Superhero Movie Month: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Review

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema

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Rating: PG
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: March 30, 1990
Directed by: Michael Pressman
Genre: Action / Comedy / Martial Arts

Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's comic "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" quickly swept America and worldwide pop culture in the mid-to-late '80s. In fact, they are responsible for the ninja craze that many children of the era had. The original version was a comic intended as a dark parody of Frank Miller's grim and gritty style. In 1987, the Turtles received a kid-friendly cartoon. The popularity eventually led to a live-action film that was legendary in its appeal to fans and non-fans alike.

The basic premise of the film is that of the Turtles confronting their mortal enemy, Shredder/Oroku Saki (James Saito) and learning to deal with the surface world and humans that inhabit it. They have aid from news reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) and vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas). The film starts with the Turtles training under Master Splinter and venturing to the surface, where they encounter April, who has been the victim of a mugging. They save her and Raphael (Josh Pais) loses one of his weapons in the process. He returns to the streets to vent some anger and clashes with Casey Jones. After returning, he has a conversation with Splinter.

Meanwhile, Shredder and Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) are building the US branch of the Foot Clan, a group of ninja thieves. April O'Neil is reporting and getting closer to finding out the truth, so Shredder sends the Foot to silence her. Raphael rescues her from being knocked unconscious and takes her back to their home. Over the course of the film, April develops a close friendship with Splinter and the Turtles, especially Raphael. While they are visiting April topside, Splinter is captured. At April's, Leonardo and Raphael's tensions come to a head, and Raphael leaves. The Foot follow him back to April's apartment, and the ensuing fight between the two gangs causes the apartment to catch fire and be destroyed. The rest of the film focuses on the Turtles' dealing with the comatose Raphael and learning the true meaning of the lesson Splinter meant to teach them. They finally make it back to New York and engage Shredder, while Casey Jones and April share a passionate kiss to seal their burgeoning relationship.

The film perfectly blends comedy and drama. The opening scene with Splinter talking to his sons about the need for stealth is dramatic and emotional, while in the background Michelangelo is ordering pizza and gets a book thrown at his shoulder as punishment. The interactions between Donatello and Casey Jones while at April's farmhouse lighten the mood effectively when contrasted with Leonardo and April brooding over Raphael. The movie manages to seamlessly blend slapstick with gritty violence, sometimes in the same fight scene, such as when Donatello spits water into a Foot soldier's face while another one chops into a power main with an axe and gets nearly electrocuted. The film sits astride the line of child-friendly and adult-friendly, making even extreme violence toned down with discretion shots.

Although "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" might seem like a standard comic book or martial arts film with a shallow story line, it weaves the themes of family and fatherhood into its story to create an effective message. The Turtles' relationship with Splinter is that of a loving, supportive family. Meanwhile, the Foot are abused and exploited by Shredder. The Foot Clan, rather than being robots like in the cartoon, are impressionable teenagers that have no familial love and are angry at society. Shredder makes them feel like they have a purpose.

Each of the characters receives an instantly memorable personality, even though not everyone has full character development. All four Turtles have distinct traits and play off one another well. Serving as a foil to Leo and Raph's turbulent relationship, Michelangelo and Donatello act like the "B-team" and have solid rapport with one another. The friendly rivalry between the Turtles and Casey Jones is also memorable, especially Raphael's first fight with him. Casey himself is darker than the Turtles, going so far as to murder Shredder by crushing him in a trash compactor. Granted, he survives in the sequel, but the attempt was clear. Casey shows even more glee than Raphael about fighting and injuring Foot soldiers.

In this version of the story, Shredder is at his most menacing, going so far as to threaten outright death and nearly kills Splinter and Leonardo. Viewers used to the cartoon Shredder might be jarred, but this makes Shredder more effective. He is shown to take on all four of the Turtles, with only Leonardo managing to even score a minor wound on him. Splinter, of course, arrives to finish the fight, as he should.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is a film that holds up well, even when the nostalgia goggles are off. With the upcoming reboot of the film series from Michael Bay, viewers are sure to look back on this film with fondness. It uses effective storytelling but doesn't necessarily grip the emotions like more classic films in this genre do. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is a fun action movie that remains faithful to its source material.