TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: THE MOVIE – (1990)
Director: Steve Barron
Starring: Judith Hoag, Elias Kotaea
Screenplay by: Bobby Herbeck, Todd Langen
Say what you will about the 80s and early 90s animated television scene: it was pretty shameless (not as shameless as “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” though; think of it as a precursor). Completely geared to market the “cool” and “radical” onslaught of toys, video games, action figures, posters and merchandise to young, pubescent pre-teens, the excessive number of action-mutants that filled my Saturday morning and weekday afternoon was, to say the least, overwhelming. (Don’t believe me? Just look here and here.)
Still, for all the horrible shows (“Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Battletoads,” “Super Mario Bros.”), there were some gems (the OTHER “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Transformers,” “Biker Mice from Mars,” I guess). And no other one made more headway than “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The show was a “kiddie-fied” version of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s darker-toned comic, but it was so popular that inevitably an independently-funded (!) movie was made. So, what of it?
NOSTALGIC LENS: I didn’t love TMNT. I liked the show a lot. I liked the characters a lot. I enjoyed “TMNT: The Arcade Game” and ADORED “TMNT: Turtles in Time” (that first NES game can lick my goddamn taint). But I never grew attached to the fandom behind it. So it’s really no surprise that I don’t remember too much about the movie, other than it being darker than the cartoon (in more ways than one) and being confused by the pacing for some reason. A couple of lines stick out in my mind (“Can we keep her?”), but other than that, nothing much else.
DOES IT HOLD UP: I came to a disturbing realization while watching this movie. After dealing with the TMNT in some form or another over countless years, via gaming or toys or television or their various film exploits, it is only now that it finally dawned on me that there is one, incredible, astronomical concept central to the entire meaning behind this group that defines the essence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
They’re goddamn teenagers.
Laugh all you want, but I seriously doubt most TMNT watchers realized that those four brothers were somewhere between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. That’s probably because 90s teenagers were saying “phat” and “psyche!” and not so much “gnarly” and “radical”. The slang was off by ten years. Which make the Ninja Turtles in some sort of timeless trap, forever clung to late 70s/early 80s vernacular, a realm completely foreign to a 90s kid like myself. (That being said—I wonder if it was done on purpose. Like, Laird and Eastman were aware of 80s-ooze-born mutant turtles would be forever tarnished by their wacky, out-of-date terminology. It would be damn clever of them.)
Color me surprised, then, when I realized that a lot of this film comments on teenage angst and attitudes, the alienated youth of the early 90s, and the discordance between parent and their adolescent offspring. Of course, it’s simplistic, exaggerated, and over the top. Check out the beginning of this scene:
SMOKING, GAMBLING, VIDYA GAMES, SKATEBOARDING, THINLY-VEILED HOMOSEXUALITY! It’s all connected.
Even in its obvious lameness, there’s a sense of understanding, or an attempt to understand, the lost, complex teenage mind, and the ease to which frustrated teenagers can fall into the wrong and dangerous crowd. In an alternate world, this could be a decent critique on the influence of the gang-mentality. But this is all a washed in the days of “Say No to Drugs” and “Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?” (Believe me, I am.). Also, we just want to see some goddamn turtles kicking some ass.
And we get that. Many long, proactive scenes of the four brothers whipping some Foot Clan butt fill this movie, with some rather impressive moves for people stuck in animatronic rubber suits. (Props to the Jim Henson crew, but you can clearly see where the mechanical head meets the neck.) These fight sequences don’t date too well, though. After seeing the one hundred Agent Smith fight in Matrix: Reloaded, the one hundred Foot Clan fight just falters in Thug Cliché #41; that is, at most only two clan members can fight the turtles at anytime.
The turtles themselves are just as young as the teenagers in the clip, and just as lost. When Splinter, their mentor, teacher, and “father,” is kidnapped, the ninja-experts appear at April’s doorstep like helpless orphans. Leo and Ralph bicker like brothers wont to do (but JESUS, is there any TMNT story that doesn’t involve emo-loner Ralph bitching with his leadership-lacking brother? Is Donny too much of a nerd to be given a story? Is Mikey regulated to comic relief forever?). But in a surprisingly well-shot and somewhat-artsy set of scenes, the brothers, after escaping a rush of Foot Soldiers with a wounded Ralph, heal, bond and grow up a little out at April’s farmhouse. (She and universal cutie Casey Jones get closer too, but no one really cares about that).
They return, fight some Shredder, save Splinter, and free ALL the teenage runaways in the process. It’s all way too cheesy to be given any more credit than what you get, and wraps up too nicely. But, again, in that alternate world theory, Danny’s plea to his father to just call him Dan at the end speaks volumes, so you can’t really fault the filmmakers for not trying to be at least a little deep. But, then again, between the hokey dialogue, mediocre plot, awkward fight scenes, and the COUNTLESS shots of product placement, maybe you can.
IN A NUTSHELL: What can I say? It is what it is. It’s kind of disappointing that for all the rich stuff the film does touch upon, it doesn’t really go anywhere with it. As for a movie about turtles kicking tail: well, like I said, its impressive, but you can get a lot more exciting stuff via the comics/cartoons/video games. This may have been the coolest thing ever in 1990, but nowadays, it’s hard not to be harsh on it. At least it’s fun for the most part, and tries to say something, unlike, say, Batman & Robin.
June 8th: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
June 15th: The Rescuers