The first issue of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) was published in May of 1984. Since then, the TMNT have gone on to achieve worldwide mainstream success thanks not only to their original comics run but also a number of influential cartoons, videogames, and wave-upon-wave of action figures. Even now, the TMNT continue to be an influential and popular commodity, proving that some fads don’t die out…they just get stronger!
Released: 30 March 1990
Director: Steve Barron
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $13.5 million
Stars: Brian Tochi/David Forman, Corey Feldman/Leif Tilden, Josh Pais, Robbie Rist/Michelan Sisti, David McCharen/James Saito, Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, and Kevin Clash
New York City is under siege by a crime wave perpetrated by masked hoodlums calling themselves the “Foot Clan”. When reporter April O’Neil (Hoag) tries to bring their organisation to light, the Foot’s leader, Oroku Saki/The Shredder (McCharen/Saito) orders her death but she is saved by four turtles, mutated into humanoid form and trained in martial arts and the way of the ninja, who live in the sewers. When the TMNT’s master, Splinter (Clash) is attacked and held captive by the Foot, they must work to set aside their differences, end the Shredder’s schemes, and finally settle an old grudge between him and their master.
I’ve talking in great detail about this before but you must be surprised to learn just how dark and violent the TMNT originally were; created and self-published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird back in 1984, the TMNT were influenced by the works of Frank Miller and comic books like Daredevil, the New Mutants, Ronin (Miller, et al, 1983 to 1984), and Cerebus (Sim and Gerhard, 1977 to 2004). As such, the four mutated ninjas were rendered in striking black and white and exposited stoic, stilted dialogue (largely through text boxes) in a clear pastiche of Miller’s trademark art and writing style. The extremely popular 1987 cartoon catapulted the TMNT to mainstream superstardom, transforming them from dark, violent anti-heroes to cute, cuddly, kid-friendly “Hero” Turtles. As such, for many children (myself included), our first taste of just how violent the TMNT could be was this live-action feature film, which blended elements of both the cartoon and the comics to create what is, for me, the quintessential TMNT movie. To bring the TMNT to life, the filmmakers wisely went to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create highly sophisticated suits and animatronics, giving the film a truly timeless feel not just because of nostalgia but the sheer quality of the film’s practical effects. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, unsurprisingly, debuted at number one at the box office and went on to earn over $200 million, meaning it was a massive success. Perhaps due to the film’s subject matter and target audience, critics were somewhat divided on their opinion of the film but it has gone on to be a cult favourite for many and, of course, spawned two sequels (one which I believe to be under-rated and the other which was hot garbage).
The film begins by showcasing and emphasising the crimewave that is sweeping through New York City; April narrates in her broadcast the particulars of these events and we see how teenagers and youths are picking pockets and stealing stuff all over the place and delivering it to the Foot Clan. This sets up right away that the city is, in effect, under siege and the police are powerless to really stop it and hints towards possible corruption in the police department as a result of the Foot’s influence. Despite the warnings of Charles Pennington (Jay Patterson), her boss, April is determined to run with the story; she’s that typical reporter cliché we’ve seen hundreds of times in a multitude of media, always chasing the story and butting heads with those in authority, and seemingly ignorant to any threat against her person. This backfires on her when the Foot confront her, apparently looking to kill her, but she puts up a decent fight despite the odds being stacked against her, which really helps sell her as this tenacious and ballsy character.
April gains additional layers as the film progresses; though she first reacts with fear and horror at the appearances of the TMNT and Splinter, she soon becomes captivated by their origin story, sympathetic to their cause, and befriends them, showing genuine affection towards each of them and offering them a place to stay after Splinter is abducted and presumed dead. She also has a lot of friction with Casey Jones (Koteas) at first but the two eventually warm to each other as they spend more time together; though she doesn’t really factor into the film’s finale, she’s the glue that holds the characters together and drives the plot into motion. Plus, even better, she never becomes a simple damsel in distress and is, instead, both an audience surrogate and a useful ally when the TMNT are left directionless after Splinter’s kidnapping.
The film does a great job keeping the TMNT hidden and obscured in the early going; they strike from the shadows and are only heard, rather than seen, until dramatically leaping into view in all their practical and animatronic glory. Each of the TMNT has a distinct look (Michelangelo (Rist/Sisti) is shorter and pudgier, and Leonardo (Tochi/Forman) is leaner and more toned, for example), colourations, and blemishes to help distinguish them beyond their different bandana colours. Each also sports a different and unique voice and accent, with Raphael (Pais) favouring more of a Brooklyn twang and Mikey having that “surfer dude” style of speech that the TMNT were known for in the cartoons.
Additionally, each has their own personality and character arc in the film to help separate them and make them relevant; of them all, though, it is Raphael who gets the most recognisable story arc as he is the angry, antagonistic, hothead of the group. He expresses both ager and frustration at having lost his sai in the beginning, frequently defies Leo’s authority and leadership, and makes numerous trips to the surface in a ridiculously basic disguise. Of all the TMNT, Raph is the one who takes Splinter’s abduction the worst, reacting with a gut-wrenching cry of anguish and lashing out at both friend and foe alike. He ultimately pays the price for this when he is jumped and beaten by the Foot and spends the second act of the film semi-conscious in a bathtub. Faced with his mortality, he makes amends with his brother and the TMNT begin training anew as a complete group to take the fight to the Foot Clan.
Leo’s character arc is subtle but present; he’s the field leader of the group but they are all relatively untested in live combat so there are some kinks to work out in the dynamic. Obviously, the most explicit example of this is seen in his frequent clashes with Raphael but we also see Leo struggling to hold his brothers together in Splinter’s absence and he is the only one balanced enough to successfully contact Splinter through meditation and eventually comes to lead the group in their battle against Shredder.
Conversely, Donatello (Feldman/Tilden) doesn’t really get much of an opportunity to really stand out or do much in the film, showcasing none of the intelligence or technological ability he is generally known for; however, he is the only one to use bigger, more verbose words in his vocabulary, to notice when April’s apartment is becoming structurally unstable, and to help fix up the vehicle at the farmhouse so these elements aren’t entirely absent. He also attempts to address the implications of Splinter’s absence to the team and bonds with Casey during the sojourn at April’s farmhouse and gets a lot more to do than Mikey, who is the childish goof of the film and exists mainly to complete the group and act as the comic relief. He doesn’t even get highlighted during April’s narration at the farmhouse and has few stand out moments beyond being a loveable goofball and his cringe-worthy, but amusing, series of impressions.
Still, the appeal of the TMNT has always been the group dynamic rather than the individuals; when Raph is injured, the team is noticeably fractured and struggles to coordinate their efforts without all four of them and, though they often clash and are very different, even volatile personalities at times, they work best when they are a team. The film really uses their amusing bickering, interpersonal conflicts, and complex interactions to sell the idea of the TMNT being four teenaged brothers; of course they don’t always get along and they are far from perfect but this serves only to highlight them as relatable and full-realised characters even when some of them get ore screen time and development than others.
The TMNT are guided in their growth and development by Splinter, their mentor and father-figure; each of the TMNT has a different relationship with Splinter, who is a calm and wise teacher who indulges but often despairs over their more childish ways and personality quirks. Leo treats Splinter with a reverence and respect, Mikey takes him somewhat for granted and isn’t willing to think about life without him, Don is the opposite and worries about Splinter’s mortality, and Splinter struggles to get through Raph’s anger. Splinter spends much of the film as Shredder’s captive but, while he is clearly suffering and, perhaps, close to death during this torture, he not only remains tight-lipped but is also able to impart his knowledge on to Charles’s son, Danny (Michael Turney), and make contact with the TMNT via semi-telepathic meditation. Splinter also gets his own arc in the film, having raised the TMNT using teachings he learned as an ordinary rat and, ultimately, confronting and besting the man who killed his master.
April isn’t the only audience surrogate in the film though; we also get one of my favourite characters in the franchise, Casey Jones, the hockey mask wearing, sports-gear-wielding vigilante who initially clashes with Raphael before falling in with the TMNT and forming a friendship with them, especially Donatello. We don’t learn a massive amount about Casey or his motivations beyond vague hints towards an injury keeping him from going into professional sports, that he’s extremely claustrophobic, and that he appears to a homeless vagrant but Koteas brings a real likeable charisma and snark to the role and Casey ends up helping out a lot in the film’s finale by rescuing Splinter and confronting Shredder’s main henchman, Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata/Michael McConnohie).
Speaking of Shredder, he’s a far more subdued and calculating individual compared to his boisterous animated incarnation. Rather than wishing to conquer the city, the world, or employ resources from another dimension, Shredder’s entire plot seems to be about building an army of ninja warriors and thieves, turning disillusioned teens into petty crooks and fostering their resentment of authority figures by allowing them to indulge their every whim. It’s not entirely clear what his larger endgame is but it’s enough to amass him a formidable criminal enterprise and to have the city in a state of…maybe not fear but definitely apprehension.
Of course, it turns out that the Shredder is actually Oroku Saki, the man responsible for killing Splinter’s master. This isn’t revealed until right at the very end of the film, moments before the Shredder’s defeat at Splinter’s hands, but the TMNT’s battle against the Shredder is highly emotionally charged nevertheless thanks to the beating the Foot deliver to Raphael, Shredder being behind Splinter’s abduction, and Shredder’s assertion that their father-figure is dead. Unlike his lowly minions, Shredder is a formidable combatant, able to easily match and best the TMNT in a four-on-one battle and exuding menace and authority through this very presence.
Having grown up watching Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles as a child, I had no idea how dark and violent the original TMNT comics were; the film was in stark contrast to the TMNT media I was exposed to on a semi-regular basis and, at the time, I saw it as a darker, more serious reimagining of the concept. Still, it impressed me then and it still impresses now not just as easily the best live-action adaptation of the comic books but also how closely it sticks to the original comics. A few elements are changed here and there and the TMNT look and act a lot more like their animated counterparts, but this is all to the film’s benefit as the early comics took a while to actually make distinctions between the otherwise-interchangeable TMNT.
It always bugged me how the TMNT have these weapons and martial arts skills and yet never seemed to use them; the film doesn’t show them skewering or slicing up their enemies like in the comics but it does make far better use of their weapons and skills to portray them as competent and dangerous combatants. That’s not to say that the film isn’t violent, though; it’s full of a violent and disturbing subtext that suggests a threat just as real as the gore seen in the comics. This is seen in the Foot’s merciless beatdown of Raphael and the big fight between the remaining TMNT in April’s apartment, which sees the Foot swinging axes and other edged weapons with clear deadly intent and the film’s glorious interpretation of the Shredder as a razor-clad foe who clearly means business and has much more in common with Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) than the bungling fool seen in the cartoon.
One of the film’s most violent scenes comes when Tatsu, Shredder’s gruff, intense, mostly-silent underling beats one of their teenage inductees to within an inch of his life. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Tatsu does kill the boy and that a line was dubbed in to keep the victim alive but, even so, that (and the fact that the TMNT carry the clear bruises and injuries of their many battles) really sells the notion that the film isn’t some goofy cartoon and means serious business. The fact that it is able to take a concept as ridiculous as the TMNT and treat it so seriously is to be commended; the TMNT and Splinter are the most outrageous aspects of the film, with everyone who sees them reacting in shock, fear, disgust, and incredulity but, once you accept that these mutated beings exist, the film is almost the exact opposite of its animated counterpart. There’s humour, of course, largely thanks to the TMNT’s goofy antics and sense of humour but, for the most part, it’s a dark and gritty take that is a fantastic compromise between the violent comic books and the more kid-friendly cartoon.
A central theme in the movie is that of family and fatherhood; Danny is an angry, angst-ridden teen who resents his father and wants to rebel against him (and authority in general). His emotional confusion is a pivotal sub-plot as he struggles to fit in with the Foot, doesn’t feel like he belongs or is appreciated at home with his Dad, and becomes conflicted after befriending Splinter. Shredder acts as a surrogate father to Danny and his teenaged wannabe ninjas, offering the cheap thrills of sin and indulgence in return for their unwavering loyalty, and Splinter acts as a father to the TMNT. His absence deeply affects each of the brothers and he, too, misses them greatly during his capture and torment; this comes to a head during the group’s meditation practice where he expresses his love and pride for his “sons” and the five are reunited in the finale. The theme here is that family isn’t perfect: the TMNT continuously bicker and are somewhat dysfunctional as personalities despite how well they work together when in battle, Shredder is clearly using and manipulating the kids under his command, Danny has to accept this his father is only acting in service of his best interests, and Charles has to learn that Danny is becoming his own man now and to not treat him like a kid.
Of course, the real star of the film are the incredible practical effects used to bring the TMNT and Splinter to life; the TMNT suits are incredibly well realised, full of distinct details and little nuances to distinguish each character and make them feel alive and real. Though their eye masks could be better (they look fake and glued to the their heads rather than being actual fabric coverings wrapped around their eyes), the animatronic heads are an incredible technological feat allowing the TMNT to express a range of emotions, expressions, and even eat pizza convincingly. Splinter looks the most like a practical puppet thanks to his frail frame and less humanoid proportions but he is nevertheless and impressive practical effect, looking wizened and being very expressive and dynamic in his range of motion, and I especially like how he has a wet nose.
Even now, some thirty years since its release, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continues to impress; the practical suits and effects used in the film make it a timeless classic that is way better than it had any right to be and ensures that it holds up under close scrutiny in today’s digital age not just thanks to nostalgia but also because of just how much clear love and effort was put not just into bringing these ridiculous characters and concepts to life but also treating them with a level of respect and reverence that you rarely saw in adaptations of such concepts back then.
As a compromise between the dark and violent comic books and the bright and goofy cartoon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still works surprisingly well; it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a straight one-to-one adaptation of the original concept since the TMNT’s wider appeal and commercialisation lie sin their accessibility and recognisable elements like their “surfer dude” attitudes, obsession with pizza, and individual colour schemes. Nowadays, it’s widely known how violent and dark the original concept was and we’ve seen those elements work their way back into the franchise’s later animated incarnations but it was this film that was the first to bridge that gap and to showcase just how much the original concept had been changed to appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience.
What are your thoughts on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Do you think the film still holds up today or do the rubber suits and practical effects put you off? Which of the TMNT is your favourite and why? What was your first exposure to the TMNT as a kid and which of their various incarnations is your favourite? What do you think Shredder’s endgame was in the film and would you like to see another crack at the source material using modern technology to create more practical versions of the TMNT? How are you celebrating the TMNT’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on the TMNT, leave a comment down below.
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