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Dissecting the Classics – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

August 17, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Wide Release Date: March 30th, 1990
Directed By: Steve Barron
Written By: Todd W. Lergen and Bobby Herbeck
Produced By: Simon Fields, David Chan and Kim Dawson
Cinematography By: John Fenner
Edited By: William D. Gordean, Sally Menke and James R. Symons
Music By: John Du Prez
Production Company: Golden Harvest, Limelight Entertainment, 888 Productions, Mirage Enterprises and Northshore Investments
Distributed By: New Line Cinema
Judith Hoag as April O’Neil
Elias Koteas as Casey Jones
James Saito/David McCharen as The Shredder
John Pais as voice of Raphael
Robbie Rist as voice of Michelangelo
Brian Tochi as voice of Leonardo
Corey Feldman as voice of Donatello

What Do We All Know?

In the late 1980s, you’d be hard pressed to find a hotter franchise than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Eastman and Laird’s gritty yet largely satirical comic book series had grown to include one of the most profitable toy lines of all time, a beloved cartoon series, a slew of great video games, and a ton of ancillary merchandise like backpacks, lunch boxes and anything else you can stick the logo on. At the height of their popularity they were almost as ubiquitous as any Marvel or DC superhero brand. Despite some lulls, the franchise has stayed around in one form or another, even surging to popularity again in the early 2010s thanks to a Nickelodeon deal. So in some ways, a TMNT movie was a no brainer.

Despite that, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a hard time getting a distributor. Everyone from Disney to Warner Bros. to eventual owner Paramount turned down the film before New Line Cinema took up what would be the ninth-highest grossing movie of 1990. At the time, it was the biggest independent movie ever, proving to be critic-proof with its target audience. Which definitely included me.

What Went Right?

Adapting this bizarre property into a movie is not an easy prospect, which is why this is still the only genuinely good Turtles movie. (Yes, the second is a guilty pleasure and the 2007 animated one has its moments.) But the screenplay does an admirable job, merging the grittier tone of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s original comics and the goofy tone of the more popular cartoon series. Using the distinctly colored bandanas from the cartoons? Smart choice. Using the more grounded Shredder and Foot Clan from the comics instead of Krang, BeBop and Rocksteady? Also a smart choice. This was the first time the property had really tried to mix those approaches, which has been beneficial to the franchise ever since.

The script does a solid job representing each of the turtles. Leonardo is established as the most mature and disciplined, and the one who helps the team with their spiritual connection to Splinter. Michelangelo stands out as the silliest, most childish one, making him a great kid appeal character. Donatello was better represented in the sequel, but still comes off more literate even if he’s usually playing the straight man to Mikey’s antics. And then there’s Raphael, who really found his personality in this movie as the angry, brooding rebel of the team. The script takes some obvious cues from The Thing and Wolverine and the result is a much more interesting character than “cool but rude”. Finally, Splinter’s personality as the wise and loving father and teacher of the turtles is well-handled and even packs some emotional punch, at least if you’ve got attachment to the property.

But if TMNT isn’t your thing, the one thing you’ve got to admire are the amazing suits created for Splinter and the turtles. Jim Henson and company worked for eighteen months to create these suits, which Henson called the most advanced he’d seen to that point. And while there are occasional moments where something goes wrong, they really are remarkable. The animatronics on the faces give the turtles a ton of nuanced expression, and the suits are light enough to allow for the impressive stunt work. While turtles would later be brought to life through CGI, these suits brought a tactile quality to them that really mattered to me as a kid and still impresses me as an adult.

Lastly, I want to give credit to the film’s structure. At about 90 minutes, this movie has a lot to explain and very little time to waste. It smartly uses April O’Neal’s job as a reporter to give key information early on, establishing the crime wave in New York that the TMNT and Casey Jones will be fighting. It uses Danny as a vehicle to communicate information between parties while letting us know how he obtained information. And Casey Jones has an important role as the adult who can talk some sense into the stray teens. Aside from these smart decisions, the film effectively transitions from cool action scenes to slower character moments, allowing us to bond with the heroes in between all the ninja action.

What Went Wrong?

Honestly, I don’t think I need to dive into this too much. The flaws of the movie are than self-evident; its cinematography is poor, the acting is virtually non-existent, the use of voice actors on Shredder and Tatsu is stupid, the pacing can be a bit slow, the tone is largely inconsistent, and the movie itself is just ridiculous. But for a cheap movie about adolescent reptiles who love pizza, learned ninjutsu from a rat, and fight a human can opener alongside a guy who fights with sporting goods… it’s not bad. If you’re remotely attached to the Turtles, the flaws are barely going to register.

And In Summary…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a great film, but it’s a good one and an admiral adaptation of bizarre source material. Before Guardians of the Galaxy, before The Avengers, before Spider-Man or X-Men, this film took a franchise beloved by children and made it feel genuinely real to them. And while it is somewhat left in the dust by those movies, I think it deserves a tremendous amount of credit for these projects being greenlit. TMNT was a risk, but it paid off huge and landed a permanent place in the psyche of a generation of kids. And it’s solid enough as a movie that I didn’t roll my eyes once when I rewatched.

Cowabunga, turtle-dudes.

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