Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the first film I remember seeing on a theater, one of my earliest, most vivid memories.  I was as jubilant as a five-year-old in 1990 could be -- I'd never missed an episode of the cartoon series, my action figure collection was growing by the week, and now, the house lights were dimming for the first-ever live-action TMNT movie.  93 minutes later, as our family made our way to the car, I recall throwing kicks and punches at invisible opponents all through the parking lot, my head buzzing from what had been, up to that point, the greatest experience of my young life.  Rewatching it as a 28-year-old, the film withstands the test of time as it successfully blends elements from the comic books and TV show, helping it appeal to both older fans of the original comics and newer fans of the cartoons.  Over 20 years later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remains a totally radical adventure and still the best movie adaptation for the franchise to date.

To start with, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles presents the creation of the four butt-kicking, pizza-loving reptiles in a way that largely mirrors the comic book origin story.  The pet rat of Ninjitsu master Hamato Yoshi witnesses his owner's murder at the hands of an unknown assailant and escapes into the New York City sewers.  The tenacious rodent befriends a group of baby turtles squirming around in a strange, glowing slime-like substance, and the ooze immediately causes them all to begin growing at an accelerated rate.  Fifteen years later, Splinter continues to inhabit subterranean NYC with his four adopted adolescent sons; instilled with hundreds of years of Ninjitsu training and discipline, the brothers now prevail as a conditioned team of stealthy fighters.  The Turtles soon take to the streets to clash with a crimewave decimating the city, forcing the anthropomorphous warriors to defend a population that doesn't even know they exist.

The boys in green strike up an alliance with Channel 3 reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) after rescuing her from the Foot Clan, a seemingly unlimited supply of masked runaways and back-alley thugs lead by the foreboding Shredder (portrayed by James Saito, voiced by David McCharen).  The metal-clad commander has a death-squeeze on New York City and also happens to be the man responsible for Master Yoshi's death, putting him at odds with Splinter and his rough-and-tough teenaged protégés.  The Turtles are assisted on their quest by hockey-obsessed vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas in a comical role), a trash-talking brawler and self-appointed night watchman of the Big Apple's streets.  While the outrageous set-up might be a bit of a stretch for adult viewers, anyone can appreciate the film for its fun, not-too-campy performances, excellently choreographed battle scenes and stellar special effects work by the late Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

Director Steve Barron, whose filmography up to that point included only a few music videos for Bryan Adams and ZZ Top, squeezed every last cent out of his allotted $13.5 million budget to help craft what remains the best looking Turtles to date.  They look organic and realistic, one of Jim Henson's final on-screen projects before succumbing to pneumonia two months after the movie's release.  Henson, the legendary puppeteer and founder of The Muppets, shaped the fearsome foursome with fiberglass, clay and foam rubber latex, resulting in some of the most elaborate creations of his storied career.  The Turtles' height was raised a few feet from their comic and TV show counterparts to accommodate actors inside the costumes.  The assortment of stuntmen and guy-in-a-suit veterans move fluidly in their shells, Leo, Don, Ralph and Mike jump, kick, punch and back flip their way through the scenery with ease while tangling with endless Foot Clan cronies.

Though the action is heavily stylized and completely bloodless (unlike the brutality displayed in the original comics), it still made some parents anxious.  Viewing the film today, most people would agree that the overall tone of the movie is much darker than most cutie-patootie child fare churned out nowadays.  For instance, in one scene Raphael is overpowered by a few dozen Foot Soldiers and dropped through April's apartment skylight, knocking him unconscious for (seriously) a week or so.  Again, stylized and bloodless, but nonetheless controversial to some.  Even Jim Henson went on record stating that the finished film contained too much violence for his liking.  The combat was noticeably weakened for future installments, all of which turned out much less financially successful.  This fact further sustains that the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flick strikes a perfect balance between catering to the kiddies and keeping Mom and Dad interested as well.

The Verdict: Opening in theaters at #1?  Bodacious!  Doubling its budget in the first weekend of release?  Tubular!  Standing as the highest-grossing independent movie for years to come?  Cowabunga!  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie continues its legacy as the best of the franchise.  Although the ending features a less-than-sensational showdown between the Turtles and Shredder (with much-needed assistance by Master Splinter), there are more than enough reasons to support Part 1 as the strongest entry of the series.  Surely the upcoming multi-million-dollar Michael Bay-produced "re-imagining" set for next year and starring Megan Fox won't be able to even come close to the magic demonstrated in 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Rating: out of

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