Turtle Power: Why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Holds Up

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Poster

I remember it vividly.

I’m 6. I’m getting out of occupational therapy. My brother, 5, is foaming at the mouth. He just saw a trailer on tv for a real life Ninja Turtles movie. It’s going to be live action, the first time we noticed the difference. The Turtles are going to be real. The next day we watch TV and I see the ad. Wow.

For the next month I’m pure hype. I devour every image I see. Eventually I get the movie storybook filled with pictures. The story sounds perfect to me. It looks great. The poster excites me.

Then it happens. On March 30th, 1990, after school, my pregnant mom takes my brother and I to the theater. We see it. It is everything we hoped for. We see it again a month later. We buy it on video. It’s a childhood favorite.

If that was all I had to say about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), it would be enough to note. The film was important to me growing up, much as a lot of films were. Oliver and Company, Jetsons: The Movie, and DuckTales The Movie were important to me too. But when I’ve returned to them, they lost the key spark they had. Oliver & DuckTales are still fun but they’re not films that I would obsess over as an adult. They’re clearly for kids.

That’s not what happened here though. When I rewatched TMNT in honor of the looming 30th anniversary, I didn’t find what I expected. Instead of a nostalgic favorite, I found an unexpectedly potent film that deserves a lot of respect, especially through two lenses that seem opposite: the polished blockbuster and the grimy exploitation film. Because to a great degree, I feel this film beautifully bridges those two worlds. It’s an exploitation film that pointed the way to what future blockbusters would be.

The facts of the film’s production are fairly simple. It was made independently after the disastrous performance of Masters of the Universe scared studios away from “toyetic” kids movies. It had a turbulent production with director Steve Barron and editor Sally Menke getting the axe in post production. It was released by New Line Cinema, an arthouse/exploitation studio. It would be the highest grossing independent film until The Blair Witch Project.

It tells a simple story too. Reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) crosses paths with the Ninja Turtles while investigating a crimewave sweeping New York. One of them, Raphael (Josh Pais in both suit and voice) saves her from an attack and he rescues her. The situation turns when she has to help take them in after their mentor Splinter (Kevin Clash) is kidnapped and they flee with the help of ex hockey player Casey Jones (Elias Koteas). Eventually of course the TMNT return to the city to bring down the threat of the Foot Clan and their shadowy leader the Shredder (James Saito physical and David McCharen voice.)

Putting aside all other considerations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about as solid a watch as it gets. It’s a fast paced, funny movie heavy on action with superb characters. The film looks great. It’s never boring. I often go back to films I loved growing up and struggle to focus but I found this film to remain entertaining throughout.

Part of that stems from the effects. This film would die if the Turtles were unconvincing but they’re not. They look almost startlingly good after 30 years. These were some of the most complex effects Jim Henson’s company ever worked on. There might be an occasional dodgy shot but they’re so few and far between as to not notice. I especially have to credit the film with the wise decision to use Pais as both suit and voice for primary Turtle Raphael as his body language feels of the voice.

And the fights! It is amazing to me how incredibly well executed the fights were and a lot of credit must go to second unit director/chief puppeteer Brian Henson who knew how to pull off the challenge of good martial arts with these complicated suits. There’s some subtle trickery with the scenes shot at 22/23 fps then projected at 24 but it’s invisible. You watch a Ninja Turtles movie for action and you’re not let down.

I also have to give a lot of credit to the cast. Hoag and Koteas never once betray the reality of the film. Hoag is a refreshingly realistic looking beat down urbanite who delivers every line with wry frustration. Koteas by contrast seems to tap a slightly more comic vibe as the rebellious bad boy who is clearly just having fun the whole time. It’s not a shock he’s the second most familiar actor in this film with a long career as a character actor after. (The most familiar actor is bizarrely the actor who plays Head Thug, a very young but very recognizable Sam Rockwell who’s in it way more than you’d expect.)

It helps that the film feels real through and through. There’s no polish to the thing. Everything is grimy, dirty, and ugly. This is a tactic seemingly lost nowadays but if you give me a lived in world, I can go to greater lengths to accept it. This movie has that in full effect. And it’s oddly great to look at. This world has character dammit.

But what really makes this film stand apart? Let’s go back to that thesis.

I want to first touch on the exploitation angle since that ties to the look of this film. For a movie aimed at kids, I weirdly thought on this viewing about an unlikely figure, namely Lucio Fulci. A few months prior to this film’s release, Fulci’s second movie to use New York as a focus, Murder Rock, was given a slow trickle release in the US as The Demon is Loose. And like this film, it used New York exteriors (though more comprehensively) and another location for interiors.

There’s a real strong vibe that Murder Rock and The New York Ripper share with this movie. New York is a hellscape. Sure, it’s the center of American commerce but it’s a violent, bloody place where you can be attacked on any street. TMNT might not have any rape or gore but it always feels like those are just offscreen. Raphael nearly dies from his attack after all! This is not a safe film.

And to a great degree, it’s a perfect first exploitation film for kids. A lot of that stems from the depiction of the Foot Clan. In this movie they’re a group that lures you in with pizza, soda, and arcade games then asks you to steal for them. Swap out the Chuck E. Cheese paraphernalia for drugs and theft for theft/drug dealing/murder and it’s perfect. It even allows me to overlook how ungodly white they are because this is a suburban kid in 1990’s idea of a gang and the concept of POC was to be blunt about as alien as the Ninja Turtles. This was the era of white flight.

The film’s faults even fit that model. Characters are largely tropes as written. Dialogue is very on the nose. The score is agonizingly cheap and grating. It’s a film very reliant on shorthand. Which makes it fit right in with any number of other martial arts festivals. It’s a film of bluntness, not precision.

But if I’m going to note that this film belongs to a tradition of such works as Fulci, I bizarrely have to put it in another context, that of the modern comic book movie. Because this film somehow fits that megablockbuster model just as well.

For context, let’s examine what comic book movies looked like in 1990. Get Superman The Movie, Batman and Dick Tracy, which were star studded riffs on multimedia franchises and while faithful to degrees were more about the celebrity. The Punisher and Captain America are your guide here. Both of those were direct to video films that really just barely adapted the material. The Punisher was so ineffective as an adaptation it only lifted the name and backstory and put them on a generic action movie that didn’t even include the skull on the chest! Captain America was better but it still was a cheap film that didn’t include one supporting character other than a drastically altered Red Skull.

And that was the decade. Comic book movies in the 1990s rarely felt like much more than very cheap, loose attempts. There were exceptions with Spawn actually doing a very solid job of following the comics and Blade doing an unsung job of doing the same. But the norm was a mute brute Bane in Batman and Robin or a ridiculous Shaq as Steel. You just didn’t respect the source.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an oddity in exactly how much it respects the material. If you read the original comics, it’s very clear writers Todd Langen (who deserves most of the credit as he rewrote the script from scratch) and Bobby Herbeck actually read them. There are big chunks of this film’s plot that are drawn from the early issues. The general structure borrows elements from the overall first arc with the Foot Clan filling the role of the Utroms while sequences like hiding at the farm and Raph fighting with Casey Jones have direct lifts.

And that’s a feat when you consider the big looming other adaptation. The animated series was far better known and cast a huge shadow on the film. So I have to give respect to the film for opting to roll with it rather than avoid it. The film lifts elements like making April a reporter, the colored bandanas, and making the Foot the central threat. A lot of what’s lifted makes for a pragmatic adaptation. April’s role fits easier, the bandanas make them stand apart, and the Foot are cheaper than aliens. But it all keeps the film somehow equally deeply satisfying both the adult me who’s read the comics and 6 year old me who loved the cartoon.

What you have is truly a rare beast in that way. And that’s what makes the film far more akin to The Dark Knight than Masters of the Universe. The film is a hybrid of two disparate versions but it draws the exact right elements of both rather than using the license then delivering a cheap in name only item. If you love the Ninja Turtles, even thirty years later this is still a film filled with moments of joy as a fan. It belongs to Captain America: The First Avenger’s company, not Captain America’s.

Ultimately, what you have is a film that was an important landmark. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pointed the way to the films of 20 years later while loving the films of 20 years before. It’s a nostalgic fave that against all odds is better than you remember.

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