Looking back at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

They're mean, green and on the screen. Matt takes a look back at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a film that became a 90s phenomenon…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was probably the most important thing in the world to me in the early 90s. More important than school, more important than football, more important than even Ghostbusters.

Pizza became my favourite food, I took karate lessons and I collected everything my pocket money would allow. Birthday and Christmas lists were predictably Turtle-centric and my bedroom was a shrine to the green machine. 

I remember the first time I saw the film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, very clearly. I was getting ready for school when my dad got home from the night shift. He called me into the living room and sat me down in front of the television. The film started to play, with me none the wiser as to what I was watching. Not having much time, my dad asked me if I knew what the film was, questioning whether I had heard the name of the news reporter. 

I had. It was April O’Neil, just like in the Turtles. But no, I had no idea what the film was. 

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Rather than just telling me, he fast forwarded the tape ahead to find something that would help me solve this most puzzling of mysteries.

The Turtles are teased into the film, with an opening fight sequence taking place in the dark, which is a wonderful way to introduce them, but not particularly helpful in these circumstances. Fortunately, by this point I was starting to piece things together. Still, I couldn’t be sure until the action had died down, a sai could be seen, and a telling face peered out from under a manhole at the crime scene. He may just as well have been sneaking a look through the television screen, peeking at my reaction.

Then, it was time to go to school, a torturous day spent telling any and everyone about what I would be watching that evening. I don’t think I have ever been or will ever be that excited again. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was my Star Wars. It was that big to me.

Adapted from the popular comic series and released shortly after the insanely popular cartoon had established itself, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles attacked cinema screens in 1990.

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With New York City in the throes of a puzzling crimewave at the hands of a mysterious Japanese ninja clan, TV journalist April O’Neil finds few allies in her crusade to expose the culprits. With the chief of police more concerned with his image, and her editor bowing to police pressure (due to his wayward son’s arrest for Foot-related theft), April makes herself an enemy and target of the villainous Foot Clan.

Four mutated turtles living in the sewers beneath the city find themselves engaged in their first real combat situation when they spot April being mugged. They manage to stop the muggers and escape unseen.

However, circumstances collude to bring April and the Turtles together again, with Raphael again rescuing April from attackers. She befriends the Turtles, along with their mutant rat sensei, Splinter, and, when their sewer lair is attacked and Splinter is kidnapped by the Foot, she welcomes them into her home.

Leonardo, the leader of the group, clashes with Raphael over their best course of action, while joker Michelangelo and tech-wiz Donatello attempt to stay out of the way.

Eventually, the green gang are hunted down at April’s apartment by the Foot. A huge battle ensues, with Raphael nearly killed and April’s apartment burned to the ground. With the assistance of masked vigilante, Casey Jones, the Turtles and April are able to make their escape and leave the city to recuperate.

After taking time to heal their physical and mental wounds, Leo, Mikey, Don, Raph, April and Casey return to New York to rescue Splinter from the Foot and to take on the leader of the villainous gang, The Shredder.

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Ninja Turtles movies seem to struggle with finding a middle ground between the violent, darker comic book source material and the mega-successful, wacky cartoon series. This first movie strikes the best balance of any of the films, taking its story from the comics and making a few concessions to the younger audience by toning down the violence a touch and slightly lightening the mood.

While I’m no expert on the Ninja Turtles comics (I’m eagerly anticipating the up-coming reissues from publisher IDW), their reputation as ultra-violent and gritty doesn’t seem to be entirely appropriate. There are issues that certainly fit that bill, such as the opening issue and the excellent City at War run, but many of the stories are far more fantastical than you might expect.

In the first few issues, for example, the Turtles are transported into space and have to protect a robot-scientist from the Triceraton army (dinosaur-like warriors armed with laser-guns). So, it’s not all violent scraps with Ninja warriors in an urban cityscape, where defeated foes are offered the opportunity to die with honour and commit sepuku.

In fact, the dark look and mostly serious tone of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles matches that of the source material well. More importantly, they’re very effective in this film. There’s a genuine sense of peril to the main characters, particularly after the near-fatal beating of Raphael by the Foot Ninja. There’s a tension to many of the confrontation scenes, particularly the rooftop showdown between the Turtles and The Shredder. It’s a far cry from the silliness of the cartoon.

That’s not to say that it isn’t very funny at points. Despite having seen the film more times than I can remember, there are jokes that still get a chuckle from me. There’s yet to be a day when you’d struggle to elicit a laugh from me with the line “Ah, a fellow chuk’er, eh?”

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Created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and with involvement from Brian Henson, the Turtle costumes used in this film are excellent. They’re brilliantly detailed (they got the mouths exactly right!) and the faces are surprisingly expressive. The bulky suits do make the Turtles look a little bigger than they, perhaps, should and they place limitations on the fight scenes, but this is a problem that would apply regardless of how good the suits were. The voices that go with those suits are all excellently selected. In particular, Corey Feldman’s nasal tones work well for Donatello.

I’m always struck, when re-watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, by how strong the portrayals of the human characters are. Judith Hoag puts in a wonderful performance as spunky reporter, April O’Neil. Despite relying on the Turtles to come to her rescue on multiple occasions, she never comes across as a victim. It’s a great shame that she never returned to the role and her absence was certainly to the detriment of the series.

My favourite incarnation of Casey Jones features in this film and he’s brought to life by Elias Koteas. Koteas is just great in the role, making Jones a genuinely likeable character without softening him to the point where he loses his edge. It’s to the credit of the filmmakers, too, that Casey is allowed to act a little unhinged, because it would have been easy to turn his crazy right down and make him into nothing more than a bungling sidekick. Here, we get a Casey Jones that genuinely loves beating people up with bats, a Casey Jones who makes a joke of crushing The Shredder to death.

Director Steve Barron (who also directed football comedy, Mike Bassett: England Manager) knows how to introduce a character. The grandest entrance of the film is reserved for the film’s villain, The Shredder. This is typical of the treatment the character gets throughout. Physically imposing, with sparse dialogue, The Shredder is quite a presence and makes for a very worthy adversary to the Ninja Turtles.

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The Shredder’s right-hand man is Tatsu, a gruff-voiced enforcer with a short temper and a permanent scowl. It’s hard to blame him for looking so miserable, as policing the Foot’s warehouse, a manic amusement arcade of a place where obnoxious teenagers can fulfil their every desire (and it seems that what they desire are cigarettes, pinball games and skateboarding ramps), would surely wear on the soul of any man.

Of course, it’s arguably the case that the most heinous villain of the piece is the less than subtle product placement.

The highest grossing of the Turtles cinematic endeavours thus far (look for Platinum Dunes new take on the franchise to break that record when it comes out in a year or two), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles delivered over $200m in worldwide box office from a modest $13.5m budget. It topped the US box office for four weeks. It was exactly the kind of success that guarantees sequels.

Unfortunately, the film’s influence over those sequels was not strong. Perhaps it was eclipsed by the continued success of the cartoon, which was a genuine pop culture phenomenon by this point. Perhaps it was because, despite massive amounts of merchandise being available for the film, no money was made from toys, a market which was very lucrative.

Rumours are that Playmates had declined to make toys for the film due to its violent content and dark tone. Either way, the sequels were much lighter, sillier films, albeit films that were merchandised with a rather snazzy line of ‘Movie Star’ Turtle toys (which were rubbery and, if memory serves me correctly, terrific fun, even if the back of my Raphael’s headband did break off. No amount of superglue was able to keep something so fiddly attached to an action figure who saw so much combat).

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Of the original trilogy of films and the first cartoon series, this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film is the one that holds up best. A quality film that’s worthy of the nostalgia-fuelled praise it generates from aging enthusiasts such as myself.

Come back tomorrow, when we revisit  the second film in the series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.