Back in ’84, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s nutzoid, yet devilishly compelling indie comic was unleashed on the world and promptly caught on like fucking wildfire. The concept of four anthropomorphic turtle brothers who fight crime in New York City thanks to their ninja training may have sounded like the sort of idea that emerges half-formed between your sixth or seventh bong hit, but in reality it hit big and eventually went on to create a merchandising empire that’s still going on to this day. Arguably the most well known offshoot was the ridiculously successful 1987 cartoon series that earwormed an entire generation with it’s aggressively catchy theme song and it’s family friendly antics that had toned down a lot of the original comic’s weapons backed violence, but one thing was certain – a movie had to be imminent…
New York is under siege as a crime wave sweeps the city and police are baffled by the complete lack of evidence and eyewitnesses (despite the fact that it’s 90’s New York and obviously no one gives a fuck) but plucky reporter April O’Neil has a theory that could shed some light on proceedings. She has correctly surmised that an ancient ninja clan known as The Foot is responsible and are recruiting from America’s disillusioned youth (think the island of wayward boys from Pinocchio but with more ninjitsu and less donkey transformations) under the orders from big bad blade fetisher and full time Darth Vader cosplayer, the Shedder, who subsequently orders her demise. Luckily for her, she is saved by a gang of sewer dwelling, heroic, human sized, teenage mutant, ninja turtles (Oh hey! Just like in the title!), who deploy their martial arts skills for good and can only be told apart by their coloured bandanas and choice of weapons. There’s Leonardo, the square leader with self-doubt (essentially Cyclops of the X-Men with better eyesight and less whinging); swaggering tough guy Raphael who’s obviously over compensating for something (not sure what for, turtles are hung, dude – seriously, look it up); imuture party dude Michelangelo (basically every college dropout you’ve ever met – but with nunchucks); and nerd Donatello (voiced by ravaged Hollywood survivor Corey Feldman) and the four brothers are mentored by their “father” Splinter who’s essentially a rodent Mr. Myaghi. Searching for her rescuers, April manages to find and befriend the turtles (although considering that turtles are a carrier of salmonella, rats aren’t much better and all five live in a sewer in New York City, maybe she should at least consider washing her hands after) and they plan to find a way to stamp out the Foot and lift the crime wave with the help of grungy vigilante, Casey Jones.
But after Splinter is captured and Raph has been gravely injured in a sneak attack, April, Casey and the remaining conscious turtles retreat to April’s family home in the county (she seems to own a suprising amount of property for a journalist) to lick their wounds, they have to bond together as never before to launch a counter attack and save their ratty sensei.
Financed by Asian studio powerhouse Golden Harvest and possibly being the distinction of one of the most 90’s films ever made (it references fucking Bruce Willis’ Moonlighting, for God’s sake), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had an interesting hurdle to navigate when making the martial arts assisted, slow motion jump into film and that would be it’s tone. You see, whereas the comic was a gritty, stripped back, almost Frank Miller affair which surely would have restricted the family audience it was shooting for, the cartoon was a full colour blowout with alien invasions, killer robots and more half-animal mutants that all three versions of The Island Of Dr. Moreau and would have been insanely pricey to realise. However, in a truly heroic act of balance that would please even Thanos, the movie somehow managed to pull it off, combining the chilled, surfer-dude, slap-stick nature of the beloved, animated version with dark, rain slicked streets that make every alley look like the one that Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot in. It’s a merging of tones that could easily have given us conflicting Batman & Robin vibes, but instead manages to work on a level that really should get more credit than it actually does.
Speaking of credit; vast amounts of kudos go to Jim Henson’s Workshop for making the turtles themselves almost perfect avatars to straddle the gulf between comic and cartoon at they look pretty much the perfect real world manifestation of a concept that’s bizarre at best and totally certifiable at worst. How in the leap-frogging hell the poor, tormented stuntmen imprisoned inside the living torture of these rubber and animatronic creations even managed to stand up let alone kick, punch, flip, dance and even fucking skateboard utterly confounds me and the brave men responsible surely should have received some sort of honorary Oscar – or at least some sort of free therapy – for their herculean efforts. The voice characterization is spot on too and manages to wallpaper over any moments when the turtle’s limited mouth movement gives them the brief appearance of having some sort of palsy and years after many different cinematic versions of the boys have been attempted are still the gold standard of how to realise these guys.
The humans don’t fare quite so well; Judith Hoag is a spunky April but is chiefly an observer to the amphibian action whereas Elias Koteas’ Casey Jones seems to wandered in from a movie from the 70’s and looks possibly too much like legitimately deranged street brawler to make parents entirely comfortable. It certainly doesn’t help when the script makes him do things like smash Raphael in the face with a cricket bat and angrily take an accusation of being claustrophobic as a slur on his sexuality (ironic considering 6 years later he was cornholing James Spader in the back of a Lincoln Convertible in David Cronenberg’s Crash).
That being said, despite some weird plot points (I’m no doctor, but if your brother has been beaten into a coma by a gang of rampaging ninjas, dumping him in a bathtub and hoping for the best probably isn’t the best policy), general, jarring 90’s-ness of the earlier scenes (the turtle’s first scene together is made up of them yelling out nothing but Californian lingo like they have surfer-dude tourette’s) and the distracting appearance of a young Sam Rockwell’s painfully adolescent moustache; TMNT: The Movie is a legitimately high quality throwback that’s more grounded then any movie featuring aquatic reptiles twirling ancient oriental weaponary has any right to be.
T-U-R-T-L-E POWER indeed.