MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990)
Director: Steve Barron
There was no greater time to be young or young at heart than on a Saturday morning in the 1980s. While the concept of Saturday morning cartoons had been around since the 1960s, many of the most fondly remembered cartoons of my generation were from the 1980s. Shows like Masters of the Universe, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and The Real Ghostbusters made the decade of excess memorable for nostalgic cartoon fans such as myself. However, many of these cartoons were accompanied by such massive and popular toy lines that it was hard to tell whether the toys were a marketing device for the show, or if the show was a marketing device for the toys. One such case was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Based on the gritty underground comic book created in 1984 by Mirage Comics founders Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the lighthearted cartoon made its debut in the winter of 1987 and immediately became a mainstream cultural sensation. And what a sensation it was. Ninja Turtles merchandise flooded the marketplace, from the successful action figures and toys to products like breakfast cereal, clothing, Hostess fruit pies, video games, and a second line of kid-friendly comic books published by Archie Comics. The Turtles were everywhere, so invading the lives of my generation that if a group of six-year-old kids formed a Ninja Turtle religion in the late-'80s, I wouldn't have been surprised. The phenomenon became so huge, that it only made sense for someone to produce a movie in order to capitalize on the popularity of the Ninja Turtles. Drawing inspiration from both the cartoon and Eastman and Laird's original comics, New Line Cinema's live-action cinematic adaptation hit theaters on March 30, 1990. Great comic/cartoon tie-in, or shameful attempt to make money? I'll tell you at the end.
New York City has fallen under the grip of a crime wave. No, this crime wave has nothing to do with a drug trafficking ring, murders, assorted violence, the Mafia, or gang warfare on the scale of The Warriors, or anything fun like that. It's just lots and lots of burglaries. From petty thefts to grand larcenies, more and more robberies perpetrated by unseen thieves are being committed. Yeah, it might just be a bunch of minor misdemeanors, but those can really pile up if there's a mighty crapload of them all at the same time.
The police refuse to talk about these crimes, but television news reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) theorizes that they're possibly being committed by the same group of people. After filing a report about the crime wave for the evening news, April actually comes across some of these unseen thieves as they rob a production truck in a dark corner of the parking lot. They see her too, and none of them have any qualms about mugging a defenseless woman. Luckily for April, a street light above them shatters, and unluckily for her attackers, something knocks them all out just before the police arrive.
We follow April's saviors into the sewers, where we discover that they are a quartet of anthropomorphic tortoises trained in martial arts, each named after Renaissance artists and each carrying their own signature weapon. There's the sword-wielding samurai Leonardo (the voice of Brian Tochi); intellectual Donatello (the voice of Corey Feldman), armed with a bo staff; nunchucku-twirling practical joker Michelangelo (the voice of Robbie Rist); and sai-using Raphael (the voice of Kenn Troum), a sarcastic loner with a quick temper. The four return the subterranean den they call their home, as they prepare for a victory feast with their adoptive father, a wise mutant rat named Splinter (the voice of Kevin Clash). Raphael and Leonardo get into an argument, and Raphael storms out so he can cool off. He ends up in Central Park, where a fight with two purse snatchers leads Raphael to another brawl with Casey Jones (Elias Koates), a masked vigilante armed with an arsenal of sports equipment. Casey wins after cracking him with a cricket bat, further enraging Raphael by calling him a freak as he runs off. And that just doesn't jive with Raphael. He chases Casey a few blocks, but returns home defeated after his quarry evades him.
A day or two passes, and April returns to work, digging deeper into the cause of the crime wave. Doing so has not only draws the ire of the police department's grossly ineffective chief (Raymond Serra), but runs her afoul of a secretive, ancient band of ninjas known as the Foot Clan. A group of masked Foot members accost her in a subway terminal, warning her to keep her mouth shut before knocking her unconscious. But luckily for April, Raphael steps in and wards them off. He scoops her up and not knowing where else to go, takes her to his humble abode. She eventually awakens and is understandably freaked out, but calms down long enough for Splinter to explain how he and his four reptilian "sons" came to be. The Turtles escort April back to her apartment, but return to discover that the Foot has discovered their home and kidnapped Splinter.
The four emotionally crushed Turtles return to the safe haven of April's apartment, while Splinter is taken to the Foot's headquarters. Their headquarters is a secluded warehouse reminiscent of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, a den of sin and vice that seems to have drawn the attention of every no-good sleazebag punk kid in New York City. It is there that the Foot Clan is slowly building an army of teenage ninja warriors, led by a criminal mastermind known as "The Shredder" (James Saito). One of these teenagers is Danny Pennington (Michael Terney), the son of April's boss. Shredder has proclaimed the Turtles as the Foot's equivalent of Public Enemy #1, and having seen them hiding out at April's apartment, Danny tells Shredder exactly where to find them. Oh, that's just great. That no-good little weasel completely sold the Turtles out. I didn't like you before, but it's safe to say that you just made my list, pal. And another thing, Danny: stealing wallets from yuppies, wearing Sex Pistols shirts, and hanging out with an evil ninja clan doesn't make you hip. It just makes you even more of a tool.
Morning comes, and Shredder's chief lieutenant Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) leads a veritable army of Foot soldiers to April's apartment and launch a surprise attack on the Turtles. Even with Casey joining the fracas after seeing it from a nearby rooftop, the Foot grossly outnumber our heroes, who are forced to fall back as the building burns down around them. They retreat to April's childhood home in the country, where the defeated Turtles regroup and prepare themselves for a return to the city. They do eventually return, and with an apologetic Danny leading Casey to the Foot's headquarters so they can free Splinter, the Turtles wage a war with the Foot Clan that moves from the sewers to the streets, climaxing upon the city's rooftops as they have a final confrontation with Shredder.
In the lexicon of movies based on comic book superheroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems to get lost in the shuffle. One could blame it on the fact that the unbelievably immense success of the cartoon and action figures overshadowed the existence of the comics. And it's usually dismissed by non-fans, lumped with other forgotten comic book movies like Spawn or Steel. Forgotten comic book movies are usually that way for a reason; those that remember them don't exactly remember them fondly. But usually, the forgotten ones were poorly-made claptrap that completely flopped at the box office. That wasn't the case with this particular movie. The movie is actually pretty well done, and just like the franchise that inspired it, the movie was actually a big fat hit. It grossed just shy of 202 million dollars at the worldwide box office, and actually earned a spot as the highest-grossing independent movie of all time (until being dethroned by The Blair Witch Project nine years later). What surprises me about that is that it was neither produced nor distributed by a major studio. You'd think that with Turtlemania running wild, the major studios would be sacrificing their firstborn children to acquire the film rights. But New Line Cinema picked up the distribution rights with Golden Harvest handling production, and New Line had their some of their biggest success since the Nightmare on Elm Street series began.
The screenplay written by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck is very well done. It's actually darker than one would expect, considering that the movie probably wouldn't have been made if it hadn't been for a certain bright, cheerful Saturday morning cartoon. There's brief violence against women and animals (not counting violence against the four turtles, of course), two murders (and a third, implied one), and even a handful of mild profanities. I assume Langen and Herbeck chose to write the movie like this in order to retain some connection to Eastman and Laird's original comics, while also doing something to make the movie feel grown up. They even make references to The Grapes of Wrath, War and Peace, and, of all things, Bruce Willis's old TV show Moonlighting. That way, the adults who got dragged to the local movie theater by their Turtle-obsessed kids wouldn't feel like they were watching a movie made entirely for children. But I have to say that darkness aside, Langen and Herbeck's screenplay has a youthful enthusiasm. Scenes like Donatello and Casey playfully insulting one another alphabetically, Michelangelo yelling martial arts advice at an animated version of The Tortoise and the Hare, and the Turtles teasing Raphael because they think he has a crush on April keep the movie entertaining, lighthearted, and enjoyable. The only part of the script that fails is the instances of awkward, cringe-worthy dialogue, particularly the surfer lingo used by the Turtles. I'll admit that Kentucky has never exactly been the surfing capitol of the world, but I can't say that I know a single person that has ever said "gnarly," "radical," or "cowabunga" in a regular conversation. I have no clue how talking like that was EVER cool, even in 1990. Of course, I'll probably be mocking modern slang in about twenty years, but that's the circle of life.
Steve Barron's direction isn't too bad either. Known at the time for his work as a music video director, Barron appears to understand that the silliness of the Ninja Turtles concept is also what makes it special. Thus, neither Barron or cinematographer John Fenner really try anything fancy to distract from that silliness. I must say, though, that Barron does manage to keep the movie's energy high, especially during the action sequences. Prolonged fight scenes can grow tedius if they go on for too long, but Barron injects them with humor in order to keep them entertaining. Of course, it's completely within reason for the Turtles to crack joke after joke during their fights, so that also shows Barron's understanding of the property. On the music side of things, I enjoyed the music composed by John Du Prez. The score is engaging, exciting, matching the movie's pace and tone scene for scene and really enhancing what we see onscreen. And I have to say that the score is way better than pretty much all of the songs on the soundtrack. Pretty much all of the songs are as lame today as they were in 1990, and that's terrible.
The voice actors are excellent too, each of them filling their roles well. The actors playing the Turtles and Splinter give each of their characters lots of depth and emotion, which the roles need in order to make the characters believable. Unfortunately, the human cast is a mixed bag. Elias Koates is outstanding as Casey Jones, turning in a performance that's my favorite part of the whole movie. If I had to pick just one reason to check this movie out, it would be Koates's hilarious, entertaining performance. Meanwhile, Judith Hoag misses a few notes, which is mostly due to her having to deliver a few awkward lines of dialogue (i.e. "Am I behind on my Sony payments again?"). But for the most part, she's not bad. But I'll tell you who IS bad: pretty much everybody else. Raymond Serra and Jay Patterson, who plays April's boss, are complete non-factors in extremely minor, almost pointless roles, and Michael Turney just isn't very good at all. I could have completely done without the character to begin with, and Turney's awful performance makes me reach for my DVD player's fast-forward button every time I see him.
And I don't know whether I should really comment on James Saito or Toshishiro Obata's performances, since according to the credits, both of their voices are dubbed (with David McCharen handling Saito's dialogue and Michael McConnohie handling Obata's dialogue). It's like how people were complaining that Linda Blair got an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Exorcist when she didn't even speak half of her own dialogue in the finished film. If Saito and Obata's voices were dubbed over for reasons similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance in Hercules in New York, that's one thing. But if it's a matter of a language barrier, then I don't know what the problem is. Some of the actors in Hostel couldn't speak a word of English, and still managed to learn their lines phonetically. It shouldn't have been too hard for Obata, since he only had three short lines in the whole thing. I guess I'm just raising a stink over something that isn't all that big of a deal in the long run, but sometimes it's just the little things that bug me to death.
I would, however, be remiss if I didn't at least mention the real stars of the movie: the costumes designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The movie wasn't a success for the plot or the direction or anything like that; it made so much money because kids wanted to see four six-foot-tall turtles kick ninjas in the head. And I think those kids got their money's worth. Nowadays, the characters would have probably would have been CGI-enhanced, if not completely computer generated. But the fact that they're four guys in suits with animatronic facial features helps the movie feel a bit more real, since we can see that the cast is actually interacting with someone that's there on the set with them. And you'd think that the turtle costumes would be uncomfortable and constrictive, but the four actors wearing them David Forman, Michelan Sisti, Leif Tilden, and Josh Pais as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael respectively and their stunt doubles don't seem like they have any trouble performing. And for that, I applaud the Creature Shop's efforts.
I was one of millions of kids caught in the grip of Turtlemania back in 1990. We couldn't get enough of our favorite foursome, and to us, a Ninja Turtles movie was bigger than the Super Bowl and World Series combined. And nearly twenty years later, we Turtle fans have grown up, but I think the movie as aged as well as one could expect. No, it isn't as solid as it might have been when it was first released, but it's not a bad movie at all. As a comic book movie, I'll admit that it isn't as well-made as recent fare featuring Marvel and DC stars. But as entertainment, and as a reminder of just how wonderful my youth was, I think the movie was great. My final verdict: three and a half stars, leaning heavily towards four. Cowabunga, indeed.
Final Rating: ***½