“Oh god,” my father groaned at the first ad spot for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990. “I am not taking you to that.”
He totally did, though. And later he conceded that it was actually a “pretty good” movie. It is some kind of minor miracle that it is, a testament to how fervently everybody involved must have believed that they could make something entitled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” memorable and unique when just the title alone plants it exactly at the year 1990, right at the tail end of the action movie ninja craze of the ’80s and right at the beginning of the color-change neon ’90s.
How did some stunt men in 50-pound rubber turtle costumes (one of them voiced by Corey Feldman) work so well? Why on Earth am I—one of the kids in the target audience who saw this when it debuted in theaters—on the way to 40 while this franchise still regularly reboots itself in cartoon series after cartoon series?
The movie starts with TV news reporter April O’Neal (Judith Hoag) expositing on a wave of petty theft sweeping New York, intercut with scenes that show us the perpetrators are being organized by actual freaking ninjas. When April is accosted by the ninja clan for revealing their existence, she’s rescued by the turtles, sewer-dwelling ninjas who are the result of an accidental exposure to a bright green mutagen.
Under the ninja tutelage of the mutant rat Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash), the turtles fight the Foot Clan, a group of ninjas using disaffected teens as a recruitment pool, plying them with videogames and cigarettes (regular or menthol) and training them up as ninja enforcers. We learn that the ringleader is the menacing Shredder (James Saito, dubbed over with a deepened, distorted, evil voice by David McCharen), and it becomes clear that he’s actually a sinister figure from Splinter’s past. Our view inside Shredder’s pied piper operation comes courtesy of Danny (Michael Turney), the son of April’s boss, who runs away from home and forges a connection to the kidnapped Splinter. There is also, apropos of precisely nothing, a vigilante hockey player named Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) who joins the turtles for basically no reason.
As convoluted and weird as it all sounds, the movie doles out exposition carefully, interspersed with ninja fights and quiet little moments between characters where they simply play off one another. There are major problems with the script: This is a movie where a character we last met beating up one of the turtles inexplicably decides to team up with them against a horde of ninjas and the good guys don’t once come face-to-face with the bad guy until the last scene. It nonetheless is a delightful watch, equally adept at earnest acting and martial arts slapstick, with quotable lines delivered with such glee that they chisel into the brain stem of the viewer.
One major reason it works so well is that Jim Henson’s turtle-suit designs make the main characters incredibly expressive and lifelike, even as the actors had to navigate sets and conduct ninja stunt fights while gazing out of the suits’ mouth-holes. (It was Henson’s last project: He died shortly after the film debuted.)
The movie struggled to find a distributor before finally landing at New Line Cinema and coming in ninth at the box office that year, ahead of Kindergarten Cop and behind stuff like Pretty Woman, Back to the Future Part III and Home Alone.
Critics of the time did not agree with me: The movie maintains somewhere in the area of 40% on Rotten Tomatoes (still the highest-reviewed of its decades-long franchise), and Ebert gave it the faint praise of calling it “nowhere near as bad as it might have been.” It nonetheless broke box office records, and proved so popular that the franchise has been present somewhere ever since. There have been four or five television shows since the 1987 original alone.
What’s odd to me is that when I hear people lining up their favorite comic book movies, this rarely makes the cut, and I believe the reason is that it borrows enough elements from the Saturday morning cartoon show to make it almost more of an adaptation of that than of the original comic. April O’Neal is a news reporter rather than a lab assistant as she was in the comic, and the turtles are sporting the same color-coded bandanas for ease of identification, and their fiendish consumption of pizza.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s original work was intended as a satire of the over-the-top, ultraviolent comics of the time, taking particular shots at Daredevil (thus a clan of enemy ninjas known as “The Foot” rather than “The Hand”) and the X-Men (thus mutants). Having begun as a late-night joke between the two that they just kept developing, their self-printed first issue sold out within days and immediately gained a cult following in the indie comics world. Its explosion into animation and feature film occurred largely as an afterthought: When toy companies came by hoping to cash in on the property, the makers of the first toy line wanted an animated series licensed to increase its popularity.
The 1987 animated series that came out of that marketing push became a Saturday morning cartoon sensation and now has basically supplanted Eastman and Laird’s original comic as the source of older fans’ nostalgia for the property. Major details about the characters—even down to their personality archetypes—all stem from the cartoon. The theme song, written by Chuck Lorre (yes, that Chuck Lorre), was drilled into the heads of a generation.
But the film still arguably owes more of its actual substance to the comic. The movie remains faithful to it in ways big and small. The flashback exploring the turtles’ origin story, April’s discovery of the turtles’ lair, Splinter’s abduction, one of the turtles getting stomped by ninjas and dropped through a skylight, the extended interlude of soul searching on a farm, the rooftop battle with Shredder and his own backstory: All are plot points or character turns lifted directly from early arcs of the comic book. Though they’re often remixed and repurposed to fit the narrative of the film, the changes are always well-considered. In the comics, Leonardo gets jumped and dropped down through a window. In the movie, this happens to Raphael, and in the context of his hot-headedness, it makes perfect sense. It is, arguably, more in line with its source material than Batman was the year before.
Splinter: Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you. For when you die it will be … without honor.
Emblematic of the entire movie’s quality, warts and all, is the scene in which Shredder meets his demise. The turtles barely survive their encounter with Shredder and are on the verge of defeat when Splinter shows up and goads Shredder into attacking him. Splinter knows precisely how Shredder will attack and how it should be countered, effortlessly flipping his enemy and holding him suspended above a fatal drop. Splinter knows that his old enemy will be unable to help himself and try to fight back even as Splinter is the only thing preventing him from falling. And yet he still regards it as a teachable moment, lecturing his old enemy before Shredder inevitably lashes out and brings about his own doom. There is one half-beat of silence as Splinter completes his dead-ass one-liner.
Then Elias Koteas shouts “Oops!!” and crushes the guy to death in a trash compactor, and everybody celebrates. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is silly, dramatic, and yet totally in earnest.
Kenneth Lowe say “Forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza.” You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.