The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property is a lot like Peanut-butter and Jelly: it shouldn’t be good, but surprisingly it is. The whole concept is a joke; nothing more than a gimmick. But unlike a similar property like Howard The Duck, the Ninja Turtles actually became a world wide phenomenon overnight in the late 80’s. The most famous properties being the cartoon and several video games. Like how the surprise success of Star Wars paved the way for the infamous Holiday special, the Turtles had their fare share of really shameful media outings as well. The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Coming Out of Their Shells Tour” being probably the worst thing ever to come out of the Turtles franchise. Google it, but be sure you delete your browser history afterwards. “Two Girls, One Cup” you can probably explain, but this will make for some awkward conversation during dinner. One thing that was destined to fail of course was the 1990 live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Just think about it: it’s a movie based upon a far fetched idea that might have worked as a comic or a cartoon but shouldn’t necessarily work as a live action movie. It features four adult men dressed in a turtle suit in a movie produced on a low budget, with no notable actors and released by a small studio.
It even has the word Ninja in the title. When was there ever a really good movie with the word Ninja in the title? If at all the word Ninja in the title should be a precaution: before you know it you’re watching some terrible movie starring Michael Dudikoff released by Cannon pictures.
The greatest feat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles manages is that it actually works.
Let’s face it: on paper this movie resembles terrible movies like The Garbage Pail Kids, Masters Of The Universe, Howard The Duck, The Power Rangers and several other comic book properties that were transferred to the big screen in the early 90’s. The Phantom, Judge Dredd and Tank Girl: I’m looking at you.
But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a movie that was well received at the time and even holds up pretty well more than 25 years later. It revolves around the simple and ludicrous premise of four turtles and a rat coming into contact with some radioactive material, making them all anthropomorphic creatures: Animals with distinctive human like walking on two legs and being able to talk. Not only can they talk, but throughout the years they have also mastered oriental fighting styles like jujitsu. Unlike most comic book movies today, the premise of the story is rather simple: New York is plagued by a crime wave which is covered by reporter April O’Neill. Her investigations make her a target, but when she’s attacked the four turtles come to her rescue. While trying to remain anonymous at first it doesn’t take long for April to find out her saviors aren’t human. Unfortunately the Turtles now become targets for the gang, known as the Foot Clan, as well. This results in several showdowns and the capture of their master Splinter. Now the Turtles have to try to save him and the city by the defeating the Foot Clan and their leader: the evil Shredder.
The first thing I noticed watching this movie is how dark it actually is. Especially for a movie based on a children’s cartoon. Most of the movie takes places at night or in poorly lit places like sewers and warehouses. You can clearly see what’s going on, but the color palette is unusually dark for such a movie. My guess is they were inspired by the look of Tim Burton’s Batman movie released a year earlier. Thematically it touches on several serious subjects like surrogate families and even death. To give you some idea on how “dark” this movie is: for half of the running time Splinter is chained to a wall in the Shredder’s lair and being interrogated several times. Quite a strong image in a movie originally intended for kids, but this is actually what makes it work. The stars are 4 guys in rubber suits with an animatronic mask, so if the movie had a very light tone catering purely to children this would indeed have become another Howard The Duck. Despite the serious approach, the plot is easy to follow, even for the younger ones. With the constant light-hearted conversations between the Turtles and several slap-stick moments during fights, the movie finds a balance between being appropriate for children and entertaining to adults.
Of course this isn’t a masterpiece. There are plenty remarks that could be made about this movie, especially on a technical level. The mouths of the characters almost never really match the words coming out of it and Shredder looks a lot like a long lost Milli Vanilli brother with his enormous shoulder pads. When you take a closer look at Shredder’s helmet you’ll notice how big it actually is. It hasn’t got Darth Helmet (you might want to google that as well) proportions, but it’s still rather large.
Too bad that all the elements that made this movie actually a quality product, were met with protests by parents. They thought this movie was too dark and violent. This resulted in two direct sequels that had a more child friendly approach. This makes this original live action movie somewhat of a unique, one of a kind movie. At the time one of the few properties successfully transferred from the pages of a comic book and the small screen to the big screen.