Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
My childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film. When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon. The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark. This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun. Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.
A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen. Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her. However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side. Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons. At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.
Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here. Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s. This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company. Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms. They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character. Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million. Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail. They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole. Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him. He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.
Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings. He forges the soul of the team. Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic. His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman. Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all. However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude. He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all. He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones. It’s very funny to both of their credits. It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously. The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed. It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors. It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!
Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil. She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it. Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion. Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character. It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here. She does a wonderful job in this role through and through. I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice. She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.
The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones. For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen. As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude. Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan. Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way. He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially. He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over. Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension. By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.
And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect. The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique. The role was the work of two performers. James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities. However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power. The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell. And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.
The action sequences are done remarkably well. All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography. The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original. The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways. It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action. When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness. Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience. It’s stellar and memorable all around. It’s greatly satisfying.
It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is. Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes. Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it. If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here. Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find. It is their film and they carry it. And they carry it with tremendous success. These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.
And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez. These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years. He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation. For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy. Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats. And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes. It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing. While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags. These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance. This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it. Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly. The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters. They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.
Altogether, this is seriously one great movie! I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years. The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities. I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts. I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content. Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema. This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million. That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick. It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation. Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special. And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me. I give it a HUGE recommendation!