Revisiting 1990: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

August 24, 2010

Considered For: Guilty Pleasure

“You’re a claustrophobic!” — “You want a fist in the mouth? I’ve never even looked at another guy.”

Yeah, I went there. Not all the movies I’m going to be revisiting are because of Top 5 potential. Each year, I also want to take a look at my the top sequels, animated films, comedies, horror flicks, sports movies and guilty pleasures. I would define a guilty pleasure, in this case, as a movie that isn’t particularly great in the grand scheme of things, but either holds a special place in my heart because it’s a childhood favorite or has qualities that make it fantastic that don’t normally coincide with top film-making. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles certainly fits the bill. I grew up on The Turtles, so there’s an obvious sense of nostalgia here and while I didn’t particularly love the original TMNT movie as a youngster, when I was scrolling through the 1990 film list, I immediately wanted to see it again.

It’s silly to say this now, as an adult, but I actually think the first Turtles movie was a little dark. You have Raphael saying “damn” and “bitchin'” throughout the movie, which isn’t shocking today, but in 1990 I was eight, and I never heard any of the Turtles use that kind of language on the cartoon show. I remember as a child that it struck me and I remember thinking the film was a little boring. Even though I can see it’s clearly a campy movie now, it didn’t seem that way when I was young. I always preferred the sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze as a kid, something I now recognize as the inferior film.

Another thing I remember being disappointed about was the lack of any recognizable bad guys outside of Shredder and the Foot Clan. Seriously, no Rocksteady and Bebop? Three movies later and these guys still haven’t made an appearance. It’s an unforgivable exclusion. No Baxter Stockman? Come on! These are not only easy, but essential villains in the TMNT universe. I can understand why The Rat King, Leatherhead, and even Krang weren’t included, but I still can’t get over the fact that in four TMNT movies total, only Shredder and the Foot Clan have been used from a pool of a pretty solid rogues gallery. Snoooooooooze.

Thankfully, I’ve had twenty years to get over all of this and revisiting this movie in 2010 was actually fun. It’s rare that I like a movie I watched frequently as a kid more as an adult. Usually in this situation, I can barely stomach getting through one of my childhood favorites. While this TMNT movie is often corny, it’s actually a fairly decent origin story. As much as I want to ridicule a caged rat mimicking his master’s martial arts moves, I have to remember that I’m willingly and knowingly watching a movie about fully grown, Ninjutsu-performing, TALKING turtles. I forgive you scriptwriters!

The story here is pretty simple. Our heroes have been secretly living and training in the sewers of New York for over a decade. On the surface, the city has become overrun with organized crime and the Turtles rise above to start cleaning things up. This ruffles the armor of Shredder, the leader of The Foot Clan, and mastermind behind the majority of crime taking place in New York. He has taken in the rejected and morally challenged youth of the city and has created an army of ninjas. We come to discover that the Turtles mutated rat of a sensei, Splinter, has a history with this Shredder and the beef between the two camps becomes personal, especially after Splinter is kidnapped. Meanwhile, April O’Niell (Judith Hoag), the only news reporter that suspects the truth behind the crime rise, becomes the Turtles first human friend. Together, along with vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), they all set out to stop the Foot Clan from further damaging the city.

It’s pretty easy to nitpick this movie to death. My favorite scene in the movie is when Raphael puts on a trench coat and a hat to roam the city. Granted, he looks like a freak in a costume, but if we’re supposed to look at these characters as realistic, I’d have to assume that Raph’s disguise isn’t really cutting it amongst civilized people. It’d be one thing if he was completely devoid of human interaction, but Raphael has several encounters while costumed and somehow, no one is the wiser. I also like the fact that once kidnapped, Splinter is chained to a wall looking like Jesus on the cross, but is completely unsupervised and readily accessible to even the lowest of Shredder’s henchmen. It’s the type of nonsense that Austin Powers pokes fun at whenever Dr. Evil manages to imprison an enemy.

The costumes in this movie are also ridiculous. Yeah, it was twenty years ago, but it’s quite an embarrassing effort considering a movie as advanced as Terminator 2: Judgement Day came out less than a year later, followed by Jurassic Park in 1993. Those movies make TMNT look like it was made in 1980. I actually paused the movie last night during a scene where Michaelangelo pulls out a container of turtle wax and turns to Donatello to say something… you can see the separation between the head and torso sections of the stuntman’s costume! What part of the film editing game is that?

It seems like I’m griping, but in some way, it’s these flaws that make TMNT so endearing. I don’t think anyone involved with this movie thought they were going to be getting Oscar attention or critical raves. They set out to make a movie that kids that grew up on the cartoon could enjoy and I think they did a fairly decent job. With the exception of Donatello, the personalities of the Turtles were accurately depicted in the adaptation. I also like the fact that Shredder is a menacing and formidable foe, unlike his mostly hapless TV series counterpart. The casting of Elias Koteas was spot on for Casey Jones. In a film filled with laughable acting, he put in a laudable effort, despite some terrible dialogue.

It’s certainly easy to laugh at this movie twenty years later, but last time I checked laughing is an enjoyable activity, so TMNT is alright in my book, regardless of whether some of the humor is intended or not. In no way is this a good film, but in a lot of ways it is a fun one. We all know a better Turtles movie could have been made–and it was with 2007’s TMNT–but the original can still be viewed fondly, and I think the best Turtles movie is still ahead of us. I’m not going to offer any stern recommendations here, but revisiting the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t the worst way to spend a couple hours of a day.

Grade: B-
Viewings: 5-7
Replay Value: Surprisingly decent
Sequel Potential: 3 sequels have been made and I doubt we’re done yet.
Oscars?: No Best Costumes nomination?! What does the Academy want?!
Nudity?: We get plenty of turtles in a half shell, but the highlight is seeing April O’Niel’s nipples poking through her blouse.


  1. Fabulous posting bro. This important is just a tremendously nicely structured post, just the critical info I was looking just for. I praise you

  2. its all about the scene in TMNT where the camera is panning through the bad kid’s hang out spot. i think it was a warehouse. there are kids smoking cigars and playing poker. and then you hear a kid yell, “FULL HOUSE!” and all the other kids throw their hands away and bang the table in disgust. i remember thinking to my 5 year old self, i wanna be that kid with the full house.

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