Despite their hue, not all TMNT films deserved to be greenlit.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in 1984. Now almost 40 years later, what started as a comic book has inspired seven movies, five television series, and countless amounts of merchandise. This week the four ninja tortoises return in a new animated incarnation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Considering I’ve been a fan of the Turtles since six years old, this seems like the perfect time to put an official rating on four decades of movies. Some are gnarly, some tubular, and there’s always a whole lot of cowabunga.
Writers Note: This list doesn’t include the recent Netflix installment Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, a TV-movie crossover Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the live recording of the 1990 Coming Out of Their Shells stage show. That one you can catch on YouTube, although I don’t know why you would.
7: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
Directed by: Dave Green
While it may seem hard to pinpoint the lowest point in the Ninja Turtle movies, Green’s 2016 live-action/CGI installment offers a clear front-runner: when villains Rocksteady and Bebop joyfully take a peek at their new mutated penises. The rest of the film, the final of the Michael Bay-produced installments, is hardly much better. Like its predecessor, it is a gaudy waste of studio resources centering on genuinely hideous-looking versions of the turtles.
Outside of a few set-pieces, including the team skydiving into action and a downhill chase with Michaelangelo crashing his shell into a humvee, Out of the Shadows is a painful installment that’s painful. Even the great Laura Linney can only offer a performance that screams, “Thanks for the paycheck.” There’s zero reason to revisit this one.
6: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman
Deciding between this and its successor (see the 7-slot) is a coin toss. The slight edge I give to this Liebesman-directed installment is its attempt to make the Turtles heavier on action and more focused on ninjutsu fighting.
Still, we are instantly made aware it’s a Bay production by a camera gawking at Megan Fox as April O’Neil in a fetishized schoolgirl attire. On top of the objectification, the film ladles cliche with a battle with Shredder on top of a building serving as the climax. Despite its notable expense, this 2014 offering is forgettable. I watched it this week, and I can barely remember it.
5: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
Directed by: Stuart Gillard
The third Ninja Turtles film with the Jim Henson character design was easily the lowest step in the 90s trilogy. Still, it can’t be called dull. Director/writer Gillard tried to take things to 17th-century Japan for a time-travel flick where the Turtles become shogun warriors. Unfortunately, he failed in nearly all facets. The many negatives include a script laced with blatantly racist gags and the Turtles looking significantly more animatronic than in the previous two installments. They also brought back Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, only to have him hang around New York with Splinter.
Nonetheless, storywise, Gillard was brave enough to take the Turtles out of the sewers of New York and make them protectors of a village threatened by white colonizers. It takes inspiration from Seven Samurai and spaghetti westerns, but even noting that gives the feature too much credit.
It’s also worth noting this one treats the Turtles as so far from “teenage” status that one might as well call it “The Roaring Twenties Turtles.”
4: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Directed by: Michael Pressman
Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze goes from zero to sixty on the silly scale. Honestly, though, it’s for the best, as director Pressman certainly makes this one sticks out. Although it replaces the presence of Casey Jones (Koteas) with sidekick Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr.), swaps in a brand new April O’Neil (the first of two with Paige Turco), and loses total control in the last twenty minutes, it still ends up a worthy continuation of the first installment.
The arrival of mutant monsters Tokar and Razar is undeniably cool, the finale against the super Shredder rocks, and Vanilla Ice singing “Ninja Rap” offers a taste of wacky camp. It is all a part of a movie that screams 90s. Yes, the song may be incredibly lame, but Turtles II is a movie I could revisit time and again while still believing it’s a lot of fun.
#3: TMNT (2007)
Directed by: Kevin Munroe
Turning the story of the Turtles into an animated movie feels like something that should have happened long before 2007. Although Munroe’s version failed to generate more installments, it still stands out as a unique and worthy addition to the oeuvre. The movie centers on a rift between Leonardo and Raphael that divides the team. However, when an ancient evil returns, thanks to the power-hungry Winters (Patrick Stewart), they must unite again to stand a chance of winning.
While the narrative grows clunky in the middle, this one is the first cinematic TMNT with gravitas. The animation was relatively exciting at its release, and it took Eastman and Laird’s text seriously. The downside is, while older fans may have appreciated their favorites getting a more mature kind of storytelling, there wasn’t much for kids to love.
2: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Directed by: Steve Barron
When the first Ninja Turtles movie hit screens in 1990, it wasn’t exactly a critical success. For me, though, at the peak of my childhood joyousness, it was like a lightning bolt struck my brain. It jolted me awake to what could be done with the magic of movies. I’d seen the animated show. I’d played the arcade game when my parents would let me pump it with quarters. But these were real talking, ninja-fighting turtles.
Looking at what followed, we clearly didn’t appreciate it when we had it. Barron’s film has texture. The action feels real even as enormous reptiles perform it. The Turtles have personalities with some distinction from each other.
In a grimy New York in need of a deep clean, news reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) digs into the story about a gang of kids, led by the evil Shredder, overrunning the City. Then she stumbles upon an even bigger scoop: heroes on the half shell.
Like several of the other films, the middle does go flabby here. Nonetheless, it never stops looking like a grand production. Sprinkled with what are now trademark Turtle lines like “Radical” and “Cowabunga,” it perfectly encapsulates pop-culture cinema in the 90s.
1: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)
Directed by: Jeff Rowe
At the moment, I may need a few more viewings to truly claim that Rowe’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is the top Turtle talkie. That said, I absolutely loved it on the first go around. It genuinely is the first of the collection to feel like a movie for kids, teenagers, and adults without sacrificing story or style.
Produced by Seth Rogan, the animation alone is spectacular. Although the story may lack in digging deeper into each Turtle character, it makes up for it, with all four being cohesive. On top of that, the humor is consistently funny, with a star voice performance from Jackie Chan as Master Splinter and a narrative story that sticks to the comic book more than previous versions.
It’s a genuine story with the Turtles feeling isolated and hungry for the freedom to act their age. You add in an all-star cast of voices such as John Cena and Paul Rudd, along with a killer score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it’s easy to see why I love it.
A strong indicator that Mutant Mayhem was that good? My 5-year-old can’t stop talking about it to me. Or maybe it’s the other way around! Either way, it’s the best Turtles yet.