Cody Hamman looks back at 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Film Appreciation.
Four of the most beloved characters of my childhood were human-sized turtles who walked on two legs, spoke, loved pizza, and used martial arts to fight the forces of evil. How could a kid resist something like that?
These four reptilian brothers were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in the pages of a comic book published by their nascent indie company Mirage in May of 1984. Just months after I was born. Eastman and Laird came up with the idea as a parody of several comics of the time, including Marvel's Daredevil - in fact, they tied the origin of the turtles directly into the origin of Daredevil. Daredevil, a.k.a. Matt Murdock, was blinded in his youth when a canister of radioactive materials fell off a transport truck and hit him in the face while he was saving an old man from getting run over by the vehicle. Whatever that substance was, it enhanced Murdock's other senses while taking away his sense of sight. What happened to that canister? Eastman and Laird imagined that it fell into the sewer, where the radioactive ooze within it doused a rat and four lost baby turtles. The substance makes the creatures grow, enhancing their intelligence and abilities.
The rat is a wise father figure to the turtles, called Splinter (a nod to Daredevil's mentor Stick). Splinter was the pet of a ninja named Hamato Yoshi and watched from his cage as his master practiced ninjitsu. Even before the ooze, this rat was learning the moves. Yoshi was a member of the Foot Clan (a reference to the ninja clan called The Hand in the Daredevil comics), as was a man named Oroku Nagi. After beating Nagi to death to save the life of the woman he loved, Yoshi fled Japan, going to New York City and taking his rat with him.
Yoshi was followed to New York by Nagi's younger brother Saki, who established a criminal branch of the Foot Clan there. And then avenged his brother, killing Splinter's master.
Splinter raises the turtles, using a book he found on Renaissance artists to name them - Leonard, Donatello, Michaelangelo, Raphael. He teaches them ninjitsu, training them for the day when they will challenge Saki - who wears a bladed suit of armor and calls himself The Shredder - to a duel to the death.
With a concept and characters like that, it's no surprise that toy companies, animation studios, and production companies were soon knocking on Eastman and Laird's door as they continued to create issues of the comic series. I honestly can't remember if my first introduction came through the animated series, the first episodes of which were produced in 1987, or through the live action feature film released by New Line Cinema in March of 1990, but I do know that I was in the theatre to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie when it came out.
While the animated series took a much lighter approach to the Turtles world than the comic book, director Steve Barron and screenwriters Bobby Herbeck and Todd W. Langen decided to stick to the darker, grittier Eastman and Laird roots. The filmmakers were reasonably faithful to the source material, building the film's story from elements of several issues of the comic.
The version of the origin that is relayed by Splinter in the film is close to what Eastman and Laird wrote in the comic, but it's streamlined. There is no Oroku Nagi, Hamato Yoshi's rival is Oroku Saki from the start, and Yoshi and Tang Shen, the woman they were fighting over, left Japan just to get away from Saki.
In the late '80s, when this was being developed, figuring out how exactly to bring the turtles to the screen in a convincing matter was surely a major challenge. Today, the answer would be obvious - have actors perform the parts in motion capture suits and make the turtles CGI characters. That's what they're doing for the Turtles movies being released these days. Barron didn't have that option, so they took an approach that I find to be much more impressive. They put actors in awesome animatronic turtle costumes created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. These things look absolutely incredible, and this will always be my idea of what the turtles should look like.
David Forman, Leif Tilden, Michelan Sisti, and Josh Pais were the actors in the costumes, but Pais was the only one who also voiced his character. The voices of the other turtles were provided by Brian Tochi, Corey Feldman, and Robbie Rist.
The film begins with television reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) doing a report on a spree of robberies that has been going on in New York City. When she leaves the TV studio that night, she comes across a group of young punks committing the very crime she had been talking about. The kids attempt to mug her, but April is saved by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is the first battle for the turtles. They strike in darkness, leave the beaten punks to be arrested by responding police officers, and disappear back into the sewer... but Raphael accidentally leaves behind one of his sais.
Each turtle has their own trademark weapon and their own distinct personality. They also wear color coded eye masks so we can instantly tell them apart by sight. Wearing the blue mask and wielding two swords is Leonardo, who has the demeanor of a leader. With the purple mask and wielding a bo staff is the very intelligent Donatello, the techie of the group, although that aspect of the character isn't focused on in this film. Wearing orange and spinning nunchaku is Michaelangelo, the wild and zany joker. In red and carrying two sais (one for a while after he loses one during the first fight) is Raphael, the most emotionally troubled brother, brooding and prone to anger.
When I was a kid, it seemed like all the other kids I knew had chosen Michaelangelo as their favorite, which makes sense. He has a big personality, he draws attention to himself, and he's funny. But for me, Raphael was always the favorite. His attitude appealed to me the most, I could connect with this guy.
Another favorite character in this film is Casey Jones, who Raphael crosses paths with early in the film, after going off by himself to take in a theatrical showing of Critters. Wonderfully portrayed by Elias Koteas, Casey is a vigilante who uses sporting equipment to beat on criminals with - baseball bats, hockey sticks, cricket bats - and wears a hockey mask while doing so. I was already a major fan of the Friday the 13th franchise when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out, I had even seen Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan in the theatre the previous year, so Casey Jones won my heart as soon as he appeared on screen wearing a hockey mask.
And of course you can't help but love wise old Splinter. His scenes with the turtles may be between a bunch of guys in animal costumes, but the performances and emotions come through to really make you love and care about these characters just as much as you would if they were regular people. Maybe even more so. There are some very heartwarming scenes between this rat and his reptilian adopted children.
Through her investigations, April has discovered that the ninjas of the Foot Clan are behind the recent robberies, gathering street kids to help them do their dirty work. This knowledge makes her a target for Foot Clan leader The Shredder, who sends his lackeys after her. Following April in hopes of getting his lost sai back, Raphael sees her getting attacked again... and saves her again. After besting a group of ninjas in a fight, Raphael takes April to his sewer home, where she meets his starstruck brothers (Michaelangelo has a crush on her) and Splinter.
April and the subterranean family become fast friends, but unfortunately Raphael was followed to their den by a member of the Foot Clan. When the turtles are out, the Foot raid the place and kidnap Splinter.
As April continues the investigation into the Foot Clan, the turtles move into her apartment, and soon enough the Foot have located them there, making her place the site of a massive fight that even Casey Jones ends up taking part in. The Foot are defeated, but April's home is destroyed and Raphael is seriously injured.
While Raphael convalesces, the turtles and their two new human pals, who begin to develop romantic feelings for each other, seek shelter at the remote O'Neil family farm. Raph is back on his feet soon enough and the turtles start training to have a rematch with the Foot so they can rescue Splinter. If he's still alive. During their time at the farm, the turtles try meditation and discover that they can commune with their master through meditation. The meditation, receiving guidance from the spirit of a master, those are classic ninja movie elements.
Eventually April, Casey, and the turtles head back to the city with the intention of saving Splinter and taking down the Foot Clan once and for all.
There were complaints about the violence in this film, which I could understand if parents didn't want their kids to see fighting at all, but these aren't exactly brutal battles. The violence is toned down quite a bit from the Eastman/Laid comic, which featured blood splatter and gory wounds. While some of the Foot clearly die, like a guy who swings an axe into an electrical cable, the fights are mostly just a lot of bloodless punching and kicking. The turtles have fun with it, too. These are, after all, still teenagers with goofy personalities, and that plays into the action as well, for moments like Donatello knocking out ninjas while riding a skateboard through the sewer. Some of the fights in this film aren't the most well shot or edited - revisiting it now, the confrontation between Casey and Shredder's right hand man Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) really stands out as being clunky - but for the most part they work. It's really strange how the fights shot with performers dressed in large turtle costumes can be better than a fight between two guys in regular clothes...
It all builds up to a climactic rooftop battle with The Shredder (James Saito and the voice of David McCharen), truly one of the greatest, most impactful entertainment villains of my childhood. He's a very intimidating presence with a great voice, and he just looks awesome with these blades and spikes all over him.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. I watched this movie repeatedly, along with episodes of the cartoon and the sequels that followed. I played the Turtles video games, collected the toys, read the comic books, and wrote my own Turtles stories. With my nephew, who is less than six years younger than me, I would even watch a recording of the "Coming Out of Their Shells" live stage show he had on VHS. The Turtles were a huge part of my youth. It's odd how something that's so important to you at one point, for years of your life, can eventually fade into the past. That's what happened with me and the Turtles.
The movies dropped out of my viewing rotation, but the characters have always had a special place in my heart.
It had probably been around a decade since the last time I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before watching it again at the start of this month. I was glad to find that it still holds up after twenty-six years as a fun, fast-paced film with heart, action, and laughs. It rocked my world when I was six and I still enjoy it today. I may go long stretches without visiting my buddies Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Raphael, but I will always appreciate all the good times that watching them provided.