If you celebrated the 25th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze this week by watching it and its predecessor back-to-back, you probably noticed a startling discrepancy of the sort adults see whenever they watch movies or cartoons from their childhood. Except for Donatello, who brandishes a traditional staff called a bō, none of the turtles use their designated weapons against their opponents. That’s, from all evidence, because parents and others reacted so strongly to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ violence the previous year. And because the filmmakers wanted children, their target demographic, to fill seats again for the sequel, they toned down Secret of the Ooze.
Sure enough, Leonardo’s katanas and Raphael’s sais only leave their slings to serve as threatening decorations. As for Michelangelo’s nunchucks, they generally stay at his side — except when he replaces them with sausage links in the opening scene for comedic effect. All of the second movie’s major action sequences feature hand-to-hand combat, but even these battles take the form of extended conversations rife with one-liners and the occasional escape plan.
In the summer of 1990, months after the first film was released in theaters, the Los Angeles Times published an article about concerned doctors and parents who didn’t think young children should be exposed to the turtles. Kids were becoming so infatuated with — and eager to imitate — the animated TV series and the live-action movie that daycare centers were banning or limiting all things Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Or as child-care provider Mary Alvidrez put it:
“We’re saying goodbye to the Turtles,” she recently announced to her 12 charges. “No more Turtle T-shirts or toys; no more words like ‘cowabunga (a Turtle favorite).’ Turtles are fine at home, but not at Mary’s.”
In an interview, Mary Alvidrez, a West Los Angeles child-care provider, said: “My decision was based on the children’s actions, the way they were playing. They would play Turtles and imitate them. They got a little carried away. The older kids would do karate on the younger ones. They were very much into fantasy play.”
Clinicians like psychiatrist-to-the-stars Carole Lieberman, whose expertise came up more recently in discussions of video game violence, agreed with the daycare bans at the time. “Kids become more violent in reaction to the Turtles,” she told the Times. “It gets other kids more riled up and play turns more aggressive.” In other words, the violent behaviors of children that caregivers, doctors and parents were witnessing were due to their “reaction” to the fantasy characters.
Of course four walking, talking and fighting turtles do not and cannot exist in reality. This is something any sane adult should know, but as Lieberman and other specialists interviewed by the Times argued, children aren’t always able to distinguish fact from reality. They’re still developing, especially when they’re as young as three. So, when these kids watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was rated PG, their minds were blown. Or as Lieberman put it:
“These turtles are interacting with live people. How are kids supposed to understand the (difference between the) costumed and the real people? In the movie, they have adults going down into the manhole. How is a 3-year-old supposed to know this is a joke?”
Hence why, in the mind of Alvidrez, other caregivers and parents who witnessed similar behaviors at home, the characters’ ninja-fighting ways weren’t the best thing for young children to watch and emulate.
Counterarguments about correlation and causation notwithstanding, two pertinent pieces of evidence reveal how disconcerting these parental complaints were. Neither the studio financing the films nor the filmmakers involved ever admitted on record that the reaction to the first film’s violence led to the second film’s altered tone. Yet a concurrent survey of teachers and a later interview with Judith Hoag, the actress who originated the April O’Neil role in the live-action series, both suggest that Golden Harvest and New Line would have had a hard time ignoring the criticisms directed at the first film.
According a 1991 survey co-authored by Diane Levin, then an associate professor of education at Wheelock College, the worries on display in the previous year’s Times article weren’t wholly unfounded given young kids’ reactions to the film. Speaking with the Associated Press, Levin claimed that “the Turtles encourage violent and anti-social behavior among young children and have a disturbing effect on learning, behavior and play.”
Hanne Sonquist, a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s governing board, agreed with Levin’s findings at the time. She also took issue with the film and the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle show’s emphasis on violence:
“The way the Ninja turtles work out their difficulties is by socking each other and knocking each other… It’s totally programmed and scripted so that many children who watch a great deal of that kind of programming have less access to the imagination.”
Speaking to Variety years after Secret of the Ooze hit theaters in 1991, Hoag revealed that the concerns with violence predated even the film’s release. Hoag played April, the television reporter-turned-friend of the turtles, in the 1990 film. But she wasn’t asked back for the second or third films. Instead, the part was recast with actress Paige Turco, and, according to Hoag, her concerns about the violence of the production and the final product played a role in this decision:
“Everybody was beating everybody up,” Hoag says. “I thought the movie suffered because of that. It was something I spoke to the producers about, I think they thought I was too demanding, and moved on.”
Considering that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles featured a bunch of mutant creatures, trained as ninjas, and fighting other ninjas and their villainous leader — aptly named “Shredder” — one would guess that anyone who signed on to the project would assume there’d be plenty of violence. Yet the particular brand of violence that worried Hoag at the time wasn’t so much what was being shown in theaters. Rather, it was the violence behind the scenes:
“They had all these stunt people who came in from Hong Kong, who had no union protections. They were getting hurt. As soon as they were injured, they were shipped out of there. It was not the safest set to be on. That’s a little distressing. People are doing the movie, doing the best they can on the budget and I think producers lose sight sometimes there are actual human beings involved.”
By the time Secret of the Ooze hit theaters, it was evident that these public and private issues had been heard and addressed to varying degrees. Yes, the turtles were still lifelike anthropomorphic creatures whose interactions with human characters onscreen would be confusing to any three-year-old. But as New York Times film critic Janet Maslin expressed so succinctly in her review of the film, the turtles “clean up their act, but still try the patience.” In fact, the sequel had toned down much of the first movie’s darker and more violent bits, so much that hardcore fans probably wouldn’t like it. “Purists may complain that the Turtles fight less, clown more and stray too far from their beloved sewers,” Maslin opined at the time. “But for anyone else, these are definite improvements.”