Judith Hoag - April O'Neil
Elias Koteas - Casey Jones
Michelan Sisti/Robbie Rist (Voice) - Michelangelo
Leif Tilden/Corey Feldman (Voice) - Donatello
David Forman/Brian Tochi (Voice) - Leonardo
Josh Pais - Raphael
Kevin Clash (Voice) - Splinter
James Saito/David McCharen (Voice) - Shredder
Toshishiro Obata/Michael McConnohie (Voice) - Tatsu
Raymond Serra - Chief Sterns
Michael Turney - Danny Pennington
Jay Patterson - Charles Pennington
Genre - Fantasy/Action/Comic Book/Martial Arts
Running Time - 95 Minutes
Every generation has a fad for children. I'm not sure what today's generation would be. Spongebob Squarepants? Avatar: The Last Airbender? Is Pokemon still popular these days? All I know is that while I was growing up, you had many fads to choose from. Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Darkwing Duck, DuckTales, Tale Spin, Saved By The Bell, and even the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers come to mind. But one of the biggest ones that I could remember [because I was a huge fan] was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Even though many remember the Ninja Turtles for their very popular cartoon that lasted from the late-1980s to the early-1990s weekdays and Saturday Mornings. But the characters originated in a very gritty and violent comic book in 1984 that was created by two artists, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Published by Mirage Studios, the comics were in black and white, with the Turtles all wearing red masks and surprisingly killing people and hurting others as their form of justice. The gritty underground comic became a cult hit with comic book readers, to the point that entertainment insiders took notice with led to the famously known cartoon series [which was very tame compared to the comics, yet just as charming and entertaining] and the massive amounts of merchandise that were holiday items for years.
With all this success, it was no surprise that a live-action film was planned. Unlike today, where comic book films are seen as potential blockbuster franchises, making TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES was still considered a huge financial risk. New Line Cinema, the independent company that was once considered "The House that Freddy Built" due to the massively successful A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, won the rights to produce and distribute the film for a 1990 release date [probably due to the company realizing that Freddy Krueger was losing his appeal to mainstream audiences by this point]. With a budget of $13.5 million, New Line hired Jim Henson and his crew at the Creature Shop to construct the live-action Ninja Turtles costumes, which he considered his most advanced creations. With a huge marketing campaign behind the film and its popularity at its peak, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES made over $200 million worldwide during its release, becoming the 9th highest grossing film for 1990. It was also the highest independently made film for a while until THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT beat the record in 1999.
Back when I was nine-years-old, I was so excited about this film. As a huge Shell-Head, seeing live-action Ninja Turtles instantly caught my attention. I saw this film on its opening night and I fell in love with it. I even own the original VHS cassette of this film, which still works today. I honestly hadn't seen this film in many, many years [I've seen the sequel, THE SECRET OF THE OOZE, more times than I have the original], but I bought the DVD a while back and wanted to finally check it out again. Unlike RED SONJA, my feelings for TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES haven't changed all that much. While it's not a perfect film, it's still a major nostalgia trip and an extremely entertaining film that continues to appeal to children and adults.
New York City is seriously dealing with a crime wave that involves teenagers and young adults stealing and vandalizing the city. TV news reporter, April O'Neil (Judith Hoag), is using her air time to reveal the presence of those behind the crimes, The Foot Clan. Her boss (Jay Patterson) doesn't approve of this, due to the Chief of Police (Raymond Serra) wanting her to back off for some strange reason, not knowing his son Danny (Michael Turney) is working with them. After her news reports, April is the target of The Foot Clan, wanting to shut her up. Luckily, she's saved by mysterious heroes who beat down these thugs with exceptional ninja moves. These heroes are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all whom are named after Renaissance artists [Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael]. April is shocked to learn that they all speak intelligently, love pizza, and are proficient in the art of Ninjitsu. April is more shocked to learn that they were taught by Splinter, who happens to be a talking rat.
The Foot Clan learns about April's new relationship with the Turtles, feeding this info to their boss, the evil Shredder (James Saito). Troubled by the fact that the style of fighting the Ninja Turtles performed remind him of his own past, Shredder has the Foot kidnap Splinter and torture him for answers. Wanting revenge, the Turtles, April, and their new vigilante friend, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), attempt to save Splinter and end Shredder's crime wave once and for all.
Even though the film is a bit dated and made to capitalize on the franchise's marketing success, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is still a pleasure to watch 21 years after its release. The characters are colorful and memorable, the action sequences are still pretty impressive, and the simple story still works as well as today as it did all those years ago. And while my adult eyes see the film in a very different way, it still works for me as it does what it's meant to do: entertain audiences and make more bucks for the franchise's revenue.
Even though the cartoon series is what made most Ninja Turtles fans, the film is mostly adapted from the original Mirage Studios comic books. The origin stories for both Splinter, Shredder, and the Turtles [which are two of the film's highlights] are pretty much taken from the comics, as well as the antique store and farm scenes. The only major things taken from the cartoons were the April O'Neil character [she's Baxter Stockman's assistant and a computer analyst in the comics], the catchphrases, and the colors for the Turtles [all red in the comics]. This is obviously why the film feels grittier than what most watched on television, and I think it's works for the better. It allows the younger audience to enjoy the characters they know and love, while giving the adults a darker, mature feel that they can appreciate.
The narrative for TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES isn't the deepest, but it never really tries to be. It's pretty much a simple story of good [Splinter playing Yoda] vs. evil [Shredder playing Darth Vader], with the Ninja Turtles and their friends wanting to stop Shredder and his Foot Clan from causing trouble for the city and corrupting teens who feel alienated and are looking for a sense of family. It's a plot that anyone of any age can understand, and it's done in a way that doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience. There are issues with the plot's simplicity, however. Shredder never really has a master plan, which hurts the narrative a bit. He seems to be training messed up kids to steal and mug people, but what else is there for the Foot Clan? Until the Turtles interfere, they don't have much of a purpose. You would expect a supervillain like Shredder to have goals like destroying New York City, conquering the world, etc. But he just seems content in stealing electronics and appliances to sell them on the black market. It's not like Shredder is a flat villain. It's just that he should have done more to display his evilness. And the fact that he's stopped so easily is pretty disappointing as well. He does return in the sequel, though.
Then again, the film doesn't really focus on much character development besides on the Ninja Turtles. We know Leonardo is the serious one, Donatello is the smart, sarcastic one, Michelangelo is the funny one, and Raphael is the angry one. Each character gets their own scenes to shine, which does make the dramatic scenes at the farm work better than they ought to. Even Splinter is his words of wisdom show him to be wise. But there's not much depth other than that other than some moments where these five characters bond with one another. After all, this film is mainly marketed to children who just want to see talking turtles kicking ass. The depth could have helped the Casey Jones and April O'Neil relationship though. I mean, it doesn't bother me really that they get together pretty easily after some flirtatious arguing, but it feels a bit too easy because the relationship is supposed to happen. But I'm probably looking too much into it as an adult than I probably did when I was younger. And maybe for nostalgic reasons, I'm not too bothered by these things anyway. The film is what it is.
The dialogue is pretty funny and clever at times. We get the usual "Cowabunga" and other surf-speak the Turtles are known for. But moments where Donatello and Casey Jones trade insults alphabetically, to Michelangelo convincing the pizza man why he'll never pay full price for late pizza, and to Michelangelo [again] yelling at the cartoon tortoise on TV to kick the hare's ass in the race give the film a lot of charm and appeal. Sure, some of the pop culture references are very dated [CRITTERS being in theaters, Mike Tyson jokes, and mentions of Jose Canseco and Wayne Gretsky], but they put the film in a place and time that could never be duplicated. Some of the dialogue is offensive, like April's comment to the Foot Soldiers about being late with her Sony payments [Asians can't cut a break], but it made me laugh. The humor is definitely one of the main reasons why TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is still regarded as a movie favorite.
The special effects team at Jim Henson's Creature Shop do a really great job bringing the Turtles to life. Nowadays, these turtles would be in CGI [much like 2007's TMNT sequel]. But I really love old school SFX, even if they are terrible, because I respect the creativity and hard work put into each project. Jim Henson and his team really outdid themselves here. Not only do the Ninja Turtles look close to real as humanly possible, but even their animatronic technology [the latest for its time] for the moving heads are really cool and even sync up well to the voice actors' dialogue. With their facial expressions, it helps give even the more dramatic moments of the film some weight. The fact that I felt bad for these Ninja Turtles as they sulked over Splinter's kidnapping due to how well their face's moved is just amazing, even today. It's also incredible how well the actors wearing the Turtle suits move around, performing moves that I can't do without wearing a heavy suit like that. I'm sure fighting in these suits wasn't easy at all, which makes me respect the cast and crew of this film even more. I applaud the work of those involved with this aspect of the production.
Speaking of the fighting and violence, I'm surprised this got away with a PG rating back in 1990. For a film marketed to kids, this film is more brutal than one would expect. The scene where Raphael gets really battered by the Foot Clan and he's all bruised isn't something I'm sure most parents would let their children sit down to see. People die and there is some blood here. Even Raphael saying "damn" and "bitchin'" every now and then is pretty questionable. I honestly never had an issue with it when I was younger [I grew up on horror films that showed worse things than this film presents], but I'm surprised parents didn't try to boycott this. Even if they did, it obviously didn't work since the film made so much money. I personally love that the film is more violent than one would expect since it reflects the comic book world rather than the cartoon world the sequels would later emulate. It's probably the reason why everyone favors this film the most in the series so far.
The direction by Steve Barron is very good, even though the tone at times is mixed. The film starts out very gritty and then turns a bit juvenile towards the end. But none of it is boring or badly visualized, so I can't complain too much about it. The fight scenes are shot really well. The editing is tight. I loved the grainier and darker look of the flashbacks compared to the more polished and brighter look of the present. I thought Barron handled the various emotional levels of the film very well. The comedic stuff worked just as well as the serious, dramatic scenes. It's just a really nice job overall and it's nice to see Barron treat the film seriously with respect rather than turning it into a parody of itself [I'm looking at you, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III!].
The acting is solid. Judith Hoag looks like April O'Neil and does a great job with the character. She gives April a ton of attitude and street smarts that you would expect from a gritty news reporter. It sucks that Hoag wanted more money, which pretty much got her fired from the sequels. Now that I hated Paige Turco's performances later on, but I always felt Hoag got the character right. Elias Koteas, one of my favorite character actors of all time, is great again as Casey Jones. He gives Jones a ton of personality and humor. He's a definitely highlight here. The actors in the Turtle suits do a wonderful job and the voice acting is great as well. The biggest name is obviously Corey Feldman, which was a big coup at the time, as Donatello. Now, the most interesting cast member happens to be from now-star Sam Rockwell in a small role as the leader of the teens who tells Chief Stern at the end where he can find evidence of the Foot Clan's work. There's also an uncredited cameo by Jason David Frank as April's camera man. Nowadays, he's better known as Tommy Oliver from the Power Rangers franchise. Interesting, but great cast. The fact that they all seem to be enjoying themselves makes their work better, in my opinion.
On a final note, I gotta love the shameless marketing in this film. Domino's Pizza, Burger King, Sony, and a whole bunch of other companies wanted to be a part of this franchise just to get their names out. Who said selling out was a bad thing if it makes you a bunch of cash?
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE PICKING THE PENICILLIN OUT OF MY PIZZA
- April O'Neil picked up a sai Raphael had forget to pick up after saving her from thugs. Looks like a certain pointy weapon is sleeping with mommy tonight...
- Casey Jones uses a Jose Canseco bat. The extra steroids really pack a punch.
- The Turtles' nemesis, The Foot Clan, have the perfect name. For a group that's supposed to be the Turtles' Achilles' Heel, they pretty much stink.
- The Foot Clan lets a bunch of rebellious kids run an underground playground while training some of them as official members. As long as they're not led by some red-headed kid named Malachi, I ain't afraid of these punks.
- Michelangelo thought everyone loves Vanna White. He obviously didn't watch GRADUATION DAY. Ugh...
- "All dads care for their sons." I guess my father was the exception, you stupid rat...
THE FINAL HOWL
After 21 years, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is still beloved by those who can remember the franchise's craze back in the day. As a film, it's not perfect but it's still extremely enjoyable and charming. In fact, I consider it one of the best comic book adaptations of all time. It's a simple story with entertaining characters made by people who actually cared about the product they were presenting, even if it was about making more money mostly. Still, the characters are fun to watch, the costumes are still impressive, and both comic book and cartoon fans will be happy with how faithful the film is to both of them. I may be biased due to nostalgia, but TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES still happens to kick ass after all these years. Don't look too deep into it and just enjoy the half-shell ride. Cowabunga!
3.5 Howls Outta 4