My Misspent Youth In Films...
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Directed by: Steve Barron
Starring: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Josh Bais
Released: March 30, 1990
What I Thought Then
This movie was huge. It was the second big cultural touchstone for my generation to transition to the big screen (the first being The Transformers--we don't talk about Masters of the Universe), but this one made the further jump from animation to live action. It was ruthlessly entertaining to my nine year old brain, and yet it still felt like a big, serious story with higher stakes and harsher consequences than we'd gotten from the television show. I was hooked.
What I Think Now
For many years into my adulthood I unabashedly loved this movie. Now... I somewhat abashedly love it. Parts of it have aged poorly, and parts of it I've aged out of. But it's still a high-intensity dose of nostalgia that hits me square in the feels. But in the interest of, uh... journalism?... let's actually look at this one's foibles and give them an honest appraisal.
First... the Turtles look fake. They're obviously stunt actors in rubber suits. The facial animation is inconsistent and rarely lines up with their dialog. The film stock feels pretty low quality--the flashbacks are supposed to be grainy as a stylistic choice, but the establishing shots as well? The constant one-liners and catchphrases that felt so totally tubular in 1990 wear a bit cumbersome in 2021. In fact, there's a layer of cheese on top of this entire film that reads very differently to an adult brain. Hell, there's even a rap song over the credits that summarizes the plot--and this isn't even a Will Smith movie! And of course, there's just the sheer goofiness of the premise. The movie tries to make The Shredder feel like a serious and formidable foe, and it often works, but then every now and then you just look at him and giggle a little.
Part of this has to do with the bizarre source material at the roots of the franchise. The original comic was a parody of other popular comic books that caught on with indie readers and was ultimately translated into a children's cartoon that was waaaaaaaaaay more popular than anyone could have expected. Which means that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has accomplished the Airplane! feat of being a satire that is more well-known than the thing it's satirizing. To give an illustrative example, the Marvel character Daredevil has a mentor named Stick and fights an underground ninja clan called The Hand. The Turtles have a mentor named Splinter and fight an underground ninja clan called The Foot. Get it? GET IT? It's supposed to be a joke. But then you have to take it moderately seriously in order for the movie to work.
But you know what? It mostly does work. The plot is taken from early issues of the comic, although it borrows a few details from the cartoon adaptation, including the Turtles' color-coded masks, April's job as a reporter, and Michelangelo's entire personality. The story holds together surprisingly well, in no small part because the film knows how to manage an ensemble cast. It centers the internal conflict and growth on Leonardo and Raphael--the two whose personalities are most at odds--while relegating Donatello and Michelangelo to the background to provide support and comic relief. The fight choreography is entertaining and reflects the characters' personalities. And the human actors do a solid job, including the human actor Sam Rockwell in one of his earlier human roles. (Oh, hey, Sam Rockwell's in this!) The film uses Judith Hoag's April as a POV character, which helps keep things centered, and for my money, this is the definitive version of April O'Neil. Just compare Hoag's portrayal to any of the other iterations from any of the movies or TV series--although Google with care, as there's an adult film actress using that name now.
It's also really funny, and while many of the jokes are tailored to kids, there are a lot of background throwaway gags that are pretty rich, like Casey cutting carrots with a katana or trading insults with Donatello in alphabetical order. There are some genuinely amusing one-liners ("A Jose Canseco bat? Tell me you didn't pay money for this!") and for a movie as joke-heavy as this one, surprisingly few of those jokes have turned cringy with age. The two stand-outs there are April being confronted by ninjas in the subway and saying "What, am I late on my Sony payments again?" and Casey going a little homophobic when he misunderstands what claustrophobia is. But then you get an oblique reference to Moonlighting and you forget all about it.
Depends on how susceptible you are to nostalgia. If the Turtles were a big part of your childhood, this is easily the best filmed version of them. Otherwise, it's really goofy.