T-U-R-T-L- uh... uhm... Y?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
It's been a while since I last watched the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. movie. As a kid growing up in the 1980s/1990s, I, like so many others, was regularly assaulted by the onslaught of "Turtle Power". You couldn't help it, with the cartoon, the movies, the toys, the video games -- the Turtles were ever present. They were as big as anything, among the most famous and popular superheros for a long span of time. They aren't as popular now, of course, but even still they feel like a permanent feature of pop-culture at this point.
Despite this, though, it has been some time since I last went and watched any of the movies. In my memory, only the first one was actually any good (the second and third being terrible for reasons we'll likely cover as we watch and review those films in the coming weeks), but this first attempt at adapting the classic comics and suddenly very popular cartoon series into a blockbuster feature managed to get a lot right. The film isn't perfect, but for a first attempt and making the Turtles and their story into some kind of feature-length adventure, the 1990 film actually does pretty well. Surprisingly so, honestly.
We open in New York where a mysterious crime wave has befallen the city. People are reporting all kinds of crimes, thefts of all sorts, with little in the way of evidence, or witnesses, to attribute these crimes to anyone. One reporter, April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) of Channel 3 News, has been covering the story (much to the consternation of the mayor), and the stories she's managed to turn up seem to link these crimes to a past crime wave in Japan, attributed to the mysterious Foot Clan. Her reporting, though, puts her in the crosshairs of the Foot, and a pack of ninjas comes after her one night. That might have been the end for April were it not for a shadowy hero of comes and saves her: Raphael.
Raph (voiced by Josh Pais), is one of four brothers -- Brian Tochi voicing Leonardo, Corey Feldman voicing Donatello, and Robbie Rist voicing Michelangelo -- all turtles that were exposed to mutagenic goo back in the day. Grown to human size, with human-level intellects, they, along with their father figure/sensei/rat Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash), have been silent protectors of the city, working from the shadows to help fight crime. After the foot come for April, though, it exposes all the Turtles, and Splinter, to the foot. Splinter is captured, Raph is injured, and the rest off the Turtles only manage to escape, with April, due to newly arrived ally Casey Jones (Elias Koteas). The Turtles will have to regain their strength and untie with their allies to find a way to track down the Foot, save Splinter, and just maybe take on the leader of the Foot, the mysterious Shredder (James Saito).
Going back and watching the film now, it's amazing how watchable the film remains. Admittedly I've watched a lot of shit lately, such as the truly terrible third and fourth Crow films, so anything even passable enjoyable is a huge step up in that regard. Even still, though, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is pretty darn watchable.
It helps that the film invests heavily in treating the Turtles like real characters and not just silly, cartoonish creatures. In comparison to the kid-friendly cartoon, which doesn't have a believable character in it at all, this movie tries to make everyone act like actual people. There are silly moments, but also serious ones, with real emotions and honest stakes, and the film doesn't shy away from being dark and dramatic. It's honest, in a way, which is interesting given that the film is about mutated animals fighting a metal-covered ninja master.
The silliness can be attributed to the fact that these are four teenage characters, so they like to joke, and perform, and get into antics. It does feel natural enough, and in comparison to the cartoon (or the later movies) it's not purposefully kid-friendly. Certainly, having read the comics, it's easy to see how this film could have gone even darker, but the movie tries to strike a tone somewhere between the comics and the cartoon, the grim-dark and the kid-friendly. It might not always succeed (the final battle against all the foot maybe strays a little to far towards the silly) but it does general find the right, light tone in that middle ground.
For fans of the comics, the movie does adapt a major storyline, following the Turtles as they get ejected from the city by the Foot and hide out at April's farmhouse while they heal. Much of the movie, in fact, takes inspiration from the comics, something I noticed even as a kid, and it was a touch I appreciated even then. As a kid, honestly, I always enjoyed the movie more than the cartoon (although I probably wouldn't have been able to put into words why). Now, of course, I know that's because the film tried to be a proper adaptation, treating the material as something worth adapting and not just as some kid-friendly feature to pump out into theaters and keep the tykes entertained for a bland 90 minutes.
Certainly the creature effects helped. Designed and produced by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the turtles look their best in this film (there's a noticeable downgrade to the effects in the sequels). Life-like and well rendered, Jim Henson noted at the time that these were the most sophisticated creature effects he'd ever worked on. The turtles are able to movie their faces while a stunt performer acted (and fought) in the suits, making for very dynamic figures. Eventually you stop thinking of them as creature effects and just view them as actual characters.
And I like the actors, especially Hoag and Koteas. For whatever reason Hoag was replaced in the sequels, with a new actress taking over the role, but I always liked Hoag's spunky and sarcastic performance here. She gives April actual life and substance while also being able to play well opposite four fake creatures. Koteas, meanwhile, is just a great performer in anything I've seen him in, and he gives Casey soul and substance here. I always wondered how he felt knowing that, for an entire generation of movie watchers (and despite everything else he's been in since) he'll always be remembered as Casey Jones.
There is so much to like about this film. It has solid action, great effects, good acting, and plenty of fun. The later films would find it hard to strike that same balance but here, in this first effort, the production team nailed it. Even now, going back and watching the film again, its aged well enough to still be enjoyable. I don't know if all the jokes will work for kids now, but I found myself laughing along with the film and getting invested in the story once again. It's not perfect, but it's one of the best adaptations of the material we've ever gotten.