Thirty years later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles holds up. The film is an earnest, hopeful, action-adventure, centered by four brothers coming of age while battling Shredder and his nefarious Foot Clan (no, they’re not a club for funky pediatrists, but a straight rip-off/homage to Frank Miller’s Daredevil ninjas known as The Hand). The concept was born out of a laugh, but when the giggles faded, a titanic franchise stood, and while many movies and cartoons have followed in its gargantuan wake, none can compare to the 1990 original.
How can such a movie work so well? How did the proposal make it past the first door slam?
A couple of buddies were joking about a roadside turtle strong enough to kick a bus into a tailspin. The image tickled their fancy, and days later, one buddy mutated the turtle into a ninja via a pen and ink sketch. The other friend took a stab with his own design. The friends, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman loved each others’ dumb jokes a little too much, taking these scribbles to heart and forcing them into a forty-page comic book with a print run of three thousand in 1984. The comic was an instant success; four years later, it was already selling for two-hundred dollars, and today you can find copies floating on eBay for nearly $80,000.
From the comic, came the cartoon, the toys, and the inevitable film. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles received mostly ridicule from the suits who guarded the money, but for those that saw the potential behind the funky title, a mountain of cash awaited. Gary Propper, who was the road manager for the comedian Gallagher, got his hands on the comic book and sensed the cinematic possibilities of the title. Propper took the idea to producer Kim Dawson, and he brought on Bobby Herbeck to concoct a story. Together, they approached Golden Harvest, the studio behind most of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s films.
What began as a six million dollar venture quickly escalated into a thirteen and a half million dollar risk. Director Steve Barron made his bones shooting music videos, and he’s responsible for several iconic early works of the medium, including A-ha’s “Take on Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Previously, he shot the pilot episode for Jim Henson‘s The Storyteller, which encouraged the master puppeteer to lend his expertise toward the film’s crucial animatronic artistry despite his objections to the violent nature of the screenplay.
Barron needed a cinematographer who understood how to shoot foam rubber suits as if they were skin, so he hired his Storyteller DP John Fenner (who also went on to shoot The Muppet Christmas Carol and The Borrowers). Both Barron and Fenner were not interested in making a cartoon; they were looking to replicate the dark, black and white, outlaw feel from Eastman and Laird’s comics. As such, Barron also threw out the initial screenplay approved by Golden Harvest and hired Todd W. Langen to reintegrate as much of the book’s plot points as possible.
All movies are a team effort, but when you dig deeper down the line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you discover a bevy of notable creatives. While the majority of the film was shot on sets in North Carolina, production designer Roy Forge Smith (Jabberwock, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Art Director Gary Wissner (Wyatt Earp, Seven) busted their humps to bring New York City to the forefront, constructing massive sewer sets, warehouses, and rooftop battles on the Carolco backlot. Two years before she first partnered with Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs, editor Sally Menke cut her teeth on Turtles. Golden Harvest was ultimately unsatisfied with her work on the film and fired her, bringing on James R. Symons (Rambo III, Tank Girl) and William D. Grodean (The Cannonball Run, Beethoven) to finish.
When the film finally landed in theaters on March 30, 1990, audiences, already primed on the cartoons and action figures, went mad for the adaptation, shelling out $200 million by the end of its box office run. However, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not some kiddie cash-in (the sequels can claim that crown). The film is made by artists who deeply respected the source material and worked tirelessly to bring you an authentic experience starring a quartet of immature, martial arts badasses with a penchant for pizza. Barron loved the weirdos splattered on Eastman and Laird’s pages, and he wanted you to love them too.
The work committed by The Jim Henson Company is simply stunning and puts the bulky CGI brutes of the most recent adaptation to horrendous shame. These turtles not only come alive through their suits, but the magic and philosophy fostered by Henson through his puppeteers, as well as the other actors who surround them. Give a big “Bravo” to Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas as Turtle sidekicks April O’Neil and Casey Jones.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a damn good time out at the movies, and it is also a gloriously attractive one. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, we’re bringing out a parade of One Perfect Shots as evidence to the film’s majesty. These frames are designed to highlight the artistry crafted by all departments, from the cinematography to the production design to Henson’s creature work to the momentous introduction of Sam Rockwell. Turn the page, but do so with a cheer of “Cowabunga!”
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