Obnoxious pizza delivery boy Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr) puts his martial arts skills to good use battling three masked thieves but when a dozen more arrive on the scene it looks like he's scarfed his last pepperoni. Whereupon who should arrive to bail him out but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Leonardo (Mark Caso, voiced by Brian Tochi), Michaelangelo (Michelan Sisti, voiced by Robbie Rist), Donatello (Leif Tilden, voiced by Adam Carl) and Raphael (Kenn Scott, voiced by Laurie Faso). Having defeated their arch-nemesis Shredder (François Chau), the turtles now share an apartment with human gal pal April O'Neil (Paige Turco) along with their rodent sensei Splinter (Kevin Clash). However, the return of the evil Foot Clan followed by the abduction of brilliant scientist Professor Jordon Perry (David Warner), prompts the turtles to investigate their own origins involving a canister of a mysterious biochemical ooze. This results not only in the resurrection of Shredder but the unleashing of two new dangerous mutants on New York City.
At the height of the ninja turtle craze in the early Nineties, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) proved a smash hit resulting in a bigger budget for this sequel. However, smarting from accusations of glorifying violence, the filmmakers downplayed the already pretty tepid ninja action this time around. Which is why viewers will notice the turtles do not wield their ninja weapons in a fight but rather slap Foot Clan assassins around with sausage links and the like. Taking over from Steve Barron, new director Michael Pressman - whose eclectic career includes hicksploitation favourite The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1977), kids' film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977), the Michelle Pfeiffer drama To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996) and the semi-autobiographical Frankie and Johnny Are Married (2003) in which he also acted opposite his wife Lisa Chess, though he has stuck mostly to television these days - goes for broader laughs with silly slapstick and cartoon sound effects. Tonally Secret of the Ooze is closer to the Saturday morning cartoon show than the relatively darker original comic books by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, although both were arguably eclipsed by the Archie Comics interpretation which straddled the line between comedy and thrills with greater skill.
Pressman sets the tone with a bizarre prologue where it appears everyone in New York City is chomping on a slice of pizza. Thereafter he abandons all pretense at seriousness for a cheerfully inane cartoon romp, reaching new heights of ridiculousness with the now-legendary sequence in which the turtles gatecrash a performance from faux gangsta novelty rap star Vanilla Ice, fresh off his screen debut Cool as Ice (1991). While Ice performs his ninja rap onstage ("Go ninja, go ninja, go!"), the turtles subdue their enemies by busting moves on the dance-floor whilst David Warner (recipient of the "what's he doing here?!" award for 1991) throws his hands in the air and remarks the whole thing is "rad." It is trash movie gold. Returning screenwriter Todd W. Langen conceives a plot that is sub-Saturday morning cartoon silly offset by the odd winning wisecrack as the turtles re-enact old Three Stooges routines and drop pop culture references to Ralph Nader, Joan Rivers and Oprah Winfrey. Incidentally the turtles made an embarrassing appearance on Oprah's talk show around this time. At least Michaelangelo's Humphrey Bogart impression is mildly amusing.
Each of the turtles seems to embody an aspect of adolescence, whether it is moody Raphael, over-eager Leonardo, geeky Donatello or wisecracking Michaelangelo. Unlike other young superheroes these guys really do behave like teenagers to a tiresome degree. They are hyperactive, squabble incessantly and prone to bad jokes, junk food and foolhardy stunts. Judging how enthusiastically Michaelangelo admires a poster of a swimsuit model and Donatello makes out with a mop (?!), they are also really horny, although with April O'Neil on the scene the filmmakers wisely chose not to explore that avenue. If true then goodness knows how the turtles cope with the pulchritudinous presence of Megan Fox in the Michael Bay-backed reboot of 2014. Paige Turco takes over from Judith Hoag as April O'Neil here and proves a perkier presence despite being relegated to the thankless role of surrogate mom, forever fretting over the turtles and tidying up their mess. Compare this with Sarah Michelle Geller's kick-ass action heroine in the CGI reboot TMNT (2007). Elsewhere the turtle puppets created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (the film opens with a dedication to the then-recently deceased Muppet creator) remain remarkably convincing and mobile throughout the well-choreographed action scenes, although Pressman presents them in as prosaic a way possible and the cartoony costumes of new foes Rahzar (Mark Ginther) and Tokka (Kurt Bryant) - both voiced by prolific voice actor Frank Welker - are more silly than sinister. Similarly the fearsome ninjas of the Foot Clan seem a lot less menacing when unmasked as whiny American teenagers.
Shot by cinematographer Shelly Johnson, who brought his eye for an evocative image to the likes of Sky High (2005), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013), this is at least a good looking romp albeit a reminder of a time when every comic book movie took place on a deserted city street after dark. The turtles returned once again in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993) though by then their position as a children's favourite was usurped by the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Which is a whole other story.