Movies That Deserve More Love: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

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T-U-R-T-L-E motherfucking POWER!

Ahoy, compatriots! Aidan here.

Ever rediscovered – or just plain discovered – a relatively modern movie that seemed to be forgotten as it was mercilessly buried under heaps of pop-cultural shit in the years since its release? The magical 1990s are my go-to treasure trove for these discoveries, and it’s this precise reason why I hail that decade as my favorite decade of cinema – most everything (even the shit) had a base layer of quality to it that rivals most modern releases, and most films sported that intangible, pre-new-millenium grit that you just don’t feel nowadays.

I’m hard-pressed to find a better example of this than the original live-action adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even more hard-pressed to find a good reason why it’s been largely ignored since its initial 1990 release.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)Now, this film was quite the big deal back in the day, there’s no mistaking that. Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 as a parody of the most popular fads in comics at the time – teens, mutants, ninjas, and some turtles thrown in for good measure – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles slowly evolved from a gritty, black-and-white underground comic published on cheap newsprint to a kid-friendly franchise of colorful heroes, villains, cartoons, and Happy Meal toys.

The world was so flooded by the Turtle phenomenon that to this day, my older cousin swears that my sister’s first words as a toddler were “Bebop and Rocksteady.” Seeing as how the merchandising juggernaut bulldozed all arenas of popular culture – yes, even a live “Coming Out of Their Shells” concert tour – a film adaptation was inevitable. And, as the $13 million production geared up for release, many a spastic 9-year-old jumped for joy at the teaser poster’s iconic image of the turtles peeking their animatronic eyes through a New York City manhole.

I’d write a synopsis of the film, highlighting plot points and whatnot…. but seriously, if you watch the video above, it summarizes the film. Just watch it. It’s awesome.

Did you watch it? Gnarly! Wicked!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)Critical reception of the film was typical (“It’s a Ninja Turtles film, what more did you expect, blah blah blah”) and commercial revenue was massive – decades later however, we can truly appreciate this thing for what it is. It’s a fucking gem.

Even ignoring notstalgia, I have no reservations in saying – hell, in shouting – that 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one hell of a movie. From the aforementioned 90s grit to the pacing, fight scenes, music (can you go wrong with that glorious anthem by Partners in Kryme?), and acting, the flick is a knockout. It gets off to a rollicking (but not rushed) start and flies by effortlessly until the end. And unlike most cookie-cutter “kids movies,” you can feel this film taking careful time with its characters, hitting all its dramatic beats because it needs to, not because it has to. Raphael’s character arc is particularly remarkable; he isn’t written off as a one-dimensional “bad boy,” but as a troubled, angry, unsure adolescent whose maturation process causes him to hurt those he loves. By the end of the film, he’s learned to tune in to that anger for strength and control, blending with his brothers to form a stronger team.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)And no, asshole, I’m not reading too much into a Ninja Turtles movie. It just really is that good.

Characters cry and scream, grunt and moan. Five-foot-tall rubber turtles express entire ranges of emotions and we buy it because the film does such a good job at pinning its characters down in a definitive universe with a definitive tone.

All characters technically fit into their corresponding cartoon types, but are so well-rounded and organically acted that they come across as as natural. Judith Hoag’s yellow-coated April O’Niel is smart, capable, and sexy. Elias Koteas’s Casey Jones is an aptly badass rogue vigilante with a heart of gold, and Kevin Clash’s Splinter is an amazingly warm and sympathetic father figure who has one of the greatest cinematic presences in any comic book film I’ve ever seen. He – and his surrogate turtle sons – are all gorgeously brought to life through the work of Jim Henson and co., lending them a true sense of weight and gravitas.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)This is something CGI could never – and probably will never – accomplish. The animatronic work is pulled off so well, letting these characters live and breathe and emote in ways pixels couldn’t replicate. Sure, you can get animate more fluid motion from a turtle mouth through computer effects, but the residual loss of emotion from a scene with two real characters interacting isn’t worth the cost.

The movie as a whole is satisfying as hell and its perfect blend of goofy humor and serious, rounded characters is emblematic of a Pixar movie. So kick back, order a pizza, pop open a canister of radioactive ooze and rediscover this nugget of 1990s gold – it’s totally radical, I promise.

Now onto the late 90s…. you know what that means. Fucking Power Rangers.

Help me.

Until then…. Kowabunga, dude!

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About the Author

Aidan Green
is a current Radio-Television-Film major at the University of Texas at Austin and a freelance screenwriter, filmmaker, editor, and graphic designer. He has written, directed, and collaborated on several award-winning short films and is a passionate cinephile, idolizing the likes of David Fincher and Tommy Wiseau.
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