TIFF Comic Book Hero Series Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The Movie (1990)

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Cast: , ,
Director: Steve Barron
Country: USA | Hong Kong
Genre: Action | Comedy | Drama | Family


Editor’s Notes: This review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is apart of TIFF’s Comic Book Hero series which runs from March 9th to 24th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information, visit TIFF.net.

Most children of the 80s and 90s grew up on a steady TV diet of their favourite heroes in a half shell. Whether you preferred Michelangelo's surfer dude attitude or Raphael's lone wolf angst, there was no denying the allure of that turtle power

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Loosely based on the Mirage Studios comics, the animated series debuted in 1987 and centred on the adventures of four turtle siblings and their wise master, Splinter. While the series captured the imagination of kids throughout North America, it diverged from the original source — opting instead to change key character elements for the sake of simplicity.

…the first installment in the franchise is surprisingly dark for what essentially amounts to kiddie entertainment — it's stylistically reminiscent of Tim Burton's original Batman…

In 1990, New Line Cinema decided to capitalize on this animated success story by distributing a live action adaptation that would ideally appeal to both kids and teens, alike. The end result is not so much a cult classic as a fondly remembered retro rewind — a nostalgic look back at our childhood, a childhood where we once watched a movie about walking, talking turtles who struggled to emulate the wisdom expounded by a life-size rat.

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie lacked the mass appeal that enabled films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show — or to a lesser extent, The Goonies — to reach cult status, it still carries a special place in film lore for many of its now-adult fans.

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 3.46.53 PMUnlike it's more cartoonish and increasingly ridiculous sequels, The Secret of the Ooze and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the first installment in the franchise is surprisingly dark for what essentially amounts to kiddie entertainment — it's stylistically reminiscent of Tim Burton's original Batman, which was released the previous year in 1989.

The premise (as if you didn't already know!) features a quartet of genetically mutated turtles who are regularly trained in martial arts by their mentor, Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash). The teens must learn to work together as a team in order to defeat Shredder (James Saito) and his violent ninja gang, the Foot Clan. Along the way the turtles form close bonds with an investigative journalist named April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) and a cricket bat-wielding street thug named Casey Jones (Elias Koteas).

With its bleak outlook on city living and gang culture, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes off as more of a film noir for kids — complete with its own version of a femme fatale and the casual (if sometimes grating) use of the term “babe” to describe attractive women.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes off as more of a film noir for kids — complete with its own version of a femme fatale and the casual (if sometimes grating) use of the term “babe” to describe attractive women.

Yet, despite everything going against it — being a inconsequential live action film that included men dressed in turtle suits and remote-controlled Jim Henson puppets — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't half as bad as you'd think. (Side note: It's thankfully no Garbage Pail Kids, that's for certain; with it's disgusting characters and uncomfortably lame one-liners).

Each turtle are each unique individuals, allowing kids in the audience to pick and choose which hero they can best identify with. There's Donatello (voiced by Corey Feldman) who is often depicted as the intellectual brother due to his aptitude for science and his knack for technological gadgets. There's Leonardo (voiced by Brian Tochi), the unofficial leader of the pack who exhibits both patience and discipline. Or how about Michelangelo (voiced by Robbie Rist), the fun-loving prankster who adores pizza as much as his nun-chucks. Or, finally, my personal childhood favourite, Raphael (voiced by Josh Pais), the lone wolf who exhibits extreme bouts teen angst more than any of his brothers — and struggles to come to terms with it.

It's dark, noirish elements give children the illusion that they are watching an exciting, dangerous adult film. I recall feeling a rush of exhilaration when watching TMNT simply because it looked and felt like grown up movies my parents would enjoy. Credit is due to production designer Roy Forge Smith for cashing in on the success of Burton's bleak Batman while still maintaining his own unique vision of a world inhabited by human-sized turtles and their various nemeses.

For all intents and purposes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a hybrid movie: part martial arts action flick, part cartoon-ish adventure and part romance. You could argue that it has a little something for everyone — including adults should they decide to revisit this childhood favourite with their own kids. And why wouldn't they? After all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is more than just a kid's flick — it illustrates the importance of familial bonds and working together as a team to help the ones you love. And that's total turtle power!

[notification type=”star”]67/100 ~ OKAY. While surprisingly better than one may expect, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still bogged down by a silly, often scattered, script — yet still manages to be a nice trip down memory lane.[/notification]

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Toronto Film Critic. I'm a Toronto-based movie blogger working in media communications. I credit Steven Spielberg with igniting my passion for film at a young age after I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I now love all genres of film, both current and classic. I just love being swept away by people's stories on the silver screen.