Monday, July 21, 2014

Half-Shell Retrospective: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Director: Steve Barron
Starring: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Josh Pais, James Saito, Corey Feldman, Sam Rockwell, Skeet Ulrich, Rick Gomez
Rated: PG

Uhhh...maybe all that hardware's for making coleslaw?

In 1990 I already had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fever.  One Saturday morning in the late 80s flipping through my shows I came across the cartoon.  That night at the video store they had a VHS tape which was the equivalent of the 5 episode first season edited into a 100 minute movie.  Instantly I became hooked.  I didn't just collect Batman comics anymore, Ninja Turtles comic books were a must too.  I even found at a place long gone called Reader's World, the collections of the original comic run and found myself shocked at the crazy amount of adult content the Turtles started as. While I was big time into them, my fandom sort of eased off some time after the third film.  I always have a soft spot for them, but haven't followed any further comic iterations or television series (although, I'm super interested in the current show on Nickelodeon if I ever get time for it).  I will keep up with the feature film department though, as I did get excited for TMNT back in 2007.  And I seem to be one of the few slightly optimistic about this new one.

Okay, short paragraph about video game adaptations.  I was HOOKED!  One of my dreams in life is to own the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles full on acrade machine.  I loved that game.  I once spent on afternoon at Chuck E Cheese with cup for of tokens and had the goal to go at it non-stop til I beat it (only 2 other games get that distinction from me - The Simpsons and Final Fight).  It was adapted for Nintendo as to which I was also hooked, but slightly disappointed as the graphics weren't near as good and they changed some stuff up.  But I also found myself in love with Turtles In Time and The Manhattan project games too.  Granted it was all the same side scrolling button mashing fight games, but damnit, I truly loved those games.  So, if anyone wants to donate/buy/Kickstart for me to get the original Ninja Turtles arcade machine in solid condition, Naptown Nerd would love you.
Our first live action theatrical film in the Turtles franchise actually comes as an adaptation from the early comics more than it does the cartoon that was so popular.  There are nods to it, April's occupation, the colored bands (all were red in the comic) and Michaelangelo's characterization is pulled, but the story focuses on multiple arcs from teh comic.  And in that manner, we get a film that juggles adult presentation and themes with kids presentation and themes.  Its darker than most kids movies, but I think some of that is sort of a less candy coated message for kids not to join up with gangs and "crime isn't cool".  Alas, parents, toy companies and Jim Henson weren't too happy with its tone.  I think its that tone, and less kiddie pandering that helps the film hold up for us after all these years.  And we'll see the opposite example coming up with the next one.
Speaking of Jim Henson, the Turtles costumes and Splinter are fantastic and still hold up today.  The only thing that noticably could improve is mouth movement, but I really don't care.  These creations look entirely genuine and nothing on film shows any sort of difficulty or goofiness with movement.  The Turtles all have a texture and weight to them and you get real deal interaction with the human characters.  I'm sure CG is an easier "safer" way out, but I think they honestly nailed these designs and work perfectly the first time.  I'm sure its harder on a stunt performer/actor to do this, but that's what they get into the business to do.  And the hard work pays off in something that truly looks like a real living breathing mutant turtle.
One thing this film does well that the others will end up not doing so much is tightening up and not over indulging in Turtle hijinx.  You have to have them, that's what part of the whole Turtle thing is about, but this move is able to encorporate them wisely and make most of them work to the story's detriment.  This is the stuff the kids come for, but ultimately could bog down your movie and be the difference in "holding up" over time or becoming something totally embarrassing to come back to after a while.  Also adding to that are the adult performances in the film.  Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Jame Saito and gang play this film like its the real deal.  They deliver good emotion and never get caught up in playing around in this "kids movie".  They treat the material as seriously as they would a harder R rated action drama.  It helps to elevate the film and keep it running.  Where the kids "in" with the film is the Turtles, the adults "in" is Casey Jones, April O'Neil and April's boss Charles.  Its a perfect balance and all parties certainly meet in the middle here.  There is nothing really in the realm of "obvious cartoon antics" plaguing the film.  Yes, its littered with yok-fest one liners, but its character fitting and established early on.
This film, along with the likes of Batman and Jason Takes Manhattan falls into the realm of movies that made me nervous and scared about big cities as a kid.  Once again we have New York painted as this dingy, dirty crime ridden place.  Whereas the minute you even sniffed an alley, you were going to be mugged, beaten, whatever right away.  Granted, these movies were not shot in New York mostly (Ninja Turtles was North Carolina, Jason in Vancouver), and that probably went into overexaggerating their look and danger.  But, seriously, look at the films' portrayal and all you see.  There's no beauty to any of it.  And we focus primarily on crime and unlikely heroes that may or may not come by.  And then there's the fact all the kids go to the super 90s Shredder HQ.  And I must say...if I'm a teen then, yeah I'm hanging out at that place.  Its an absolute 80s/90s kids fantasy.  SKATEBOARDING!  ARCADE GAMES! SMOKES! ELECTRONICS!  BLACK LIGHTS!  DARK AND NOT WELL LIT WAREHOUSE!  Yeah, I'd have signed up to hang out there. 
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a movie that really works and still holds up.  Its got a terrific arc for all the characters involved and a great payout in the end.  I find the action and fight scenes to be pretty awesome and solid.  It drifts into more adult territory, but I think it still works great for kids too.  I've defended it for many years in terms of it holding up, but I really shouldn't have to.  And I don't get bothered by new iterations, remakes whathaveyou with the Ninja Turtles because I already have my perfect Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie and its this one right here.  Anything else is just a bonus from here out really.  I won't be offended too much because I've already been overly satisfied with this one both as a kid and an adult.  Its also one of the most faithfully adapted comic book movies out there.  It seriously never gets put into consideration, but it should.  So yeah, I'm ranting and raving and waiving my Ninja Turtles cereal box high in the air for this one.  I love it!

Next Time: Secrets, oozes, super Shredders and Vanilla Ice

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