The Case For: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Movie

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Movies geared toward younger audiences are often the first to be overlooked by distributors capable of giving their products the royal treatment. That is why this month I will be writing about kids movies that I believe deserve better thought out editions of their DVD and Bluray releases.

The original live action adaptation of the comic book property TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is one of the most original, dark and gritty children’s films I have ever experienced. I remember seeing it in the movie theater when I was a child growing up in Maine and to this day, no other kids movie has been able to top this one. Here is my reasoning for why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) deserves the Criterion Treatment (or an equally thoughtful release).

*Possible Spoilers* below for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie.

The film features a beautiful collection of puppets and costumes manufactured by The Jim Henson Creature Shop and a cast of actors so perfect for their parts its rather difficult to understand why they replaced some of them in the subsequent sequels.

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesFor those of you from another planet, the story is fabulous if not the coolest concept from this side of the pond: four mutated turtles, who happen to be teenagers and well trained in the art of ninjutsu, take on their Master Splinter’s arch enemy, the evil Shredder in an effort to bring peace to the Big Apple. Splinter is a mutated sewer rat, the Shredder is an evil samurai. The Shredder commands a clan of ninja thieves called “The Foot”, which is treated in this film like an American faction of a much larger organized crime syndicate, on par with the Yakuza. The movie is dark, gritty and has a good all around independent feel. The production value comes from its performances, costumes, puppetry and the work of its creative team. The work Jim Henson and his people did on this film is top notch and the aesthetic of the film has yet to be duplicated (they didn’t even maintain the aesthetics of the first film in any of the sequels). The cinematography is NYC downtown indie in style, which adds an enormous amount of value to the material. If this wasn’t such a valuable comic book property, this could have very well been mistaken for a film you might see in the Essential Cinema Collection at the Anthology Film Archives. The choices made with the script are also quite ballsy (even for the day). To have a hero character making the decision to kill an unarmed, unconscious individual (as Casey Jones proceeded to do when he activated the trash compactor with the Shredder inside), is quite a big deal. I wrote about this scene in an interview I gave to a crowd funding site a little more than a year ago.

The Cast: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Josh Pais, Michelan Sisti, Leif Tilden, Jay Patterson, James Saito, Corey Feldman and a very young Sam Rockwell. See the rest of the cast here.

In Retrospect

Chip Hackler, one of the camera men who worked on the film, has fond memories of his work on both this film and its sequel (which were both shot in North Carolina). I recently had an exchange with him about his experience on the movie in preparation for this column.

 “I have fond memories of working on those films” says Chip, referring to both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its first sequel.  “Being a 2nd AC was kind of fun, because once you got the hang of it, it wasn’t that hard and you could check out everything going on around you. You don’t have the pressure of the 1st AC/focus puller.  I remember an independent crew was making a behind-the-scenes doc and I knew the cameraman from a film I’d done out west the year before and he walked up to me and handed me the camera (an Arri SR2, in handheld mode, which was an awesome 16mm camera at the time), and said, “Here, shoot some.” No one had ever let me do that before, and it was absolutely thrilling.”

“On a side note, we couldn’t help but reflect sadly in Wilmington that the first two were made here and were major hits, making tons of money, so what did the producers do? Make the 3rd one in Canada.  One of the ironies is that they spent more & more to make each successive film, and they were less & less profitable.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesAccording to Chip and backed up by official sources, the first TMNT movie is considered one of the most successful films to be made outside of a major studio. Produced at around 13 million dollars, the film brought in approximately 135 million at the box office, which is enormous in the 1980’s for any film, but especially one that went into production without a solid distribution agreement.

Growing up in the 1980’s, when Tim Burton’s Batman came out, this film was a welcome competitor for the attention of my peers. I have vivid memories of arguments with the kids at school about who would win a fight: Batman or the Ninja Turtles? To this day it’s still up in the air, although I’d like to think they would all work together to build a better city. :)

The Current Release & Possible Content

The current US release is an absolute bare-bones disc with an inferior telecine, an inferior authoring and absolutely no supplemental content. To put it bluntly, it’s a joke and insult to the fans and filmmakers alike. Some of my computers’ DVD drives can’t even read the darn thing. There is a Special Edition DVD authored, but it is in PAL format and is only available in Germany – for what reason is beyond my understanding. It includes some behind the scenes content and an audio commentary from Director Steve Barron but it’s useless to all of us not residing in Germany.

Fans of the film have been posting on the director’s IMDB message board and on the film’s board for years about why there isn’t a special edition of the film available in the United States. To this day there are still no real answers from any legit sources. One user, who happened to be the director of the film, wrote on his own IMDB message board in response to fans asking about a SE DVD of the film:  “Thanks for your enthusiasm you guys, its got very complicated with rights and stuff and is out of my hands right now.”

The original TMNT movie needs, at the very least, a good archiving that is accessible to cinephiles and fans. With the impending reboot, the future of this version of the property is uncertain. The last thing this masterpiece deserves is to fall into oblivion. Criterion, you have the Power of Grayskull so let’s get this one going!

Oh wait, what?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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About the Author

Eric Norcross
is an award winning filmmaker, author and journalist based out of New York City.
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