An actual birthday present I received this year was a trip to see our favorite heroes in the half-shell on the big screen once again. Rather than simply reviewing the movie, however, I thought I would do a short series on the Turtle movies as a whole in order to give a full-effect of where this new movie lies in comparison to it’s predecessors.
So, without further ado. Let’s jump in the way-back machine to 1990.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
In 1990 the Turtles underwent their first translation to the big screen. This was a monumental task for the time, as CGI effects were in their infancy; therefore, the Turtles had to be realized through practical effects. Cue Jim Henson’s creature shop who created animatronic heads that would allow the turtles to emote on screen. Throwing the heads on top of some martial artists in rubber suits, and they had some state-of-the-art Ninja Turtles. Much of the movie’s success relied on this effect. While the illusion has dwindled somewhat due to the advent of high-definition, it’s still a great spectacle seeing the turtles walk and talk on screen alongside actors and actresses. So, there’s the hook, but did a good effect produce a decent movie?
Plot and Script
Trying to summarize the plot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is somewhat difficult, for multiple reasons. One is the main villain’s motivations are not terribly clear. The Shredder has started a crime wave, though it’s never clear to what ends. April O’Neil’s snooping gets her on the wrong side of Shredder’s Foot Clan, though it’s never fully explained why they even care about her investigation. The story instead is structured in a fashion that these questions aren’t having to be directly addressed, as it plays out as a series of strands that eventually weave together.
For instance, April is rescued from a mugging in the opening scene by unseen vigilantes, later revealed to the audience as the Turtles. Raphael, however, leaves a sai at the scene, which April takes with her. This leads to a plot thread of Raph trying to get his sai back; which is resolved later when April is accosted in the subway by Foot ninja. This then leads to April inevitably meeting the Turtles; however, a Foot ninja following Raph back to the lair triggers the Foot attacking the Turtles’ home and capturing Splinter… etc.
The point being, everything plays out as a series of intertwined events; even if the scenes feel somewhat disjointed at times, the pay off usually isn’t very far off. Given the amount of items that have to be addressed through the course of the movie, this kind of puzzle-piece structure works well. In addition, the proceedings are written with a great bit of levity, if a bit more mature than it’s perceived demographic.
As stated before, the turtles look good given the technology at the time. It helps that many scenes play out in poor or low light, which more easily conceals the illusion. Even in broad daylight, the turtles don’t look bad, they just look less real than they would otherwise. In terms of writing, it depends upon the turtle we’re talking about.
Raphael is the turtle the audience spends the most time with, and therefore the one we get to know the most during the first half of the movie. Raph is a hot-head and a loner — two qualities that worry their adoptive father Splinter. It also puts him at odds with his older brother Leonardo. Raph is taught a lesson by being ambushed by the foot while he’s out on his own, though it’s unclear if he actually learned anything from it, as the second half of the movie after Raph is out of commission shifts focus onto the other turtles. Overall, Raph is represented uniquely, and would be a reference point in future iterations of the Turtles.
Leonardo is the other turtle heavily involved in the plot, as Raph goes out on his own as a result of their argument on how to handle the loss of their master. Leonardo feels guilty about things he said to Raphael before he was incapacitated. Leonardo is also the one who is initially contacted spiritually by Splinter, leading to the turtles climatic face-off with the Shredder. Leo is shown to be the most responsible of his brothers, as well as the one most in-tune with their father — qualities that would be further developed in other media following it.
As would be the case in later installments, Mikey is used primarily as comic relief throughout the film. Michaelangelo effectively gave birth to the fight-scene banter that has become a staple of the turtles in subsequent movies, tv shows, and video games as well. He breaths levity into a situation that would otherwise be rather intense much of the time. The drawback, however, is that Michaelangelo doesn’t really get much else to do, and is possibly the least developed of the four.
While Michaelangelo was given little to do, Donatello was given less in terms of dialogue. Reading into the few lines Donatello has that aren’t jokes, we find that he does contemplate Splinter’s foreboding message at the beginning, as well as empathizes with April’s feelings about her father’s antique shop. Unfortunately, that’s about all. His traditional techno-geek persona isn’t really addressed, but then it never really comes up in the story either.
The rest of the cast was mostly strong. Kevin Clash (also known for Elmo from Sesame Street) does Splinter’s voice, and creates a very iconic image of him. Splinter was also more of a traditional muppet, but was still believable in most of his scenes. Unlike the turtles, his scenes are never in daylight, likely for this reason.
Judith Hoag’s April O’Neil is a reporter who will not take no for an answer, and will step on anyone who gets in her way. In many ways, she’s a reflection of Rapheal, as both have an attitude that gets them into desperate situations. Judith does a good job bringing out April’s more fiery aspects, and is really in her element in when she’s arguing with one of the other human characters. She’s more than adequate in the quieter scenes as well. Overall, I was impressed with her performance, particular since she had to carry so much of the movie.
Elias Koteas, in return, brings some humanity to the psychopathic vigilante Casey Jones. While Casey clearly has a chip on his shoulder, he proves to be a decent guy by jumping into the fight when he sees Raph ambushed by the foot. Elias’s Casey also sets a standard that future iterations of the character would take notes from.
The weaker point of the human cast falls on Micheal Turney as Danny Pennington. The Penningtons (Danny and his father Charles) are original characters to the film. They basically serve to move plot along, tie-in further backstory, and give a glimpse of the situation from the Foot’s angle. Their scenes are necessary, but often not terribly interesting. Charles (Jay Patterson) at least does a decent job and is believable as a worried dad. Micheal Turney’s delivery, however, is mostly dry.
Similarly, the Shedder, though well done by both the physical actor, James Saito, and voice actor, David McCharen, he is never very well realized in the film. In fact, we learn more about his underling Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata/Michael McConnohie) than the shredder himself.
The tone of the film is an interesting discussion point, which is why I chose to address it separately. The movie feels like it is very dark and gritty, but I attribute that actually to the films lighting and direction. It only feels gritty and dark because it is filmed that way. The dark and low light helps maintain the illusion, so it’s the proper choice for most scenes. The script itself is mostly light-hearted with some occasional emotional moments. It’s an odd blend that ends up working due to the turtles darker source material, but more kid-friendly alternative media.
Ranking = #1
I will be ranking each of the 5 films with an overall score based on how it performs compared to it’s counterparts. The original film is the test for which all other turtles movies are judged, and for good reason. Despite some flaws, it covers the basis of everything anyone expects from a Ninja Turtles film — action and humor blended with a decent story. For this reason, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) holds the highest rank of the 5 films. Often imitated, but so far never duplicated.