I don’t know when and where I first heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I do know I joined the majority of my generation in becoming obsessed with all things mean, lean, and green for the better part of four years. I’ve always loved turtles, I wanted to keep a giant water turtle that I found outside my house when I was about 8 and my sister and I used to make paper bowl turtle toys (turn the bowl over, make it paper feet and head, color it!) at my grandmother’s house, so when a cartoon about anthropomorphic turtles came out it must have felt like a perfect fit.
The Ninja Turtles movie was the first film I remember being truly excited about. There had been The Land before Time when I was even younger, Ghostbusters II, and Batman the year before, but Ninja Turtles ramped up to be the event of my youth. I remember TONS of pre-release promotional material I collected, including the awesome poster (Lean, Mean, and on the Screen!) that hung on my green-painted wall for years. And yes it was painted green because of my TMNT love…
Despite all of this I don’t remember having any expectations for the film. I didn’t expect it to be a continuation of the cartoon, or the re-telling of the show in live-action format. I may have been too young for such concepts. I was expecting to see live-action Ninja Turtles and that’s just what I got.
For me, this movie was the perfect introduction to the 1990s. Though it was made in the late 80s and based on an 80s cartoon, the film is far more 90s than 80s. The costumes, from April’s street gear and Danny’s slacker outfit, looks like 90s clothes, even Shredder’s MC Hammer red jump suit (complete with giant, square shoulders) looks more like early 90s than late 80s. The musical score, with a killer synth theme, didn’t have the distinctive “Final Countdown” sound that marred synth in the 80s. In fact this is the first movie I can recall that heavily featured rap music, not just as a soundtrack item (though there was an awesome credit scroll rap track that still gets stuck in my head…) but in the background as what was on the radio that we, the kids seeing the movie, were listening to.
This song plays right after “Cowabunga!” at the end of the film. It still plays periodically in my mental soundtrack…
I recently rewatched the film and, objectively, I can say it was a fantastic herald for the decade and is still a terrific movie. While some might consider the background dated, to me it speaks so clearly of the time it was made and it never detracts from its effectiveness. Yeah the foot soldiers steal 10-inch tube TVs and VCRs but in 1990 something like that would have been a kind of luxury item. As well as something a ninja could conceivably flee on foot carrying.
Even the turtles themselves, essentially man-sized muppet outfits, are surprisingly emotional. You believe their animatronic faces. This is aided by the voice acting, which, in most cases (Raph’s Brooklyn accent being the outlier) came close to matching what we were used to hearing on the cartoon show. Even Splinter’s voice became the model used for later TMNT features…though never close to as well…
The action sequences are remarkable, which is surprising as the stunt guys are wearing massive foam-rubber suits and I attribute THIS movie to sparking my interest in martial arts, which extends to this day (not the cartoon, which I’ve also seen recently and it has very little fighting I’ve realized!)
The non-turtle actors led by Judith Hoag, the best live-action April, and Elias Koteas, the quintessential Casey Jones, never seem out of place or make the very weird subject matter seem as odd as it is. They play it believable so you believe them. They are enhanced by a score of excellent secondary characters, Danny, Charles Pennington (April’s Boss), Tatsu (one of my favorites, “Ninja! Vanish!”), and an incredible live action Shredder.
It doesn’t just “hold up” as a good movie, it actually is a good movie. It never has a dated cringe-worthy moment that references some long-lost, time-stamped, disposable concept. In many ways the humor and references are more like Looney Tunes, in that they have a timeless feel or harken back to already-established icons, such as the old-school surfing terms, Three Stooges, Rocky, or the famous James Cagney “you dirty rat” misquote.
I wonder if newer generations of kind can appreciate this film for what it is. Or if music-video-style film making, flashing light imagery, and over-shiny CGI has altered the fundamental image of what an action movie should be. To me, this is the Raiders of the Lost Ark of cartoon pop culture, a great marriage of subject, style, and execution. And, to me, a memorable way to open the decade.
Interesting to note, this is the official trailer from the film, I actually remember seeing scenes from it, but the voices were not the same as the finished film. Nearly every “masked” character has a different voice in the theatrical release!