The Original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Is Still Amazing

The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is a wonder of practical effects and surprising martial arts action.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990 movie
Photo: New Line Cinema

In 1990 the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the absolute peak of their popularity. With an animated series bringing in millions of viewers entering its third season, the most popular boys’ toy line on the market, breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, video games… the world belonged to the TMNT. Their final frontier was live action, something which seemed more than a little ambitious considering the limitations of special effects technology of the day.

Watching the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie today, over 25 years after its release, and in the wake of two blockbuster movies that are considerably more expensive than the modest $13 million that the original cost, there are a few amazing details worth pointing out.

It’s extraordinarily faithful to the original comics.

So much so that I wrote an entire article about exactly that. Here’s the short version, though.

Despite the fact that the TMNT were winning fans on a daily basis at this point with an animated series and toy line that were both impossible to escape, the movie chose to go back to the original source material for its story inspiration. This may not seem like much of a big deal, but keep in mind that the early black and white TMNT comics were fairly bleak, violent affairs. 

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While the movie Turtles display considerably more regard for human life than their comic book counterparts, they also were able to deploy their martial arts skills a little more effectively than their animated brethren, who were prohibited by TV’s Standards and Practices departments from actually using their weapons in properly offensive ways.

Which brings us to…

It’s surprisingly dark.

The animated Turtles weren’t permitted to use their martial arts skills or their weapons to actually hit anyone. That’s anyone, not anything. The show’s sensible solution was to turn the Foot Clan into robots. The movie stuck to flesh-and-blood (and decidedly non-mutated) adversaries. In fact, the Foot were mostly comprised of teenagers who had fallen under the sway of the Shredder, who runs their hideout like its Pleasure Island in Pinocchio.

Basically, the Turtles are mostly whupping the asses of misguided juvenile delinquents in the movie, although I figure that the ones who were actually bad enough to wear the full Foot Clan uniform were probably fairly hardened criminals by that point.

Director Steve Barron (probably best known for A-Ha’s memorable “Take on Me” live-action/animation hybrid video) and cinematographer John Fenner opted for a grainy, low-budget look for much of the film, while also not shying away from natural daylight and outdoor shots. It couldn’t possibly look less like the hyper-stylized worlds of comic book movie contemporaries Batman or Dick Tracy, or the CGI-assisted blockbuster sheen of the 2014 reboot or its sequel.

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Despite the film’s gritty New York City setting, it was (with a few exceptions) shot on soundstages in North Carolina. It’s a very different New York than what you’ll see if you visit nowadays, particularly April O’Neil’s run down “Bleecker St” residence. I presume the Turtles’ sewer home is a little further east of that, but these days, neither neighborhood remotely resembles the idealized urban wasteland on display in the film.

The Jim Henson Creature Shop Did Spectacular Work

As for the Turtles and Splinter, they are remarkable, brought to life in impressive fashion by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. There were two versions of the suits, “Stunt Turtles” and “Hero Turtles.” The “Hero Turtles” are the ones on display for most of the film, while the “Stunt Turtles” were designed with the film’s Hong Kong stuntmen in mind, who, as Brian Henson recalled “were quite wild – in a good way…they were very good martial artists, even though they were wearing a huge amount of foam rubber on them. But the foam actually acted as padding, so in some ways that worked really well.” ***

It’s true. The fights and stunts in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are genuinely exciting, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they’re mostly being done by guys in 50 pounds of foam rubber. Perhaps the most impressive sequence in the entire film begins with Raphael blowing off some steam on a rooftop before finding himself outnumbered by dozens of Foot Clan members. Until recently (thanks, Netflix!), this little sequence felt as close as we ever came to seeing some of Frank Miller’s Daredevil comic work properly realized on screen, and this calls back to the Turtles’ roots as part Miller/Daredevil pastiche. The brawl then spills over into April’s apartment and the Second Time Around gift shop, and once the other Turtles join the fight, the work of the Henson Creature Shop becomes all the more impressive.

While the Stunt Turtles allow for some authentic Hong Kong action to move the action scenes along, the Hero Turtles, the versions of the suits with the more detailed and expressive animatronic heads are equally important. On my most recent viewing, I was struck by the scene where Raphael wakes up from his coma (a direct result of the beating he received from the Foot Clan) and reconciles with Leonardo, with whom he has had a rocky relationship. The two share a moment of brotherly tenderness and an embrace.

There’s absolutely no reason this scene should work on any level, but it does. You have two actors in 50 pound Turtle suits, two other actors providing their dialogue, and puppeteers in charge of their faces. Compare this scene with the uncomfortably ridiculous scenes in the far more well-regarded Spider-Man (2002), where a fully masked Spider-Man has a rooftop dialogue with a fully-masked Green Goblin. You’ll find that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes off better.

The Action is Terrific

With production company Golden Harvest (famous for bringing all manner of martial arts films, notably many of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan‘s films to the US) on board, there is no shortage of martial arts action. Remember how I said that the Turtles were originally inspired by Frank Miller’s 1980s Daredevil work? Well, the scene with Raphael taking on an army of Foot ninjas on a “West Village” rooftop, if you took the Turtle element out of it, would have fit right into a late ’80s Daredevil movie. That sequence, where Raph gets his shell handed to him is followed by a terrific martial arts/comedy brawl that rolls from the roof, through April’s apartment, and into the antique shop downstairs. You really get to see everything the Turtle suits (and the Hong Kong stuntment inside them) are capable of.

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In fact, if there’s anything disappointing about the action sequences, it’s that by the time we get to the climactic battle with the Shredder, there’s not much left to showcase. Shredder kicks each of their asses in turn, before getting taken out in rather chill fashion by Splinter. But throughout the rest of the movie, whenever you’re watching Turtles somersaulting, cartwheeling, and delivering flying kicks, try not to forget that these are actual stuntmen in suits that weigh 50 pounds (or more once they’re full of sweat) doing the ass-kicking.

You can see some of this on display in the original theatrical trailer:

Considering all of the merchandising issues at play, as well as the fact that the Turtles’ greatest success had come via an all-ages animated series, the dark, grainy look of the film and a surprising amount of violence (the majority of which is still non-lethal) made some executives nervous. Brian Henson recalled how “in post-production, it was pulled together largely without (director) Steve Barron, while editor Sally Menke (who two years later would edit Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, not to mention Pulp FictionJackie BrownKill BillDeath Proof, and Inglorious Basterds), was “asked to leave the project because Golden Harvest didn’t love her editing.” ***

I can’t help but wonder if somewhere, there’s another cut of this movie sitting in a vault.

The rest…

Jim Henson’s son Brian Henson oversaw the construction of the Turtle costumes and the impressive Splinter puppet. Splinter was voiced by master puppeteer (and the man who came to define the impossibly popular Elmo), Kevin Clash. Yes, that’s former Goonie Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello. Blink and you might miss a 21-year-old Sam Rockwell as the “Head Thug” of the Foot Clan.

Oh, and if you can forgive the fact that no New York City resident would even consider ordering a pizza from either of these establishments, you may find this amusing. Pizza Hut didn’t think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a worthy enough franchise for a product placement, so the boys had to order Domino’s to their sewer lair. While the expected product placement from a major pizza chain is, of course, inevitable and inescapable, the idea that four teenagers living in downtown NYC would ever call Domino’s for their pizza needs is, in fact, harder to swallow than the idea that there are mutant turtles living in the sewers in the first place.

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Needless to say, Pizza Hut saw the error of their ways by the time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze rolled around. However, much like chain restaurant pizza, the less said about the sequels to this movie, the better off everyone probably is.

*** I owe a thank you to Andrew Farago’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual Guide for being an invaluable resource in composing this article, which is where I pulled the Brian Henson quote from. The book is gorgeous and absolutely essential for any TMNT fan. It’s available on Amazon. ***