The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, ranked
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theatrical film series, like most long running film series, has its ups and downs and its periods of dormancy as well. In looking over all of the six, it’s easy for me to determine which entries to put at the top and which to put at the bottom.
One of the keys to success here is simplicity. The storyline is fairly straightforward, with Shredder and the Foot Clan being behind a crime wave sweeping New York City, and the Turtles emerging from the sewers to stop it. It’s a well-done origin story, it’s funny in a lot of places, and it has one main villain for the heroes to confront. It has more in common with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books of the ’80s than the late ’80s cartoon series whose popularity led to the movie, so it might be jarring to see the differences in the group relations and characterizations. For example, Raphael in the cartoon series was the somewhat overlooked, wisecracking member of the group, whereas in the first film, he’s the hot-tempered member with a rivalry with Leonardo. While Donatello and Michelangelo get a little less to do here, the film does a pretty good job of giving each major character moments to shine.
I think this entry is a strong one in the series. It’s visually cool, has good voice acting from the cast, and has some of the most fascinating character dynamics of the series, especially between Leonardo and Raphael, as well as between Raphael and Casey Jones. It shows Leonardo leaving the team and then having to readjust to coming back and dealing with leadership again, and Raphael as a Batman-esque vigilante. The highlight of the intra-group conflict is a fight between Leonardo and Raphael that ends in a more surprising way than one might expect. In addition to having some of the best character development apart from the first film in the series, the plot of this one goes in a totally different direction from the rest of the movies, having more of a fantasy element, and it’s also the only one of the film series to show the ninja turtles working with the Foot Clan against a common opponent.
This one is a solid entry into the series and mostly avoids potential traps by keeping the premise and story line fairly simple and manageable, much like the first one in the series did. Also, the humor works well, as it’s somewhat about not taking the concept too seriously, and Megan Fox’s interactions with Whoopi Goldberg are among the highlights there. I suppose the robot Shredder suit makes sense as a progression of the threat, but the look seems more like something from the Marvel cinematic series. And Shredder as a character here has little presence outside of the suit and as a physical threat. The decision to change Eric Sacks’ character to not be the Shredder yet still focus so much on him makes it seem as if he’s more the main villain of this film.
Even beyond the well-known “go ninja go” rap scene with Vanilla Ice, there are some other problems with this mixed bag of an entry. I understand why they made the decision to tone down the use of the Turtles’ main weapons, but there’s a big difference between going in a less dark direction and going in a sillier direction, and further. And Shredder coming back after the way he dies in the first film adds to that. Judith Hoag was a better April O’Neil than Paige Turco, but the addition of Keeno doesn’t make up for not having Casey Jones. Also, despite the film’s subtitle, the “secret” turns out to be mostly meaningless. On the positive side, a lot of the humor still works, the Turtles get a more direct physical threat here from Tokka and Rahzar than they had in the first movie, David Warner brings some gravitas to the film, and with its short runtime, the movie goes along at a quick pace and is never boring.
This entry has “Spider-Man 3 syndrome”, overstuffing the sequel to the 2014 film with not just a few new characters, but about five of them from the TMNT franchise: Bebop, Rocksteady, Krang, Baxter Stockman, and Casey Jones all make appearances here. The result is too much going on, so Krang, for example, comes in at the beginning, comes in for the big battle at the end, but otherwise mostly disappears from the movie. Despite not wearing his mask for most of this one, Shredder has far more presence in Out of the Shadows, seeming like a character more than a video game boss. Of the new additions, Stephen Amell is great as the amiable Casey Jones, Baxter Stockman is mostly forgettable, and to call the humor of Rocksteady and Bebop lowbrow in this one is probably understating it. Interestingly, Splinter is much more involved and a stronger presence in the original two theatrical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies than he is in the 2014 and 2016 ones.
Like I wrote when I started this list, I was pretty sure which entry was going to be the best and which was going to be the worst. It was the order of the others I was unsure of. This one is clearly at the bottom, a painful shell of the original that’s so dumbed down that there’s no sense of actual stakes or peril. I guess you could consider this one the Superman III of this series, as much like that third entry of a different series, it’s mostly an almost-slapstick “comedy”, it introduces a new villain where the other entries had the same recurring one, and it has a wildly different premise from the first two. None of the humor works, the character of Casey Jones is wasted, the look of the film is cheap, and it’s a chore to sit through.
As of this writing, it looks like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film series is in for another reboot soon, and the reboot looks like another CGI entry as well, although there’s little known about the new film at this point. There have been enough movies in the series to have examples of what works and what doesn’t work, and I think that having strong but productive character conflict within the group, giving the Turtles a chance to do things apart from their usual set roles, getting Splinter significantly involved in the story, and not trying to cram in too much with not enough time are all important ingredients for success.