Welcome back to 40 for 40, my list of the 40 best films that helped make me who I am on the way towards my big, bad birthday of 4-0.
This week, it’s number 39 and a sentimental favourite from my youth.
Is it a cinematic masterpiece? Maybe, maybe not. But in many technical aspects, this latest entry helped paved the way for the fantasy / comic book films to come.
Plus, it’s totally awesome… and radical… and bodacious…
#39. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas. Directed by Steve Barron.
Let me set the stage.
It was the late 80s. As a kid, I came home from school one day to watch the afternoon cartoons, expecting to see a repeat of either Masters of the Universe or Transformers. But instead, this other odd show came on. It had talking turtles who carried ninja weapons and spoke like surfer dudes. They ate pizza with their TV reporter friend and their rat sensei gave advice on how to defeat another oddly-dressed ninja with razor-sharp gauntlets, who seemed to be working with a rhino, a warthog and some disembodied brain.
Five minutes into this show and I was confused. Five minutes later, I was hooked, and my lifelong love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began.
At school, I soon heard about the original, black-and-white comics from the other kids. A friend’s older brother had a bunch, and after borrowing a few issues, I read them cover-to-cover and learned how the earliest versions of the Turtles weren’t exactly kid-friendly.
But I didn’t care. If anything, it made me love them even more.
Soon after, my TMNT obsession reached fever pitch when news of a movie made the rounds. A real, live action movie, and the Turtles themselves were going to be created by Jim Henson, the man who’d given my even younger self the magic of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock.
Needless to say, I was over the moon. I even remember watching the early morning music video show one Saturday to catch a glimpse of the video for Spin That Wheel – knowing that the TMNT would appear and give me my first look at the live action suits. To me, they were perfect and I could already tell I was going to love this movie.
When the movie came out, I actually saw it three times in the theatre and it truly was everything I hoped for and more. And to say I watched it dozens more times (by means of video rental and eventually recording it off TV) is a major understatement.
But as the years passed, high school and early adulthood beckoned, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became somewhat of a memory. It soon became just a movie they once made about my favourite childhood franchise, remembered fondly with a sense of nostalgia.
Then DVDs became a thing, and all of a sudden, movies and TV shows of yesteryear returned to department store shelves on a new, long-lasting format that wouldn’t deteriorate like the fickle nature of VHS. And so when I purchased a DVD player, you better believe this movie was one of the first I bought, and even today (with an upgraded Blu-Ray copy) it remains an all-time personal favourite.
But why exactly is this move so good? For one thing, it’s the respect it has for its source material.
Nowadays, comic book movies are commonplace, with multiple films released each year. But back in 1990, all we really had was a decade-old Superman: The Movie (and its sequels) and Tim Burton’s Batman.
Batman showed the world that movie audiences were ready for a darker, more comic-faithful version of the Caped Crusader, rather than continuing to perpetuate the image of Adam West’s campy show from the sixties. Likewise, it seemed the people in charge of bringing the TMNT to the silver screen were thinking the same thing, opting to adapt the storylines and tone of the original comics rather than the childlike nature of the (albeit) successful TV show.
And it worked.
For a film whose main characters are fantastical in nature, the setting of the movie is actually quite grounded. The Turtles live in (or rather, beneath) a New York overrun with crime and urban decay; a mistrustful city reeling from the aftermath of Wall Street’s Black Monday. So what better time to introduce the idea of a secret criminal element preying on disillusioned youth?
Also, with New Yorkers famous for having “seen everything”, this allows the movie to give itself a pass when it comes to certain outlandish elements. (The cab driver’s response to seeing Raphael roll over his hood – “Sorta looked like a big turtle… in a trenchcoat…” and Casey’s “um… okay…” reaction to first seeing Splinter come to mind.)
The darker tone carries through to other aspects of the film as well. Gone are the corniest parts of the cartoon – the gadgets, the goofy aliens, the obligatory fourth wall breaking for yucks – all replaced with an earnest and subtle intensity. Raphael’s sullen-yet-hot-headed nature is brought to the forefront of the story, as is the vicious nature of Splinter’s past with the Shredder (which again, like the comics, isn’t appropriate for small children).
However, the movie is not devoid of laughs. No Turtles story would be complete without some madcap humour, and while this movie certainly takes its source material seriously, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, with many comedic moments stemming from the characters and the absurd situations they find themselves in.
Michaelangelo (yes, I know it should be Michelangelo, but at the time, the creators didn’t) is his classic, light-hearted self, although in this movie, he’s much more the naive little brother as opposed to the Ridgemont High or Bill & Ted surfer dude from the cartoon. He’s a goof, a prankster, and his love of pizza is ever present, yet when things turn sour for our heroes, we get to witness a concerned, frightened-by-life side of Mikey rarely seen with the character. But true to form, Michaelangelo’s charm shines through. His back-and-forth with the Foot soldier over their nunchuku skills is a highlight of the film, and of course, who can forget his personal take on Tequila with Donatello?
Oddly enough, while Donnie’s role in the canon had never really been a comedic one, (he’s the brains of the operation) in this film, he’s Mikey’s partner-in-crime, a switch-up that really works. Repairing a truck while trading insults with Casey Jones, the claustrophobic mix-up (also with Casey), nervously warning the invading Foot soldiers about structural integrity, and his ‘Kodak Moment’ are some of Donnie’s best scenes.
Leonardo is depicted closer to his usual self. Leader of the group and his father’s most dedicated student, Leo is often overlooked by fans as ‘the boring one’. But his role in this film goes a step further when he is tasked with being the surrogate father to his brothers after Splinter goes missing. The Leo/Raph relationship has always been a parallel to the X-Men’s Cyclops/Wolverine dynamic, but while the latter stems from a love triangle with Jean Grey, Leo and Raph often find themselves at odds for a multitude of reasons. In this version, we are treated to both the lowest of lows and highest of highs of their rivalry. Their reconciliation after Raph wakes from his coma is genuinely heart-warming, especially when you remember you’re watching actors in rubber suits.
Speaking of Raphael, this is his movie. From the beginning, we watch through his point of view. While his brothers are elated at winning their first major skirmish, Raph laments the loss of his sai. His short temper and boiling rage is a far cry from the sarcastic joker of the cartoon show. But forget the cartoon, this is classic Raphael, the brooding, angry Ninja Turtle, frustrated at being the only one of his brothers who understands they truly are freaks of nature. One of the most haunting moments of the movie is when the Turtles come home to find Splinter missing, and Raphael emits a guttural cry of anguish that made several parents wonder if they’d bought tickets to the wrong movie.
Raph also has the best character growth in the movie. Early on, he believes he knows best, he doesn’t need anyone else to get the job done. Leo especially. But after he’s ambushed and almost killed by the Foot (which ironically, happened to Leo in the comics) he awakens a changed man, sorry… turtle. Post-coma Raph is seen engaging with his brothers more often. He’s calmer, more calculating and ultimately happier, due to his peace with Leo and also partly thanks to his newfound human friends.
Casey Jones was a one-note, Dirty Harry caricature in the cartoon. But in the comics, he’s just as important as April or even Splinter. Thankfully, comic book Casey is on full display in this adaptation, played to perfection by Elias Koteas. His introduction in Central Park versus Raph showcases his fiery-yet-funny nature, and while Casey may have his own idea of justice, his heart is always in the right place, as shown when he comes to rescue “his little green pal” when the Foot run rampage in April’s apartment. Finally, the Moonlighting-styled will-they-won’t-they romance with April rounds out his character to reveal a man who can battle criminals with hockey sticks and verbally spar with fired TV reporters using terrible faux pas.
April O’Neil also has more to do in this movie than be the typical damsel-in-distress. Yes, she’s still a reporter like on the TV show as opposed to a lab assistant in the comics, but that’s where her cartoon comparisons end. Haunted by the death of her father, her life seems quite empty until she runs across her new mutant friends. She’s smart, she’s feisty, more than capable and even the sub-plot with her boss (and his son, Danny) is interesting. It’s a real shame Judith Hoag didn’t stick around for another shot at April, but considering what the sequels became, I can’t blame her.
Splinter is… well, he’s Splinter. The character was never really much more than the typical eastern mentor/father figure, the rodent version of Master Po from Kung Fu. Unfortunately, while the technical marvels of bringing him to the screen are amazing (he’s essentially a big, three-person puppet), Splinter is probably the weakest character in the film. His comic book origin is used in this movie, which I admit, really stretches the suspension of disbelief. I mean, a regular rat who watches his owner train is somehow capable of learning ninjitsu? Um… okay, sure.
It’s not the easiest pill to swallow, but at this point, whatever… just go with it. But to be fair, besides introducing the Turtles’ signature catchphrase of Cowabunga (although Cookie Monster used it before them) another truly compelling part of Splinter’s origin comes from his distant connection to the Shredder, who I still consider one of the greatest comic book villains of all time.
Oroku Saki in this movie is menacing, terrifying and downright evil. His motivations beyond making the Foot Clan a dominant criminal empire are unknown, and that’s what makes him all the more frightening. Unlike the buffoonish cartoon version, this Shredder is brutal, unforgiving, and most all, the out-and-out most skilled ninja there is. He easily defeats all four Turtles at once, and only through sheer arrogance does he allow himself to be beaten by Splinter’s slight-of-hand (and Casey’s hilariously-glib readiness to commit murder). Like the Turtles (besides Raph, who was voiced by the same actor inside the suit) Shredder is a mixture of live-action performer and dubbed voice, but both come together to create a memorable and chilling nemesis for our good guys.
Another major reason why I find this movie entertaining is the action. It’s great. I mentioned the battle with Shredder in the finale, but equally as good is the Foot attack on April’s apartment and the ruckus in the streets upon the Turtles return to New York (after a layover in a farmhouse that now seems eerily similar to Hawkeye’s in Avengers: Age of Ultron).
One reason the fight scenes in this movie are so good comes down to their practicality. No CGI or motion-capture in this one. Nope, this was as ‘real’ as it gets; skilled stunt guys in elaborate costumes performing choreographed fight scenes Jackie Chan would be proud of. The animatronic suits that brought the Turtles to life could only ever have been created by the late-great Jim Henson, and while some of the voice sync isn’t perfect, give me rubber suits with radio controlled facial movements over the abominations seen in the modern-day TMNT disasters any day.
Finally, this movie is so well-balanced, Thanos would be proud. It’s funny when it needs to be, yet also dark and serious when warranted. It’s music is a nice mix of songs from the time, as well as a score that sounds like a cross between an epic samurai film and the Synth themes of John Carpenter.
Most importantly, like all comic book adaptations should be, it’s fun.
So whether you’re awesome, bodacious, Bossa Nova (Chevy Nova?) or simply excellent, this movie stands the test of time and easily makes my 40 for 40 list, because as Mikey likes to remind us, deep down, we all love being a Turtle.
Rating: 4 out of 5 pizzas without anchovies.
Favourite Moment: Raphael meets Casey Jones.
Honourable Mention: “Oops…”
Next week: #38 – “But, Freddy… your plan is the plan of a boy…”