Movies We Love: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

You believe this guy? Come on! Ninja kick the damn rabbit! Do something.


New York City is stricken with a crime wave that seems to almost be paralyzing the city. No one is quite sure where it came from, though there are rumors it has something to do with a syndicate of ninja thieves with origins in Japan. Citizens live in fear and hope seems to be in short supply. However, unbeknownst to anyone, a new group of vigilantes has come out of hiding to confront the growing threat: four giant, mutated turtles trained in the art of Ninjutsu and their master, a similarly mutated rat (with an interesting appreciation for the Italian Renaissance). Along with April O’Neil, a news reporter, and Casey Jones, another vigilante donning a hockey mask, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Splinter must uncover the origins of, and ultimately destroy, the secretive Foot Clan and their mysterious leader, the Shredder.

Why We Love It

Not before, not since, and, I imagine, never again, will a film come into my life the way Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did. It’s a rare treat for a film to be released at a moment when it will resonate meaningfully. Even rarer is a film that is released at exactly the perfect moment, when “something” becomes “everything,” and simple appreciation makes way for zealous obsession. I was six years old in 1990 when it was released, and to this day, I’ve never wanted to be anything, yearned to be anything, more than I wanted to be a ninja turtle. I made nunchucks out of socks, taped my fingers together to give myself a more authentic look, broke countless pieces of furniture swinging a broomstick around like a bo, and took karate lessons for the sole purpose of defeating the Foot. I had the turtle van, the turtle blimp, the turtle cycle, and the pizza shooter. I even had the technodrome! There was no limit to my turtle craze, and I owe it all to this little independent film based on a comic series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

The core of this film, in my opinion, and what makes it stand out from, say, the second, third, and CGI films in the franchise is how the source material is handled. I don’t necessarily mean the storylines from the comics or how the characters are designed. For me, the secret to success is how seriously the material was taken. That may sound silly since I’m talking about a movie with giant talking animals (trained in martial arts, no less), a villain named “The Shredder,” and jokes about everything from Jose Canseco to Wheel of Fortune. But one simply needs to watch a few episodes of the original animated series to see what I mean. There was also a subtle shift in tone in the films after the first, with the second taking a more comic approach before the third one pretty much flew off the damn rails. I understand that as the Turtles grew in popularity, they were molded more and more to fit with their main audience, but there were a few things lost in the shuffle. The first film was definitely light, and the tone never strayed too far down a darker road, but it never felt cartoonish. They more or less nailed the spirit of the comics.

Even today, the look of the turtles and Splinter is pretty good. That’s not really surprising considering they were done by the Jim Henson Company. The foam rubber suits that the actors wore seem to have been designed really well, with plenty of maneuverability for both high flying ninja skills as well as adequate facial expressions. I can’t imagine they were comfortable though, and I bet it was hot as hell in there. Their discomfort was our gain, of course, because we got some pretty impressive physical acting that brought the turtles to life. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those suits to wear around the house on the weekends. Beyond the turtles, the acting was mostly hit, with only a little miss. Judith Hoag did a great job as April O’Neil, with a performance that is still the best April we’ve seen in any medium. The same can be said for Christopher Meloni Elias Koteas in his depiction of Casey Jones. Koteas’ portrayal will always be my default when I think of Casey. He had the perfect look and the perfect attitude. No one else has even come close.

Let me take a moment to talk about the Shredder. Every hero needs a villain, and any superhero story without a strong, interesting villain suffers horribly as a result. Out of the television shows and the films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the only one to get this right. The Shredder is presented fairly menacingly, and we believe, from the moment we meet him, that he is truly a dangerous foe. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t played as seriously in the second movie (Super Shredder? What the fuck?), and he was downright comic relief in the original television series. The final battle between the turtles and the Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was excellent, showing that the turtles had met their match in a powerful opposite who surpassed their abilities. True, his demise may have been a bit contrived, but who can argue with Master Splinter being the biggest badass of them all?

Moment We Fell In Love

I could lie to you and say that the moment I fell in love with this movie was the sequence at the beginning when the turtles save April from a few thugs and Raph loses his sai. I could say it was when Raph fights Casey Jones for the first time or when the turtles eat pizza (after some fancy sword work from Leo) and do a little dancing. I could even say it was the fight in April’s apartment or the time the turtles spent on the farm. I could say a lot of things, but that would be my twenty-six year old brain talking. Want to know when I fell in love as a six year old? Six words: God, I love being a turtle.

Cliché? Perhaps. But Michelangelo was always my favorite, and I have a sneaking suspicion that line is why. Cowabunga!

Final Thoughts

What can I say about the ninja turtles that hasn’t already been said? The franchise has become a juggernaut, spawning countless toys, comics, four films, and numerous television shows. Hell, there was even live rock music tour. You guys remember that? Coming Out of Their Shells? I had the cassette tape from Pizza Hut and wore the damn thing out. In fact, I can still remember the lyrics to many of those crazy songs (if someone knows how I can get a copy, let me know). Suffice it to say, the turtles are a global success. However, nothing has come as close to the spirit—and badassery—of the comics as the first live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I know people are tired of hearing “reboot,” but I would honestly love to see an updated Turtles film that stuck as close to the comics as possible and featured a dark, gritty, and violent universe.

Christopher Nolan?

I joke but don’t act like you wouldn’t poop yourself with excitement.

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