When it high-kicked its way onto silver screens on May 30, 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was less a movie than a momentous event, the inevitable apex of a global craze that had been gathering steam for six years. Originally created by indie comic creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 as an adult-oriented spoof of popular titles such as “New Mutants,” “Daredevil,” “Cerebrus” and Frank Miller’s “Ronin,” the colorful characters became an instant crossover phenomenon after fledgling Honk Kong toy company Playmates snagged toy rights and CBS began airing the syndicated animated TV series. In no time turtle fever was a very real condition infecting a generation of children, fuelled by an endless supply of action figures, video games, breakfast cereals, Mirage and Archie-produced comic books, etc., and the demand for a live action motion picture adaptation was positively frothing. The ensuing effort, a modest 13.5-million-budgeted venture between then-independent studio New Line Cinema (aka “The House that Freddy Krueger Built”) and Golden Harvest – the HK production company behind martial arts classics featuring Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, among others – was an instantly adored success story, grossing a tubular $135 million dollars at the domestic office and just over 200-mill worldwide. No matter which way you slice it, that was a lot of green in those days.
The story of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ingrained within the DNA of most children of the 1980s, is simplicity personified; New York has become plagued by a mysterious band of ninja thieves called the Foot Clan, who operate under the iron-clad rule of the fearsome Shredder (physical performance by James Saito, voice by David McCharen). After relentless reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) exposes the group she becomes subject to intimidation and attacks, bringing a quartet of unlikely reptilian defenders into her life. Alas, these unlikely squabbling heroes, consisting of group leader Leonardo (David Forman, voice by Brian Tochi), party animal Michelangelo (Michelan Sisto, voice by Robbie Rist), science wiz Donatello (Leif Tilden, voice by Corey Feldman(!)) and surly loner Raphael (Josh Pais), are quickly targeted for elimination and run out of town by the vicious criminal empire, which kidnaps their dear rat sensei, Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash). However, with the aid of hockey mask-wearing vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), and a troubled youth named Danny (Michael Turney), our weapon-wielding protagonists find the strength within themselves to win the day, save their master and celebrate in style with plenty of (Domino’s©) pizza.
Viewed 24 years after the hype has quieted, with a new Michael Bay-headed itineration waiting in the wings, it’s amusing how strangely innocent and harmless director Steve Barron’s original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles now seems. Contrasted against current kid-oriented action films, both good (Marvel’s output) and bad (Transformers, G.I. Joe), that bombard the senses with sequences of dizzying, wall-to-wall effects and cacophonic sound, the sight of Donatello acrobatically skateboarding down a darkly lit sewer pipe to a bouncy synth score, smacking attackers in the skull with his staff, seems positively quaint and old fashioned. We’ve come a long way, baby!
Although Tim Burton’s bank-breaking hit Batman, which arrived just one year earlier, was an obvious influence aesthetically, the film doesn’t strive to adopt that flawed milestone’s hyper-convoluted and occasionally muddled story structure – a sadly common trait in modern blockbuster scripts. Instead, it tells a remarkably economical, breezily energetic (the tight, punchy pace can be attributed to the invaluable cutting skills of Sally Menke, Tarantino’s late, great editor, making her Hollywood debut) and disarmingly sweet story of brotherly love, the bond between fathers and sons and the need for family, dressed up with roundhouse kicks and katana blades. It may not be high art, or stellar family entertainment exactly, nonetheless it remains undeniably charming, funny and often kinda exciting.
The movie also marks the beginning of the end for cinema’s two-decade-long love/hate affair with New York City as a dangerous hub of urban decay. At the time of release, the metropolis was experiencing its highest violent crime rate – over two and half times the 2012 stats - in recorded history, largely due to a catastrophic crack epidemic, and that fear, griminess and pessimism colors much of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (never mind that it was mostly shot in North Carolina). Nowadays the film’s depictions of gloomy, foreboding subway stations, ugly crumbling buildings coated with graffiti and empty night streets dominated by roving youth gangs are wildly at odds with our impressions of the Big Apple. And though there are certainly plenty of artistic liberties being taken with this 1990 representation, it ultimately serves as an entertaining, evocative reminder of just how negatively the media and outside observers once perceived the pre-Giuliani cityscape.
Of course, it’s also just a good, lively time at the movies. Nicely blending the gritty, pop-culture-skewering toughness of Eastman and Laird’s Mirage Comics adventures and the wackier Saturday morning cartoon into a consistent, unified whole, Barron and crew’s endeavor succeeds significantly on the strength of its personalities. Few would credit our butt-kicking brothers with having multi-dimensional personalities, however damned if the writers don’t milk their single notes, and intentionally dorky verbal sparring sessions, for everything they’re worth (with the possible exception of Donatello, who feels a little lost function-wise), never breaching into the realm of insufferableness. Raphael, all pent up discontent, attitude and frustration, remains the most compelling – who couldn’t, at some point in their younger years, relate to his impotent anger – and is the only turtle with a recognizable character arc, yet doesn’t stand in the way of everyone getting their own big moments to shine (gotta love Michelangelo’s show-stopping pre-clash nunchuk demonstration, or Leonardo leading a meditative fireside séance with Splinter’s Jedi force ghost).
So what doesn’t work quite as well anymore? For starters, the threat of the Foot Clan now seems oddly inconsistent. Given their seemingly tightly-honed operation, and the ease with which they track down and nab Splinter, it’s a little dubious that it takes them so long to confront the turtles. And why doesn’t anyone try to pursue them once they escape to April’s cottage in the woods (do none of these delinquent kids drive? What about Tatsu? No Shreddermobile?!)? For all of the script’s strengths, occasionally the logic falters. Because he’s such a magnetic presence, it’s easy to forgive the lack of motivation behind Casey Jones joining the cause, although we probably shouldn’t. And, as enjoyable as the pop-culture references can be, there are some serious groaners on display. Arguably the worst offender is Raphael’s rooftop A Streetcar Named Desire Stanley Kowalski impression, which transpires during a key emotional point in the story, and just couldn’t fall flatter.
Bad-guys Beaten: 118
Most Tubular Takedown: Mikey and Donatello’s crowd-pleasing nunchuk demo/flying bo staff double hit combo.
Pizzas Consumed: 2. One delivered to their sewer home by a bewildered Domino’s © delivery man, and a second in the form of leftovers at April’s pad. A potential third is deemed inedible due to its liberal topping of “penicillin.”
Best duderific comic dialogue:
Donatello: "Good thing these guys aren't lumberjacks."
Michelangelo: "No joke. The only thing safe in the woods... would be the trees!"
Direst duderific comic dialogue:
Donatello: "Bossa Nova!"
Michaelangelo: "Dude, 'Bossa Nova?'"
Donatello: "Chevy Nova?"
Sagest Splinter Wisdom: “Possess the right thinking. Only then can one receive the gifts of strength, knowledge and peace.”
Most Menacing Villain Line: Shredder: “You fight well... in the old style. But you've caused me enough trouble. Now you face: the Shredder.”
Uncomfortable Adult Humor: Casey Jones reacting to being called claustrophobic by threatening “You want a fist in the mouth?! I’ve never even looked at another guy before!”
Grade: 4 Cowabungas Out of 5