We can also still have Raphael bond with Yoshi, the young boy, so the two can help each other with their anger issues. Raph realizing how much he’s grown himself is one of the few good character moments in the film.
The last key story element is to replace the villains. It’s a bit sad because I appreciate both of the actors who play Walker and Norinaga, but there isn’t much to them. The comics had a giant mutant lizard samurai for their version of this plot and I can’t help but feel we got the shaft. When Michelangelo tried to compare Walker to Clint Eastwood in that one scene, I realized this isn’t working because we aren’t given any good reasons to truly hate or fear them, but making one of them a mutant or just showing them being more inherently evil. This could also help us avoid the bad effects of Walker’s death scene.
There is one thing that we absolutely must steal from the comic for our ending instead of that fake out with Mikey. What’ll help this shaky script no matter what is that the people the good guys helped overthrow the ruthless Lord have now been trained to defend themselves and will change for the better for it, learning martial arts and agreeing to never let anyone else rule them again. These people will form a new group, a clan, The Foot Clan.
Roll those damn credits!
Keep the movie around the same runtime, give the Turtles a better intro and ending that doesn’t involve dancing, have Splinter tell a better joke, and up the number of fight scenes since the Turtles can use their weapons again in this movie. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III has the fewest fight scenes of the entire original trilogy and that needs to be fixed, we came to see Ninja Turtles.
This idea isn’t perfect, but it is much better than what we received and I have a feeling it would be tickling nostalgia bones all these years later instead of smelling of sadness and regret.