Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Dir. by Steve Barron
Starring Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas and Josh Pais
While investigating a series of mysterious crimes, TV news reporter April O’Neil is saved from a mugging by the Ninja Turtles, a group of four anthropomorphic reptiles trained in ninjitsu by their rat master, Splinter. When Splinter is kidnapped by the forces of the Foot clan of ninjas, who are behind the crime wave, the Turtles take refuge with O’Neil. The five of them, plus masked vigilante Casey Jones, must locate the Foot’s secret hideout, rescue Splinter, and put an end to the criminal empire.
I was a huge fan of the animated Ninja Turtles series (and the arcade game – the less said about the original NES game, the better), so of course I saw this in theaters as soon as my parents would take me. It ended up being the last movie I saw in America before we moved to England, about two weeks later. I had a TMNT version of one of those storybooks with the cassette tape that came with it, and I would listen to it on repeat while going to bed for like the first six months we were in England.
If you didn’t grow up in the United States in the late 1980s, you might not realize what a huge deal the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were. The characters had been created as a parody of Frank Miller’s dark and gritty take on Daredevil in the mid-80s, but hadn’t really taken off until a syndicated Saturday morning cartoon debuted in 1987. It toned down a lot of the comic’s rough edges to be more kid-friendly, and was one of the biggest hits of its time, running for 10 seasons and almost 200 episodes. It also, of course, sold many an action figure, lunchbox, breakfast cereal and video game.
It was a foregone conclusion that they’d attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the franchise with a movie release. However, they made the odd (in retrospect) decisions to A) do a movie about anthropomorphic animals in live-action, in the pre-CG era, and B ) to make it an adaptation of the original comic books, ignoring most of what had made the cartoon so popular in the first place. In fact, the first of these proved to be so problematic that virtually no movie studio wanted to touch it with a ten-foot-pole, even with the guaranteed fanbase from the cartoon. Eventually, the Henson Company stepped in, with Jim Henson seeing it as a personal challenge to create something that would look good on-screen. He not only succeeded, but ended up creating the foundation upon which all future animatronic characters would be based.
So we have a low-budget movie that ignored most of what made its content popular, with untested and experimental special effects, being released by an independent studio (New Line) that was known mostly for art house movies and cheap B-horror. Why, then, was it such a massive hit, and is still a beloved nostalgia film for so many people?
For me, I think it’s the very fact that it wasn’t the cartoon version of the Turtles. I don’t think the Turtles as portrayed on the show would have worked in live-action. The show is really silly, and very much operates on cartoon logic. They kept some of the more distinctive elements of the show (Mikey’s immaturity, the colored headbands, “Cowabunga”) but otherwise tried to ground as much of the movie in reality as six-foot-tall turtles named after Renaissance artists would allow. No aliens, no mutating goons, no mad scientists, no Turtle battle wagons. Just a modern-day Fagin who takes in angry young men (I don’t think we see any female Foot members, though I may be wrong) and turns them into a personal army. Twenty-five years later and Shredder would have had a Youtube channel and a Parler account.
The fights in the movie are also very appropriate for the ages of both the protagonists and their Foot clan opponents, all of whom would be in their teens or early twenties. The movie begins with the Turtles’ first real mission, so they’re all still quite new at the hero thing and haven’t ever really been in a live fight with people who intend to hurt them before. And the Foot “ninjas” can’t have had more than a year or two of training themselves, given their age and the recency of the crime wave. It helps to make the awkward fighting of the Turtles (whose actors had limited movement and sight because of the costumes) more sensible, and also explains away a lot of the sillier bits of the fights (the dunking in a fish tank, the nunchuck contest, etc): they’re ALL immature and trying to show off.
Now, one thing I don’t really buy as an adult is the relationship between April and Casey Jones. He’s kind of an asshole to her for most of the movie, breaking her firing to her in maybe the worst way possible, and running off a whole string of potential condescending and sexist nicknames for her, asking her to choose one. Sure, he saves her life, and helps her and the Turtles out when they’re hiding at her farm. But I can’t see how they go from screaming at each other and slamming doors (one of the Turtles even compares it to Moonlighting) to kissing by the end of the film.
There’s also a current of Yellow Peril inherent to a lot of the scenes involving Shredder and his second-in-command, Tatsu. They’re the only actual Japanese people in the movie (Splinter, despite being a Japanese rat, is voiced by, of all people, Kevin Clash of Sesame Street fame), and neither have any redeeming features at all. Tatsu nearly beats one of his own students to death (and does kill him in the script) for letting the Turtles escape, and Shredder is literally covered in knives. April O’Neil even makes a fairly racist joke when first encountering the Foot ninjas, asking whether they were sent by Sony to collect on late TV payments. However, it’s not a huge focal point of the movie (both Shredder and Tatsu probably have a grand total of fifteen minutes of screen time between the two), and it definitely wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. But it’s certainly something I noticed a lot more now than I did back then.
TMNT is definitely a flawed film. It doesn’t actually have that much to do with the franchise that people were expecting; the animatronics, though groundbreaking, definitely didn’t help the staging of the action at all; and there’s some dubious romance and racial aspects that distract from the whole. However, it’s probably the best movie possible given the budget and the state of Hollywood special effects at the time. It’s quite telling that Michael Bay-produced reboot, for all of the might of 2010s CG and blockbuster budget, couldn’t actually improve on the Turtles from 1990. I don’t know if the movie would hold any appeal at all for someone who didn’t grow up with it, but for those who did it’s a nice nostalgia bomb to revisit from time to time.
-The Foot clan member who shows the new recruit Danny around their very-late-80s hangout, with video games, skateboard ramps, and bootleg cigarettes, is none other than Sam Rockwell! I had absolutely no idea he was in this, but managed to recognize him immediately this time around.
-The joke about Casey Jones using a signed Jose Canseco baseball bat as a weapon plays a lot differently now than did back then, given his association with the steroids scandal.