We were all dumb kids, once, in the misty days often referred to as “yore.” No judgements! Being a dumb kid is an amazing experience, because all the world is fascinating and new. Bologna sandwiches are delicious instead of “prison food,” “Darkwing Duck” feels as edgy as Frank Miller, and the word “poopy” has the comedic cache of the entire Apatow clan.
As a kid, a movie doesn’t have to be “good” for you to love it. As long as it featured a topic you loved, it was perfect. Giving a shit about pacing, character development, and story structure is for angry adults filled with ethical contradictions, creatures poisoned by a relentlessly oppressive universe. Kids love robots. Very simple contrast.
As such, there are movies living in your consciousness right now that you remember being “totes radical.” Lately, the meat husk that is my soul’s prison has begun to decay from age, and I’ve been obsessed with finding out whether or not those movies from my childhood were actually worth watching. Today, we’re going to take a close look at the live-action 1990 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
A child of both the original comic and the wacky cartoon series, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” came out in the height of turtle-mania. It tells the origin story of the Ninja Turtles, Splinter, the Shredder, and how intrepid banana-clad reporter April O’Neil became their resident damsel in distress. Sports-themed violent vigilante Casey Jones also has a large role, as does Danny, the wayward JV son of April’s boss. The Turtles take on Shredder and his Foot clan of ninja-thieves, all of which ends with (24-year-old spoiler alert) the good guys victorious. WHAT A TWIST.
The Kid Review
I cannot describe to you how much I loved this movie as a child. I was five-years-old when this movie appeared on the scene, probably six when I got the video tape, and I could not have been more in this movie’s demographic short of actually being a mutant reptile who lived in human poop tubes.
Like most kids of the ’80s/’90s cusp, I loved violence. Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Thundercats, Commando, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hard Target – if good guys and bad guys were throwning down, I was in. The Turtles also sparked my martial arts phase, which would lead to many years learning katas and trying to explain what the hell shotokan was. The Turtles movie scratched that itch big time.
This is what I thought of the movie, as a kid:
1.) Raphael is a hardcore badass, and obviously the best turtle who could also beat up all the other turtles SO DON’T EVEN ARGUE.
2.) Dominoes will deliver pizza to a drainage grate. Also, you pay less money for late pizza.
3.) The suits and the faces look amazingly real. The Turtles are agile, quick, and move like they aren’t stuffed into a giant foam suit.
4.) The Shredder is terrifying. His right-hand-man Tatsu is equally terrifying, and he doesn’t even have blades on his face.
5.) The violence in the movie is hardcore. It’s barely a kids movie!
The Adult Review
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles . . . is still good! Behold my enormous surprise. I’d developed an itch recently to watch the movie again, a rash that no salve could alleve – a hunger, to see Turtles. So I did, with my wife shaking her head in disbelief as I streamed it from Amazon – a technology that would be akin to rocketpacks and laser bombs in the Turtle-Powered world of 1990.
I expected a cartoonish but childish romp that would cause me to hold tight to my nostalgia goggles like newspaper salesman in a hurricane. And don’t get me wrong, there is no shortage of silliness in TMNT. However, very little of the humor is stupid humor. There’s definitely slapstick – Mikey clashing symbols behind Leo’s head, for instance – but it is by no means the sole source of the movie’s humor. It also isn’t stupid humor. It’s mischievious brother stuff, and actually serves a purpose – highlighting that these guys are family, despite the heroics, and their constant ribbing is highly realistic. Trust me, I have two brothers – a “Raphael” and a “Donatello,” if that helps.
There’s a surprising wit to the movie, one that is actually MORE noticeable to an adult. I remember, as a kid, having no idea what Donny was talking about when he said that Casey Jones’ and April O’Neil’s constant bickering was “like Moonlighting.” Raph’s jabs at Casey Jones for his odd choice of sports equipment expects a lot of pop culture knowledge from the viewer, as does the scene of Mikey doing a Sylvester Stallone and James Cagney impression. Even a throwaway like shouting “California Roll” before rolling away from an axe is cleary not something kids are going to appreciate.
The script is also surprisingly tight – the plot is clean, the pacing fast, and yet somehow still manages to be stocked to the rafters with character moments. Many modern summer blockbusters could learn a lesson or two from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:” a movie can have heart and be fun without being 3 hours long. The script also gets +1 million Bobby-points for not starting with the origin – the Turtles are Mutants and Ninjas in their very first scene. If this movie had been made with the modern philosophy, we’d be stuck sitting through 45 minutes of bullshit like how they got their weapons, the first time they tried pizza, how they picked the colors of their bandanas, and other stupid fucking minutia that modern movies think has to be explained to the audience before we can get to the good stuff. The Turtle origin is explained somewhere in the middle of the second act, and it’s kept to a tight three minutes of exposition. Ditto for Shredder and Splinter’s origins, which are given later, and described over a few lines of dialogue and a quick flashback.
Another kudos to the script: every character has a mini story arc (with the exception of Donatello, who doesn’t do much in this movie beside crack wise and be a sounding board for Michelangelo), including even a few unnamed nobodies in the Foot clan (one of which is played by Sam Rockwell!).
There’s also a surprisingly well-done theme throughout the entire movie about fatherhood and family. Splinter is a good father, patient and understanding, enforcing discipline but being understanding of faults. Shredder is the bad father, neglecting his children and letting them smoke, drink, and gamble, only showing affection when they’ve done something for him. Danny’s and his father Charles start with a bad relationship, but by the end of the movie have learned to understand one another. It’s a pointed theme that didn’t have to be in the movie, but one that greatly improves it.
Childhood Version Vs. Reality
1.) Raphael is not that badass. How I ever thought he was a bad muthafucka in this movie is beyond me – I chalk it up to zealot-like belief. With the exception of one fight with a handful of Foot soldiers in the subway (when he saves April), Raph loses every single fight he gets in. Even Casey Jones kicks Raph’s ass, and he’s just a regular guy with a hockeystick. Raph thinks he is the most badass, and he trash talks with the best of them, but he does nothing to demonstrate he’s any better of a fighter than the other Turtles. He gets in more fights, certainly, but that just means he’s an asshole. In fact, there’s a case to be made that (in the confines of this movie) Raph is the 3rd best fighter, or even possibly the worst.
Childhood Bobby would strangle me right now, but the movie makes it very clear that Leonardo is the best fighter. When all four of the turtles go up against the Shredder on the rooftop, Shredder smacks them around like a sexist housewife reference. Leo is the only Turtle to even give Shredder a fight, and manages to get a back-and-forth going that even ends with Leo slashing Shredder’s arm open with one of his katanas. Shredder’s final compliment to Leo is that he only stops fucking around after the fight with Leo, and chooses to kill him first because he’s the only one who is actually a threat. Raph, Donny, and Mikey, in contrast, are dispatched within THREE SECONDS or less, and none of them even touch Shredder.
If you wanted to figure out who was the second best fighter, it would be easy to give that distinction to Michelangelo. Raph’s losing streak is well documented, and Donny spends most of the fights getting his head shoved in fish tanks and bounced across piano keys. While the Turtles are training on the farm, you might notice that all three Turtles are sparring against Michelangelo, and he’s actually giving them quite a whipping. Add to that the fact that Mikey is running a non-stop stream of pretty funny jokes while he’s fighting for his life, and smart money is that Mikey is sort of ridiculously badass.
2.) Dominoes has trouble delivering to an apartment, much less a sewer. Also, the most unrealistic part of this movie about giant reptile ninjas is the idea that any pizza delivery service gives a shit about how long it takes to deliver the pizza. If they’re an hour late, you’re not getting a discount, you’re just getting a cold pizza and a middle-finger.
3.) Actually, the suits and faces do still look pretty good. And yes, the Turtles are agile, quick, and really do move like they aren’t stuffed into a giant foam suit. They pull of some pretty stunning martial arts while functionally blind. While watching the movie, my wife said the following: “Wow. So before CGI, you just had to be awesome?”
4.) Shredder is still scary, despite the red sequined jumpsuit he’s wearing for some reason – he’s a rare villain aimed at children, because he plays it completely straight. He is a murdering, child-abusing, manipulative psychopath, and never once cracks a jokes or is made to look silly. He’s deadlier than the heroes, and smarter – he mocks them about Splinter being dead, which causes Leo (the only threat) to lose his cool and get easily defeated. In fact, if Master Splinter hadn’t intervened in the final fight, all of the Turtles would have been brutally murdered, and Shredder would have slept well that night.
5.) The violence in the movie maybe isn’t “hardcore” in a “Casino” kind of way, but it’s no fluffy puff cloud of peacenik candy floss either. Foot clan members are pretty clearly killed a few times – one is electrocuted until he starts smoking, another is thrown off a roof – and Casey Jones commits a homicide in cold blood, on camera. His “oops” as he activates the crushing machine on a dump truck with a (probably unconscious and harmless) Shredder inside is not as funny as I remember. In fact, it’s pretty chilling.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t Godfather or anything, but it would work just fine as a modern Marvel summer movie and no one would bat an eyelash. Fun, charming, the flick even has a bit of pathos. If you don’t at least mist up during Splinter’s fireside soliloquy (and the Turtles touching response), then you don’t have any human parts inside.
So don’t worry – you can safely rewatch “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” without your whole childhood being exposed as a sham. Unless Raph was your favorite, like me. Sorry Raph dudes.