From its indie comic book origins to the big-screen action of today, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been a beloved for a generation. Now, let’s take a look at the 1990 film that set the stage for the series’ current position in the pantheon of fan-favorite franchises.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows will mark a worthwhile achievement in the eyes of Turtles fans: the inclusion of more characters from the original comic books and cartoon show. Not only will the movie be adding the likes of Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman, and Krang to the Turtles’ cinematic roster, but it will also be embracing the cartoony style that the Turtles and their universe have become known for. However, that kind of fealty to the source material isn’t new when it comes to the Turtles legacy on film.
Riding the wave of Batman‘s enormous success, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film debuted in 1990. Thanks to the unprecedented popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, anticipation for the movie was sky high. Luckily, fans were treated to a project that managed to blend together elements of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s 1984 comic story and the hit cartoon. Regardless of any other issues with the film, it’s safe to say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knew what its most important task was: presenting a film adaptation that felt true to its inspiration.
There’s a lot that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does right in this regard. Director Steve Barron didn’t take any huge liberties in visually adapting the Turtles and their world. Most impressive are the screen versions of Splinter and Shredder, both who feel as if they jumped right off the page. In Splinter’s (and the Turtles’) case, this is achieved through some high quality animatronic and puppet effects from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Sadly, this would be one of Henson’s last projects before his sudden death, but the work has withstood the test of time when it comes to fabricating creatures that act as fully realized characters. The production put its money where it mattered and it shows on screen.
But what about judging the movie on its own merits? Does Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles work as a film separate from its titular heroes? At a brisk ninety-three minutes — the film is actually eighty-seven minutes but has six minutes of credits tacked on to pad the running time — the story moves along exceptionally fast in the first act. We’re introduced to the Turtles, intrepid reporter April O’Neil, Splinter, the Foot, Shredder, and vigilante Casey Jones all before the twenty-minute mark. The pacing becomes fairly sluggish in the second act as the Turtles leave the city to regroup, but things come together at the very end in a satisfying conclusion.
The film’s tone is also made abundantly clear during the opening credits as the Turtles celebrate their first victory against the Foot. This movie has a reputation for being more in tune with the darker comic version of the Turtles, but it’s time to dispel that notion. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is delightfully light and goofy but treats its serious elements with sincerity. The “darkness” that this movie is really known for comes from the film’s lighting and cinematography, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Granted, it helps sell the pre-Giuliani griminess of New York City and the Turtles’ sewer hideout, but it makes some of the movie too murky to really enjoy from an aesthetic standpoint.
That’s not the only issue with the film. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a protagonist problem in that it doesn’t really have a protagonist. We’re first led to believe that it will be April as she discovers the secrets of the Foot and the existence of the Turtles, but the film quickly shifts gears into positioning Raphael as the narrative focal point. This works for a while until Raphael is injured during a fight and is incapacitated for a chunk of the film. There’s a brief moment where it looks like Leonardo will take over as the driving force in the story, but that’s washed away after a kooky scene involving ninja telepathy that’s so ridiculous it becomes charming. Thankfully, the best character in the film is Splinter and although he spends most of the movie kidnapped by Shredder and chained to a wall, he manages to appear in time for the climax and help the movie leave on a high note.
There are other character issues as well; wannabe Foot member Danny is a stereotypical mopey teenager that mostly acts in service to the plot rather than being a fully fledged character. Unfortunately, the same can be said of April who practically disappears by the film’s third act. Her shoehorned romance with Casey Jones (who is played with appropriate slacker charm by Elias Koteas) falls flat due to the actors not having any chemistry, leaving their eventual kiss devoid of any believable passion.
Even with these faults, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles works as a breezy kids film that delivers everything it needs to give the audience: silly comedy (any scene between Michaelangelo and Donatello brought a smile to my face), fun action, and a faithful approach to the property it’s adapting. The fact that it features great practical effects is a big bonus for fans of movie magic and my film nerd brain was ecstatic to see both a reference to Critters — one of my favorite childhood horror movies — and the appearance of a shockingly young Sam Rockwell as one of the Foot’s punk kids. Even though I’ve grown past my fervent love of the Turtles, it’s hard to deny the charm and simplicity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It just goes to show that when making a film adaptation, respecting what you’re adapting goes a long way.
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