Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage_Mutant_Ninja_Turtles_(1990_film)_posterHollywood loves to go after us folks who are suckers for nostalgia.  We’re easy targets as it doesn’t take much to lure someone in with a touch of nostalgia.  Especially today.  We live in a world of 24 hour news networks and the internet puts information at our fingertips at all times.  The media’s tactics haven’t changed either, there’s still a lot of doom and gloom coming over the airways, especially in trying economic times.  It’s easy to let nostalgia take over as for most it’s the act of bringing one back to their childhood, which for many, was a happier time.  The sad truth though is that Hollywood usually lets us down when it revitalizes an old product.  Over the years we’ve seen movies based on Transformers and G.I Joe, none of which proved very satisfying.  If you want to indulge in a bit of a nostalgia, your best bet is to seek out an old television show or movie on home video.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a great start for anyone looking to recapture that nostalgic magic.  The original film arrived at the height of Turtle-mania when every kid in school was seemingly sporting a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox, backpack, or pencil set.  It was inescapable.  Recently I acquired the new compilation of TMNT comics and had a blast looking through them for the first time.  It really got me to thinking about the Turtles from my youth, the animated and the live action.  I thought that after reading the original books that it was a good time to go back and check out the original film.  I always had held the impression that it was pretty faithful to the comics and wanted to confirm that.  Instead I came away thinking it was a success because it combined both the animated series and the comics in a truly harmonious way.

It’s hard to consider Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a comic to film adaptation because it’s quite obvious that without the cartoon, this movie never happens.  The comic may have started this whole thing, but it was the cartoon (and probably the toys) that reached the biggest audience.  And it was that audience comprised mostly young boys that made the Turtles into such a big thing in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Even if the writers wanted to adapt the comic for film, they would have never secured enough funding without targeting the cartoon’s audience.  This put the developers behind the film into a position where they could take from both mediums while adding their own touch.

The similarities between the comic and film are quite apparent.  The Turtles themselves live in a sewer that looks like a sewer, unlike the TV show.  There’s a damp and dank feel to the scenes shot in their sewer home that’s certainly comforting from the couch.  The Turtles’ origin is also mostly intact.  Splinter was now always a rat, like the comic, and Oroku Saki murdered his master Hamato Yoshi.  The only difference is the removal of Saki’s brother, Nagi, who in the comic feuded with Yoshi over the love of a woman.  The removal of Nagi just shortens the story slightly and doesn’t lessen the impact of Saki’s actions against Yoshi.  The writers even decided to make it slightly more personal by having Splinter get some licks in on the would-be Shredder, who responds by slicing his right ear off.

“I bet he never has to look for a can opener!”

The Shredder may actually be the most faithfully adapted character from the comics to film.  It was pretty much a given that the writers were not going to use the bumbling screw-up Shredder that the cartoon possessed, but they also ditched that Shredder’s design.  Not that there was much separating the two Shredders visually, but the film’s Shredder is basically lifted from the pages of Mirage comics.  He sports a red suit and all of the appropriate blades are in place (save for his right hand which is missing the two hand blades for some reason).  They even toss a cape on Shredder for his first big scene, some weird zebra-print thing that they wisely ditch for when Shredder finally confronts the Turtles.  Shredder also gets to show his lack of honor, when he tries to sneak a dagger into Splinter which is reminiscent of him pulling a grenade on the Turtles in the comics.  The writers do give the character a bit more depth.  In the comics we really don’t know much about Shredder’s operation in NYC.  In the film we see it’s a process where kids are brought in at a young age and brainwashed by the Shredder into thinking of their order as a family.  They presumably graduate to pickpockets as they get older until the best show they can handle being full-fledged members of the Foot.  And the foot soldiers themselves are pretty faithful in appearance to the comics.

Don and Mike have a close relationship with one another.

As for the Turtles, they’re pretty much a mash-up of the two mediums.  Leonardo is the most faithful to his comic book counterpart, which makes him pretty faithful to his cartoon persona as well.  No turtle really changes as little as Leo when moving from one medium to the next.  Here he is the unquestioned leader of the Turtles, and serves as an extension to Splinter.  He’s also a bit uptight when compared to his brothers, but not to a fault.  Raphael is definitely more similar to his comic approach.  He’s the hot head and loner of the group, only here that loner quality is amplified for dramatic effect.  Splinter laments how hard he tries to get Raphael to let go of his anger and to let others in.  We get the impression that it’s a constant battle, but Raphael grows and changes in a believable way as the film moves along.  Michelangelo is the turtle who most clearly takes after his cartoon character than the comic book one.  He’s a goof ball and has a hard time being serious about anything.  His lingo isn’t quite so surfer heavy as the cartoon but he’s always expressive and exhuberant.  Donatello, on the other hand, doesn’t really fit the mold of either portrayal.  In the comic book he’s a quiet gear head, a bit introverted though not a loner like Raph.  In the cartoon he’s basically a genius and his genius is practically a super power.  In the film, he’s got more of a goofy side and comes off as kind of a dork.  He struggles to come up with the interjections that Mike is so fond of but other things come much quicker.  He seems pretty intellectual though not showy.  His sense of humor also comes across as a coping mechanism.  He’s arguably the most developed character and that might have to do with his voice actor being the biggest “name” in the film, Corey Feldman.  Either way, this is my favorite take on the Donatello character.  It should also be noted, that the Turtles do bring their strong affection for pizza from the cartoon to the big screen (and Dominoes paid a lot of money to make sure we knew it was their pizza the Turtles preferred).

As for the supporting characters, April (Judith Hoag) is not surprisingly a news reporter instead of a lab assistant.  This just works better and suits the plot.  The writers are able to work her old VW into the story, as well as her antiques store from the comics.  Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) also shows up and his portrayal is pretty spot on.  He plays off of Raph and the other turtles quite well and makes for a good addition to the story.  The romance angle between him and April does feel a bit forced and unnecessary though.  April’s boss Charles and his son Danny (who apparently loves Sid Vicious) serve as a minor subplot to the tale as well, and as far as I know, were created just for the film.

The plot of the movie borrows quite heavily from issues 1, 2, and the Raph micro issue for its plot.  It’s mostly the issue #1 but with the Shredder on the offensive as opposed to the Turtles.  Certainly it’s a lot easier for parents to buy into these characters as appropriate for their kids if they don’t come across as blood thirsty creatures out for revenge.  The writers take what Eastman and Laird already had done, and do a good job of turning it into a different story.  The film, at its heart, is basically a father-son tale with emphasis placed on the Turtles and Splinter as well as Danny and Charles.  There’s certainly an element of brotherly love as well, as the Turtles learn to rely on each other as they’re basically all they have.  It’s a nice approach that I find charming.

Jim Henson has plenty of reasons to smile in this picture.

The visuals are what people remember most about this film.  It was a risk taking the Turtles to live-action as anthropomorphic creatures rarely play well in that form.  New Line Cinema wisely recruited Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create the turtle costumes and what a great job they did.  The Turtles stylistically combine the comic and cartoon look, keeping the comics understated belts but keeping the cartoon’s color-specific bandanas.  The design of the Turtles is pretty spot-on, they look like turtles!  To achieve the proper look, the masks were outfitted with some sophisticated animatronics for facial expressions and mouth movements.  It’s quite impressive the range of emotions exhibited by the Turtles through-out the film.  I’m not sure if they had to swap out masks for the actors for certain scenes or if each head was capable of sadness, joy, anger, etc.  It is obvious that they had at least one other mask for the fight sequences.  Those masks full of gears were probably pretty heavy and tough to backflip in, so during the fight scenes the Turtles are noticeably sporting slimmer heads with static expressions.  It’s really noticeable if you’re looking for it and not really jarring.  The director does a good job of hiding each turtle’s mouth if they had to speak during one of these sequences.  The most obvious scene is Mikey’s nunchaku duel with a foot solider as his head there is an almost entirely different shape.

I have a home movie where members of my family can be seen watching this scene in the background. Everyone busts up laughing over Don’s “It’s a Kodak moment,” line. The reaction of people laughing at that moment is way funnier than the actual line.

Script-wise, the performance is a mixed bag.  There’s lots of one-liners and puns and plenty of them are groan inducing.  This is the downside of watching a movie geared towards kids.  There are a couple of bright spots though.  I do love Mikey’s line for the pizza guy (“Wise men say, forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for a late pizza.”) and Casey’s misunderstanding of the word claustrophobic is quite amusing as well.  And even though it may be a tad on the cheesy side, Splinter’s “Cowabunga!” is pretty awesome too.  The film’s score is mostly up-beat pop tunes.  It’s nothing special, but the main theme is pretty damn catchy.

When I watch this movie it’s pretty much an experience of pure joy.  I can notice its short-comings but really few of them bother me.  A lot of fans, as the kids of 1990 become the adults of 2012, have gone on to really embrace the original comics and are aching for a true to comic film, but it’s never going to happen.  No studio is interested in making a TMNT movie that alienates the kids in the audience.  And even if one did I really don’t see how the Turtles could better be adapted for the big screen.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, by no means, a perfect film.  However, it is the perfect Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film and needs no improvement.

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