Everyone has a couple of movies that they would call a “guilty pleasure”, a movie that they know isn’t objectively that good but that you still really enjoy for some reason or another. In this particular case, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) is a personal favorite primarily for nostalgia’s sake: I freaking loved the Ninja Turtles as a kid. The movie adaptation of the popular children’s cartoon based on dark and gritty satire comic books by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird takes me back to that period of life and is just good enough for me not to feel stupid for liking it. Heck, I actually this movie more now as an adult than I did as a kid; I grew up watching mostly the sequel The Secret of the Ooze (1991) but now that I’m older I appreciate this movie more for it’s more serious tone.
If you’re of those people who neither grew up with TMNT nor have passing familiarity with it thanks to other people’s interests (my nephews and niece are crazy about them), let me give a basic rundown. Four young turtles living in a New York City sewer come into contact with a mysterious green “ooze” that transforms them into intelligent, anthropomorphic and giant sized mutants. Similarly transformed is a rat named Splinter, who has learned the art of ninjitsu from his owner Hamato Yoshi (just stay with me here). He raises the turtles as his sons, training them to become ninja warriors and naming them after Renaissance artists. Now teenagers, the turtles work together to fight crime in New York City.
Yes, it’s completely ridiculous… which is kind of the point. It’s a wacky, insane concept that started as a way for Eastman and Laird to parody other popular comics going on the time; the X-Men and Daredevil among others. The comics were dark and gritty and moderately successful, but when Eastman and Laird were approached by various marketing groups, the Turtles would soon become a commercial juggernaut with extremely successful toys and a popular television cartoon. Taking a decidedly more kid-friendly spin on the idea, the Ninja Turtles became ingrained in pop culture in the late eighties and early nineties. Kids loved it and even teenagers enjoyed them thanks to the more mature stories in the comics.
So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a live-action movie would be made. What is surprising is that despite the proven commercial success of the franchise, no major studio wanted to be attached to the project. The small independent studio New Line Cinema finally attached themselves to it, and with the help of the most advanced puppetry and animatronics that Jim Henson could provide, created one of the ten highest grossing films of 1990 and one of the most successful independent films of all time.
TMNT is a franchise that by all rights is too ridiculous to work, but in some ways is too ridiculous not to work; the premise immediately stands out from everything out there, but what makes the Turtles such enduring pop culture icons is that there was some extremely smart character work put into them. Leonardo (blue mask and katanas, for the newbies) is oldest one, the leader who is most devoted to Splinter’s teachings. He’s more serious than his brothers because he has more responsibility. Michelangelo (orange mask and nunchucks) was the youngest, the fun-loving goofball who never took life too seriously and was more of an innocent kid. Donatello (purple mask and bo staff) was the most intelligent and creative of the group, and the one I related to the most.
And then there’s Raphael.
Arguably the greatest contribution this movie made to the Turtles mythology was giving Raphael a more defined and interesting character. In the TV show he was definitely comic relief, a little more fatalistic than Michelangelo but not in a way that separated the two in a meaningful way. This movie cast the red-masked, dual sai-wielding Turtle into an angry loner who often came into conflict with his brothers and was prone to rash decisions. This not only made Raphael a breakthrough character (probably the most popular Turtle), but also helped to make Mikey stand out even more. Unsurprisingly, the characterization has stuck ever since.
This characterization is really the heart and soul of the Turtles franchise; while fundamentally flawed in many ways (and suffering a severe lack of female characters), the characters are instantly recognizable by their personalities. These personalities bounce off each other perfectly, whether the characters are getting along or butting heads; there’s a real sense of family with these characters and I think that’s what made them stand out over time.
So anyway, if you haven’t seen this movie and are unfamiliar with TMNT, this is a really good way to become familiar with the franchise. Besides the Turtles and their relationships, the movie also incorporates most of the key elements of the franchise. The Turtles meet April O’Neil, a reporter who serves as both the audience surrogate and the narrator for the movie (played excellently by Judith Hoag) and Casey Jones, a vigilante who fights with sports weapons who kind of sits around making fun of the movie without being obnoxious about it. He’s much cooler than he sounds, and a lot of that is thanks to Elias Koteas’ natural charm and swagger.
The main villain is Shredder, a Japanese samurai warrior who killed Splinter’s owner and is running the Foot Clan, a cultlike gang of criminals who try to brainwash the New York youth by saying the Foot Clan is their new family. In contrast to that is the strong real family dynamics of the Turtles and Splinter, and I think what I love about this film most is how much it explores the dynamic between Splinter and the Turtles; there’s some real emotion put into the dialogue in this movie and it’s hard not to feel for the characters and what they are going through. The fact that the film has a pretty strong anti-gang and pro-family message was certainly powerful at the time the film came out and I think still makes it a good film for parents to show their kids today.