*In preparation for the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie that will be released on August 8th, I’m republishing an updated edition on my retrospective on the the TMNT film from 1990. New photos and a new segment have been added. Hope you all enjoy!*
I was 5 years old in 1990. I grew up with a plethora of action related cartoons during that time. Thundercats, GI Joe, He-Man, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As a child you obviously imagine what would it be like if your favorite characters were real, and it’s always a big deal if you could see them on the big screen. The Transformers had been released as a film in 1986, yet as an animated film. Which basically is just an extended tv episode. He-Man had a live action movie “Masters Of The Universe” in 1987. However since that franchise is a fantasy related one, it just shows you a realm you have never seen before. Yet in 1990, at five years of age, my parents took me to the movies and I had my verisimilitude moment, my Superman moment, my “believe a man can fly” moment.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came onto the scene in the wave of popularity of its counterpart, the 1987 animated series. The original comic books by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had been popular with readers, yet the cartoon series sent the franchise into a level of unprecedented popularity. It was only a matter of time before a feature film would be created. Unlike Transformers however this would be a live action film as certainly noted on the films tagline on its poster “Hey dude, this is no cartoon!”
Coming out a year after the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, I would think that the films producers wanted to capitalize on the growing interest in comic book movies. This one stands out in retrospect as one of the best in the genre and I can explain how.
1. It has a concept based in a real-world
I know. You ask how does 4 mutant turtles and a rat fit into a real-world? It does because when the turtles Master Splinter recounts the story of their origin to reporter April O’Neil, you see that the 5 of them came into contact with a green ooze from a broken canister. We as the viewers do not know about the ooze or where it came from, but you suspend that for a moment because who knows what is in the sewers of any of our large cities. Especially one such as New York that has many corporations and companies, many of them scientific. Since the movie didn’t tell you what to think, you don’t think about it. By time the sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze
is released we will know about where the ooze came from. The comics and the various television series introduce aliens and other dimensions that would be difficult to adapt to screen or just may be too much to make it stand out.
2. It’s main characters may not be normal, but they are not superhuman.
Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael are in fact mutants. 6 foot tall turtles are not something common. At least as far as we know. Yet, the 4 heroes are for all intents and purposes, human. They don’t have special powers like Superman or various other. Just humanoid turtles trained in the arts and ways of the ninja. They use their weapons to defend themselves and others. They take hits, get hurt, they win some and lose some. Half way through the movie they are outnumbered by the Foot Clan in April’s apartment and are forced to retreat. Not because of some secret weapon the enemy has as a trump card. Yet simply because they were not ready for the threat they faced. Upon their first meeting with The Shredder, the four are handled swiftly by the ninja master and only Leonardo manages to cut him on the arm with his sword. It’s when Splinter arrives to come to their rescue that they triumph in the end. The movie does not have a single thing come easy for the protagonists including the ending and that’s always a great thing to see, especially in a movie based on a comic book.
3. Personality Explanation
In relation to the previous point, our heroes are human in nature, just turtle by biology. You have Michelangelo and Donatello, who for the most part are happy in their skins and relate to each other the best even though they share vastly different interests. Donny being the engineer and Mikey the fun lover. You have Leonardo who takes on the leadership role and accepts the responsibility of protecting his brothers and understanding of who they are and that the world may not be ready for them. Then there is Raphael, the passion of the group. He is anger prone and carries tons of angst over being the only ones like them. Splinter tells him in a personal talk that he is unique because he tries to face his demons alone. Mikey and Donny relate to each other, Leo goes to Splinter for advice. Raph feels alone, until he meets Casey Jones, who follows the same vigilante style that he tends to adopt. The movie shows how they handle loss, when Splinter is kidnapped and when Raph is beaten up and thrown through the roof. It also shows us how the most calm of us can be brought to the breaking point when Leonardo, who is generally level headed charges Shredder after he taunts them that Splinter is dead. Now, firey Raphael is the one who falls back and takes charge by leading in example by tossing his weapons aside. A great moment of character development. Every story should have character depth. But when it’s in a movie based on a comic, it makes it even more fun to see.
4. The Importance of Fathers
The kidnapping of Splinter is what drives the story forward in this movie, but it also underlines something much bigger. The role that fathers play here is something I never picked up on as a child but as an adult adds another layer of depth here. We already see the relationship between the turtles and Splinter. We see how he mentors them and advises them, on how to keep to the shadows. He teaches them “even those who would be our allies would not understand.” Reminds me of the what my father teaches me even now. He always says how he trusts me, but not everyone else. Then we see April’s boss Charles and his son Danny. They have a fractured relationship that leads to Danny running away and joining the Shredder’s clan. Here we have a man who is manipulating young minds who want guidance and a father-figure into doing his bidding. I must say, for a movie that was probably meant to be a cash-in for a popular cartoon, I appreciate seeing this theme run throughout the picture.
And if I can add one more thing, Jim Henson is truly one of America’s great artists. The work his team did in making the turtles real is amazing plain and simple. This could have been a disaster for the film if the turtles looked blocky and couldn’t move to perform the fighting moves needed. The great move by the production team that still stands up well over 20 years later. The real star of the film.
There have been plenty of good comic book movies as of late, but this really is a well done adaptation that knew how to bridge both the family friendly cartoon and the mature comics into something that pleased all. I feel this stands the test of time, (1990s surfer slang notwithstanding) mainly because as a child I saw the cartoon in live-action where as an adult I see the original comics brought to life.
I hope I made some good points in describing why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles should get more recognition as a well done comic book movie. Hopefully as the franchise reaches a new generation they see this first film and see that this blends both the comic and the tv series well and that’s the way these types of movies should be. Be true to the source material while, managing to bring in a new audience.