Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

“You are here because the outside world rejects you.  THIS is your family.  I am your father.  I want you all to become full members of the Foot.  There is a new enemy: freaks of nature who interfere with our business.  You are my eyes and ears.  Find them!  Together we will punish these creatures, these… turtles,” says the Shredder, addressing the Foot Clan.

With the impending release of a rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, it’s interesting to look back and realize that the creations of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird (which first appeared 30 years ago) have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I grew up with the classic late 1980s animated series and enjoyed watching it on TV.  I never really got to see the newer animated series from a decade ago, but I did somehow manage to see the animated TV movie Turtles Forever (which featured a crossover with the 1980s Turtles with the 21st century versions).  I was six when the first live action Ninja Turtles film came out in 1990, and I remember how much I enjoyed it.  Roughly five years ago, I found a copy of the comic adaptation of the first movie at Jim Hanley’s Universe in Manhattan (I was surprised to find that the artwork was in black-and-white).  I never did see the sequels on the big screen (thank goodness), but I was fortunate enough to catch a midnight screening of the first Ninja Turtles movie four years ago at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City.  It was a very enjoyable experience, especially being surrounded by fans who were enjoying it as well.

1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles follows a group of giant, talking turtles named Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael as they team up with news reporter April O’Neil and vigilante Casey Jones to take on the mysterious Foot Clan (who’s been responsible for the massive crime wave in New York City) and its leader, the Shredder.  What sets this film apart from its sequels (and what makes it superior) is that it approaches the story seriously with a surprisingly dark tone (not too dark to alienate families and youngsters, but darker than what many had expected).  The source material is treated with respect, and although the film is faithful to the tone of the original Turtles comics, it still has enough hilarious gags and one-liners to show that it (and the Turtles) still have a sense of humor.  Unlike the sequels, you can actually fear for the safety of the Turtles; they’re put in real danger and you can never be sure if they’ll actually survive (there’s also Casey Jones, whose vigilantism adds to the violence and danger).  Shredder and the Foot Clan pose an actual threat to our heroes, and the film could almost function as a commentary on crime in New York City in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  The film also explores the theme of family, showing the distinction between Splinter and the Turtles and Shredder and the Foot Clan.  Splinter makes a great father figure for the Turtles, ensuring that, in addition to their training, the Turtles understand love and respect for one another as a family.  Shredder, on the other hand, is able to recruit teenagers into the Foot Clan by making them believe they are unwanted by their own families and that they will find acceptance and camaraderie within the Foot Clan.

Jim Henson’s Creature Shop did an excellent job with the creation of the costumes (kudos to costume designer John Hay), the animatronics, and the Muppetry work.  The Shredder costume is appropriately menacing and deadly.  The full body suits created for the Turtles were superb.  The screenplay by Bobby Herbeck and Todd W. Langen gives all of the major characters story arcs that are seen to fruition.  The martial arts action and stunt work was stylized and entertaining.  The performances by the cast were quite good, including Judith Hoag as April, Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, and James Saito as the Shredder (Sam Rockwell even pops up in one of his early roles as one of the thugs of the Foot Clan).  The voice cast includes Brian Tochi (as Leonardo), Robbie Rist (as Michelangelo), Corey Feldman (as Donatello), Josh Pais (as Raphael), Kevin Clash (as Splinter), and David McCharen (as the Shredder).  The production design by Roy Forge Smith was amazing (the headquarters of the Foot Clan and the Turtles’ sewer home were most impressive).  John Du Prez contributed a terrific score, and John Fenner’s cinematography matched the dark tone of the film.  The shift in tone for the sequels was surprising, especially since this film grossed $135 million domestically at the box office (which was considered a major accomplishment back then, especially against a $13.5 million budget).  The shift in tone can very likely be attributed to parental complaints involving the level of violence from this film.  What makes this film special is that it isn’t a live action version of the ’80s animated series (which is what the sequels were more like).  Director Steve Barron made a Ninja Turtles film so good that it remains the ONLY good Ninja Turtles film ever made (I’m not too thrilled that Michael Bay produced the upcoming reboot, and my expectations for it are low).  Nevertheless, at least we have one good Ninja Turtles film to enjoy, and for that I’ll exclaim, “Cowabunga!”

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