I know you’re used to bite-sized reviews from yours truly but I decided to expand a little bit and talk about something near and dear to my heart…
Like most men my age, as a kid I discovered a sweet bit of animation glory that would go on to become a pop culture phenomenon. I’m talking of course of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As a youngling, I never knew they were based on a dark, gritty comic that was, essentially, a parody of Daredevil but I did know about that glorious cartoon filled with ridiculous talking mutants and four turtles that shouted out the best slang of the 80s and slammed down copious amounts of pizza. They were wise-cracking, butt-kicking heroes in a half-shell and I loved them. So, also like most men who are now in their early thirties, I practically messed myself when the first live action film came out in March of 1990.
I fondly remember the experience of waiting outside the theater with my father and, I can’t believe this still sticks in my head, but I will never forget seeing some teenage girls in line too and they were singing the theme song (I kinda fell in love that day). For a kid who was just entering into his pre-teen years, the first film was glorious (and some girls liked it, too. So that was extra awesome!). While I was a stupid kid and didn’t really take into consideration that the film was a little darker than the cartoon and that it took stories directly from the comics that I wasn’t reading, it still had them saying “Cowabunga,” had them riding skateboards and eating pizza, and, more importantly, favorite characters like Casey Jones and the Shredder were being seen on the big screen and were no longer gobs of paint and ink.
24 years later, the Turtles are still relevant and the good Reverend is still a fan. Since the time I was first informed that Leo leads, Donatello does machines and that Raphael is cool but rude and Michelangelo is a party dude, I have spent my time collecting the DVD releases of the original animated series (which is hard to watch now that I’m older), becoming borderline obsessed with the 2nd animated series they made, catching up here and there with the newer computer animated Nickelodeon series, reading some of the old comics and buying the four brothers whenever they come out in action figure form. I even own all the films on DVD—including the dreaded third film. However, I haven’t pulled out the first film since I purchased it years ago—probably a good ten years after its release. So, in the name of Turtles Week here at Robot Pajamas, I’ve decided to re-visit the first live action film and see how it holds up some twenty years later.
First off, this isn’t going to be a write up about how I’ve grown and matured and the film is no longer fun to me because I pay bills and deal with ulcers and hemorrhoids because I’m an adult. It needs to be noted that I haven’t matured in any way, shape, or form but growing up and advancing movie techniques did have an impact on watching this film for the first time in a decade. Having now read many of the comic story lines that were the influence for the film and now going back and having re-watched all the old cartoons as I’ve bought the seasons, I can greater appreciate the story now than I did when I was a dumb kid. As a dumb adult, I like the blending of the gritty comic with the fun-loving shenanigans of the cartoon. However, watching it now, the story still has some issues and I can now really see why the critics were very mixed on the film when it debuted.
The story isn’t really sloppy, it’s just ridiculously simple and is lacking in a lot of detail. Sure, when I was approaching 10 years old, this was fine but watching now, you realize the film—despite being an origin tale of the Turtles—glosses over their beginnings with a quick montage of Splinter boring April with how he found his sons and a story that he probably tells everyone he meets before showing them photos of them growing up and offering up some Werther’s Originals (Splinter is old, is what I’m trying to say). After this is out of the way, the film moves on to Splinter getting kidnapped, the Turtles wussing out and running away to a farm so they can cry and male-bond before deciding to come back…only to take off more time before confronting Shredder and the Foot. Then the final battle happens, Casey kisses April, some Ewoks probably started dancing and the film ends. Realistically, there’s not much going on in the story for the film. Even the Turtles preparing themselves for battle to save their sensei is paltry at best and is just a quick and clumsy training sequence. In the comics, Splinter trains the Turtles for their entire lives for the sole purpose of killing Shredder. In the film, they train their wholes lives to flee the moment danger hits their home turf and then half-ass some training on a farm outside of Manhattan and then, suddenly, they are ready. As a kid, I never noticed how silly this plays out but now, it’s as obvious as the lack of pants the Turtles have…or as obvious as the gorgeous mane of hair that Elias Koteas sports as Casey Jones.
So, how about the action? How did that hold up? Back when the film came out, the genius behind the Turtle costumes (a god merely lent to our mortal world; Jim Henson) was offended by the violence and parents were outraged by the Turtles kicking some rear end but, when you consider what gets put into films nowadays (like Pixar having a movie about talking cars that literally start murdering each other in the sequel), the violence is laughably weak and ridiculously tame. While it’s still amazing that any of the actors were able to move at all in those cumbersome costumes, it still results in fight scenes that involve punches and kicks that look like they barely connect and require the stuntmen playing the Foot Clan lackeys to oversell the impacts. However, the final battle between the Turtles and Shredder still is awesome and is worth the lackluster action the film has the rest of the time.
Then, of course, there’s the effects. In 1990, special effects weren’t what they are today and practical effects were the name of the game. In order to bring Leo and his brothers to life, production went to Jim Henson and what his creature effects team did was something magical and phenomenal and, in my opinion, still holds up. Sure, the Turtles don’t look the most realistic, their shells look soft and spongy rather than…well…as hard as shells, and there are times when their mouths move awkwardly with their voices and their faces sometimes looking like they are about to have a seizure but they are still works of engineering genius and the effort that was placed into making them what they are (awkward movements and all) is still an impressive feat and something just not seen in films nowadays. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those types who are suddenly calling for a resurgence of practical puppet effects and hate CGI like mo-capping the Turtles for the new Bay-produced adventure is something akin to the Salem Witch Trials (reads the comments sometimes on CGI stuff, you swear half the Internet has torches and pitchforks ready so they can storm the castles of Hollywood) but these puppet Turtles still look half-way decent all these years.
Aside from the obvious stuff like story, effects, and action, there were some other elements that just don’t hold up from the ending of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. Yes, the film has a lot of dated references and the movie has the has-been and never-should-have-been Corey Feldman being Donatello but, after years of watching the new animated series and reading the comics, I’ve now realized that the film doesn’t really get the Turtle’s and their defining characteristics as well as they should. Yes, in the broad sense Leo is definitely trying to be the leader but he doesn’t feel like the Leo we know—the Leo who is dedicated to being the best there is and doing what is right and not what is always best. And yes, Mikey is still the goofball and the movie does away with the bad-joking telling Raph and goes with the more comic book defined character who is hot-headed, loyal-to-a-fault and reacts with anger rather than thought but, this time around, I realized the biggest thing this film forgot about the Turtles…Donnie’s genius.
Granted, the film will occasionally have a moment where you see that Donnie is smart but never does the film establish he is the inventor of the group. Now you’re probably saying, “Rev., it wasn’t until the second issue back in the day that Eastman and Laird established that Donnie is into this kind of stuff.” Valid point but, by the time the movie came out, we knew Donnie as the tech guru and not having him even blurt out some techno babble in the film was a little strange. 9 year old Rev. never noticed this but 33 year old Rev. did. Is this the fault of having a Corey play the voice? No, but I’ll blame him anyway.
In the end, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still a lot of fun. Granted, Judith Hoag may not have been the perfect April (even though, years later, I still only identify her as April despite her rich body of acting work), the action isn’t as good as it could have been, the Shredder’s blades look dull and plastic and he’s seen wearing a metallic/zebra-like print cape and is dressed in semi-sparkling red clothes, there’s a really strange and inappropriate gay joke thrown in, and we have to deal with the reality that Corey Feldman is the voice of Donnie but Elias Koteas was fantastic as Casey Jones, the Turtles say “bitchin’” and “damn” (which is cool to a 9 year old but nothing to a 33 year old…actually, it’s still cool to a 33 year old), Sam Rockwell was in the film before we all knew and loved him, and it is still the maiden voyage of live-action Turtles on the screen (which might actually be a bad thing to some people who are mad at the latest film that’s on the verge of being released).
Does 33 years old Rev. Ron like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as much as 9 year old Rev. Ron (a time before he was ordained… a dark time)? Honestly, no. However, that’s not me saying the film is bad in any way. The movie is still fun and is still capable of bringing me back to my youth. More importantly, though, the film proved that a marriage between the darks of the comics can be mixed with the lights of the cartoon and this would later pay off down the line as the Turtles haven’t been the ones from the 80s cartoon in a long time. So, in the end, does it hold up? Short answer, it does. Long answer, it still does but the memory of it is better than the reality…