Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Review (1990)
This early 90s superhero flick adapts the characters from the comics, while including nuances of the popular ‘87 animated series. It’s quirky, dark & a lot of fun!
Genre: Action / Adventure / Comedy
Director: Steve Barron
Cast: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Brian Tochi, Josh Pais, Robbie Rist, Corey Feldman, James Saito, Toshishiro Obata & Kevin Clash.
Run Time: 93 min.
US Release: 30 March 1990
UK Release: 23 November 1990
German Release: 13 December 1990
It’s ‘Superhero Sunday’! Following the release of the new animated iteration of the Turtles last week, I decided to review the early 90s trilogy, as well as the loose third animated sequel of 2007. The first two were staple movies of my childhood, with Secret of the Ooze worn out on VHS. I re-read my issues of the Archie Comics’ run several times, which had been inspired by the animated series of the late 80s. The TV show itself was my favourite animated superhero series. So put on your bandanas, as we kick-jump into my review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
— WARNING, THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS! —
As the Foot Clan attempts to take over the city of New York, four young, mutated, turtles living in the shadows of the city's sewers, set out to stop a threatening ninja tribe. Mentored by the wise rat Splinter, in the art of ninjutsu, they will need to harness their combat knowledge, as they face off with the Foot’s leader, the evil Shredder, to save their kidnapped master.
As stated in my previous review for Mutant Mayhem, the idea of four anthropomorphic, ninja trained, superhero turtles, came to writers Eastman and Laird. It was supposed to parody different popular elements of superhero comics in the mid-80s, pairing a goofy concept with a grim atmosphere. Bobby Herbeck’s story treatment used exactly that gloomier tone while keeping the upbeat wacky comedy of the ‘87 animated show. This resulted in a similar ambience as the Ghostbusters of 1984.
The screenplay incorporates aspects for adults, as well as kids, making it the perfect hybrid between graphic novels and TV series. It has a well-established threat with Shredder’s Foot Clan, talks about life-death situations, plus incorporates more mature action. It also touches upon the topic of the importance of family, be it through the Turtles themselves, or the punk kid of April's superior, without ever sounding preachy.
Is the narrative perfect? No, far from it. It also added plum drama, uncomfortable romance, just like some overly silly slapstick humour. That said, it excels at what it tries to accomplish, which is to adapt a beloved IP faithfully, send a positive message to its younger audience, all while entertaining with katana and nunchuck action.
The voiceover at the beginning, by April O’Neil reading the news, is a great way to introduce viewers to the featured world. Unfortunately, it is used again around the middle mark, during a segment that didn’t need it. The voices of Japanese actors Saito plus Obata, were replaced by noticeably bad ADR.
Judith Hoag plays April O’Neil as feisty, with a strong moral compass. Her backstory as a reporter was adapted from the animated show rather than the comics, where she is a lab assistant. Hoag gave a solid representation of the character, unafraid to get in harm's way, as long as she uncovers the truth, keeping the citizens of N.Y. safe. Juhidth Hoag was fun, just like energetic, with impeccable chemistry with Koteas and the four stuntmen in suits.
Elias Koteas was perfectly cast as Casey Jones. Not only does he look the part, but he plays him with such joy, it is hard not to like him. The character’s story arc is surprisingly accurately represented. Though not as violent as in the comics, his anger is on the same level as Raph’s.
The four Ninja Turtles, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo maintained their wildly different personalities. However, It was Mikey and Raph, who stood out the most, with Donnie being a little underperformed. All were physically represented by several in-suit performers, depending on the stunts needed. All of them did a fantastic job, especially the martial arts choreography, which needed to be performed in thick rubber suits, with built-in shells on the back. The voices were given by Brian Tochi, Josh Pais, Corey Feldman, just like Robbie Rist.
Splinter, who was motioned and equally voiced by puppeteer Kevin Clash, is another accurately adapted character, as in the original Mirage series. He was born an ordinary pet rat, to his owner Hamato Yoshi, from who he learned martial arts. When Yoshi was murdered by his rival Oroku Saki, Splinter jumped to his head, mutilating his face. Saki from there onwards hid his face behind a mask, naming himself Shredder. Splinter fled to the sewers, where he found the turtles, covered in a mysterious ooze.
The cinematography does surprisingly still hold up. It is not perfect, having not aged in grace, though to be fair, cinematographer John Fenner did his best at capturing the combat scenes, given that it was four stunt people in rubber turtle suits, doing acrobatics. The lighting can be a little too dim at times, making it hard to identify what is happening on screen. Generally, for a 1990s independent superhero flick, the imagery holds up well enough!
Effect-wise, some elements do not pass the test of time. For instance, the Turtles themselves do look like people in rubber costumes. That said, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who created the suits and animatronic masks, did a magnificent job at capturing the essence of the Turtles, plus the animatronic faces had been state-of-the-art! I much prefer watching these designs to the CG monsters created by Michael Bay.
The score, composed by John Du Prez, includes funky, ominous melodies, with heavy brass, guitar riffs and synthesiser sounds, typical for late 80s early 90s mysteries. The original soundtrack consisted mostly of hip-hop tracks.
Verdict: Steve Barron’s indie adaptation of the anthropomorphic ninja brothers, is a quirky, entertaining piece of cinema history. Containing a similar tone as the Ghostbusters movie, Herbeck’s script is the perfect blend of loyal depiction of the gritty atmosphere contained in the graphic novels, as well as the goofy, kid-friendly humour of the cartoon show of the late 80s. It also has a message with value for younger audiences. Judith Hoagarth portrays April as a tough, righteous reporter. Her characterisation had been taken straight from the animated series. Elias Koteas' portrayal of Casey Jones is pure masculine fun. The cinematography looks great, considering that it captured acrobatic stunts, of people in full-on rubber suits. The animatronic masks and costumes by Jim Henson do look dated, yet are incredibly accurate depictions of their comic-book counterparts. Do I have nostalgic feelings towards this sci-fi action flick? Yes, I do, but I also believe this to be one of the few comic book movies of that era, treated with respect, just like faithfully adapted. The 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a fun watch, deserving an 8.0 out of 10.
Which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle adaptation is your favourite? Did you grow up with the TMNT? Leave a comment below & let me know if you agree with my review! As always, thank you for reading!