Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990 Movie Review
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise started film-making in 1990. Since then, the franchise has released four movies and a fifth on the way. Two more movies will be scheduled depending on the feedback on the fifth movie (Ninja Turtles 2014).
Fun Fact: Creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman had every intention to begin the Turtles franchise with a movie as opposed to a cartoon series but no studios wanted to invest as the script seemed dark and gritty (meant to be a direct adaptation of the comics originally). Luckily all Ninja Turtles fans have been fortunate to see the franchise still running strong.
Release Date: March 30, 1990
Directed By: Steve Barron
Released By: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 93 Minutes
Budget: $13.5 Million
$135,270,000 (United States)
A crime wave has struck New York City. Pickpockets, thieves, and gangs run rampant, even in broad daylight. No one knows who is responsible, because the criminals always disappear as quickly as they come. Channel 3 reporter April O’Neil has the story, and warns everyone to beware.
As April leaves the station one night, she becomes a part of the trouble, witnessing several young boys stealing electronics. She confronts them, only to realize too late that they hold no qualms about teaching her a lesson. Out of nowhere, a single sai hits the only street lamp, sending the area into complete darkness. Four mysterious figures arrive in the night, make quick work of the thugs, and leave April safe and sound before disappearing once again.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have put their skills to good use in their first fight out of the sewer they call home, and are extremely happy with the result. Celebrating their victory, the turtles relay the outcome to their master, a wise rat named Splinter, who congratulates on a job well done while also reprimanding for not maintaining composure and humility in success. However, his words fall on deaf ears, as the four teenagers throw a party, complete with music, pizza, and television. “It’s like meditating,” as Michelangelo says.
Raphael, clearly in no mood for his brothers’ antics, goes back out to catch a movie. His night goes without a hitch, until he sees two purse snatchers doing what they do best. Raph intervenes, scaring the thieves off with one look at his sai. However, the crooks’ fortune does not last long, as they encounter a menacing man in a hockey mask carrying around bats, sticks, and plenty of other blunt instruments. His name is Casey Jones, and he beats the two to a pulp. Raphael finds the roughness unnecessary and helps the crooks, stopping Casey from delivering the knockout blow. The thieves escape, and Casey turns on Raphael, batting him into next week before making his own getaway.
The next morning, April O’Neil is at home, having a conversation with her boss, Charles. Charles’ son, Daniel, is waiting patiently and steals money from April’s purse, suggesting that he is part of the gang terrorizing NYC. April heads to work with a very strange object in her purse, having picked up the wayward sai left behind the night before. Raphael follows her into the subway after work, hoping to retrieve it, but others also have plans for the reporter. The petty thieves worked for a much larger organization: The Foot. Masked ninjas with exceptional abilities, the Foot travel in the shadows, overseeing the minions on the street. Now their master, the Shredder, wants April silenced once and for all. Luckily, April’s guardian angel is close, and Raphael staves off the Foot soldiers before picking up the unconscious reporter and taking her back to the lair.
When she awakens, April is overcome by fright at the sight of the mutants. Fortunately her disbelief and Splinter’s calming words placate her long enough to hear the story of their birth. Splinter was once the pet of a man named Hamato Yoshi, who’s fierce rivalry with Oroku Saki – the Shredder – led to his death. Abandoned in New York, Splinter found a puddle of mutagenic ooze and four baby turtles in the sewers. He raised them, trained them, and gave them names. April meets Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo formally, and the bonds of friendship are forged.
Raphael was not as thorough in the last battle as he thought, and a Foot soldier followed him home. Marking the location, the warrior retreats to his own hideout while the turtles accompany April home. They return to the lair hours later, only to discover that it has been ransacked and Splinter is gone. Downtrodden and defeated, they return to April’s apartment and take refuge with her.
April is visited by her boss once again, and he not-so-politely asks her to stop putting so much pressure on the Chief of Police (in order to keep Daniel out of the system). However, this time she’s hiding four giant turtles in her apartment, and Daniel spots Michelangelo. With this information, Daniel returns to the Foot’s base, and is granted audience with the Shredder to reveal the turtles’ location.
The new knowledge spurs the Shredder to action, and he sends a battalion of soldiers after the brothers. Raphael is alone, training on the roof of April’s building, unaware that he’s being surrounded. The Foot get the jump on him, and quickly overpower him. Meanwhile, the other turtles are completely unaware of their brother’s predicament, and are enjoying a tour of the antique shop located below the apartment. It’s not long, though, before Raph is thrown in the window and crashes through the floor to the shop below. Leonardo and the others fight off the soldiers as best they can, and Casey Jones soon arrives to help (having seen Raph’s situation from a few buildings over). They can’t win, and as the antique shop burns to the ground.
The Foot return to their lair, where Shredder has Splinter locked away. He is furious with his minions’ inability to finish off the turtles, and orders their immediate termination. The boys and their human friends managed to escape to April’s old family farmhouse. While in significant disrepair, it provides optimal shelter to collect themselves and figure out the next move. The recent defeats have left everyone feeling low, with Raphael still unconscious and recovering. Good news comes when Raph finally gets up and about, and the brothers band together to find their father and stop the Shredder. Concentrating their spiritual ninja abilities around a fire, they receive a vision of Splinter, which fills them with confidence, strengthening their resolve to return to the city.
Upon arriving home, the turtles find Daniel living in the wreckage of the lair. No longer belonging to any world, Daniel took refuge where he could. However, he knows he’s not safe, and is compelled to return to the Foot. Casey follows along quietly, and discovers the location of the rat master. Daniel speaks to Splinter, and begins to question where his loyalties should lie. But in an act of self-preservation he relays the newest information about the turtles to the Foot, and is told to join in the hunt.
Casey catches Daniel before he can do anything more foolish, and the boy tells Casey about the Foot’s plans, including Splinter’s imminent demise. The two free the rat, and are on their way out when Shredder’s right hand, Tatsu, steps in their way. Tatsu is a master of martial arts in his own right, and lands several punishing blows on Casey. However, it’s not enough to keep a hero down, and Casey eventually gets the best of him, ending things with a solid strike from a golf club. With Tatsu down, Casey and Splinter convince the teenage criminals to abandon the Foot and return home.
Meanwhile, the soldiers and turtles have met in the streets of New York City, but don’t trade blows for long before the mutants come out victorious. The battle has attracted a crowd, so the turtles escape to the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, where the Shredder is waiting to introduce himself. Each of the boys takes a turn battling the big bad boss, but to no avail. They’re easily defeated, and Leonardo is captured. The others throw down their weapons for their brother’s life, but Splinter shows himself and reveals to Shredder that he was responsible for injuring Oroku Saki during the fight with Yoshi.
Enraged, Shredder charges and Splinter uses his momentum against him. Tangling the man in Michelangelo’s nunchaku, he sends Shredder plummeting over the side of the building. The villain lands in a garbage truck, and Casey nonchalantly turns on the compactor, ending the Shredder once and for all. Casey and April celebrate the victory with a kiss, while the turtles hug their master. With everyone happy about the outcome, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles let out their signature battle cry – “Cowabunga!”
Most of the filming for the movie occurred at the North Carolina Film Studios. To prepare the necessary sets, the production designer and art director went to New York City for four months, took pictures of rooftops and various scenery, and explored underground tunnels. While they couldn’t get into the sewer system itself, the two men were allowed access to an abandoned subway tunnel and a water tunnel. Since the structure and layout of those areas was essentially the same as the sewer, it was adequate enough to construct the proper sets.
The only filming to occur in New York was for aerial shots and famous landmarks, creating as authentic a look as possible. Using the information available, sketches were drawn up and sets constructed. The most difficult to make was for the manhole scenes. In order to provide the appearance of disappearing into the sewer, an eight-by-eight-foot room was build directly beneath each manhole used. However, the water level of the area was only five feet below ground, so concrete had to be poured to get the rooms the proper size. The rest of the sewer set was built around that concrete to create the look and feel shown in the film.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was commissioned to create the turtle suits, as well as the Splinter puppet. Before his death, Henson said that the turtles were the most advanced project he’d ever taken on. The bodies were first made of fiberglass, and then molded again with clay. The clay was then used to cast the foam rubber pieces for each turtle and create the body suits. From start to finish, the entire construction project took about 18 weeks.
This movie was exactly how a film translation for a franchise should be handled. At the start of production, the turtles had already been around for five years, both in comics (1984) and on television (1987). There was a lot of material to draw from, a lot of points to start with, and a lot of chances to screw things up. Would the turtles look right? Would the story be accurate? Would it try to introduce elements that didn’t sit well with fans? These are the questions that any adaptation has to answer, and there are a great many that fail to shine in the eyes of the demographic they’re suppose to guarantee.
However, this film got things just right. It took elements from the comic, combined them with elements from the TV show, and created a work of fiction that is nearly beyond scrutiny. The story was ripped right out of the comic in so many ways, including the appearance of the second-hand shop and the farmhouse as places for the turtles to take shelter. Yet those in charge decided to go with the individualized bandana colors, making sure that fans of the TV show knew exactly who was who. The “special effects” were analog, making the movement and appearance of the turtles that much more believable and realistic. Despite some campiness and bad jokes, this movie was a fantastic adaptation, and still stands the test of time as one of the best such films in recent memory.
The film also succeeded when it came to character development. While most of the people who flocked to theaters for shows would already be familiar with each individual and his or her general traits, it still managed to bring them all into play and help each one grow. That doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal, but when there are four main characters (the turtles) and four secondary characters (Splinter, April, Casey, and Shredder), it’s quite the undertaking to make sure each one gets enough screen time to leave a lasting impression as necessary to the story. Between Raph’s temper, Donnie’s ability with machines, Casey and April’s love story, Leonardo’s devotion, and so much more, there was a lot happening over the course of ninety minutes. Yet it was all written in, expanded upon, and used in a way that allowed the characters to grow (as witnessed by Raph and Leo’s reconciliation, Casey and April kissing, and even Shredder’s command over the entire city’s underworld).
There were some areas of concern, however. Most notably was the final sequence when Shredder fell into the garbage truck. While a movie about ninjas is going to have a fair amount of violence, and that fact has to be acceptable to parents allowing kids to attend, Casey’s actions straddle a very dangerous line. Killing members of the Foot clan wasn’t new at that point, and the turtles themselves had done so on more than one occasion in the comic book. But for most people the comic is easily discernable as fantasy. In the movie it was a real man crushing another real man presumably to death in a garbage truck. It was such a nonchalant move, too, that it’s a somewhat humorous scene. But that is also a problem, because it leaves the audience laughing at second-degree murder. Of course, Shredder had probably done his fair share of killing off screen, but the turtles and their allies are supposed to take the high ground, especially when kids are the target demographic. While Casey Jones has always been morally ambiguous, he’s a good guy at heart, and it seems odd that the writers would have him commit murder so easily.
There was also an odd moment between Raphael and Casey at the beginning of the film that felt out of place. It’s very clear early on that Raph is the tough guy of the team with some anger management issues. That point is teased out later in the film when Splinter is taken and conflict arises between him and Leonardo. Why, then, is Raphael the voice of reason for Casey Jones? He stops Casey from further beating the purse snatchers, but it seems like it would have been more effective for character development if Casey had been allowed to continue his thrashing, and Raph had been okay with it (only to struggle with what happened later, and provide some growth at the end if he had the chance to do the same thing and decided it was too much). While not a problem per se, it’s an odd interaction that has Raph going against everything his own personality would suggest doing, as far as the audience knows at that point.
The character of Daniel seemed a bit out of place in this film. He had no direct relation to the turtles, was barely connected to April, and really served only as a way to advance the plot at certain critical points. It’s fine to have such characters, so long as their overall involvement is kept to a minimum. If too much time is devoted to the tertiary players of the film then it takes away screen time from the individuals the audience really wants to know more about. Perhaps Michelangelo could have had his own shining moment, or a longer standoff between Splinter and Shredder could have been included. Regardless of what took its place, there was too much about Daniel, and his involvement should have been minimized even further.
Overall, the film was a rousing success in nearly everything it attempted. It brought a great story, fantastic characters, and the right amount of action to a movie that would appeal to all demographics. It still holds up years later, and should serve as a template for all comic/television adaptations for the rest of time.
All four suit actors for the Ninja Turtles had small cameo appearances in film. David Forman (Leonardo) portrayed a gang member; Michelan Sisti (Michelangelo) played a pizza deliveryman; Leif Tilden (Donatello) was a Foot Clan messenger; and Josh Pais (Raphael) was a taxi passenger.
Josh Pais (Raphael) was the only suit actor to also voice his respective turtle.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the highest grossing independent film of its time.
The movie Raphael went to see at the theater when he met Casey Jones was Critters.
Pizza Hut restaurants promoted the movie, but the turtles order Domino’s in the film.
There are several times in the film where editing failed to remove evidence of the turtles and Splinter being large puppets, including when Splinter throws Shredder off the roof, and when Michelangelo ducks his head into his shell.