Thursday, August 14, 2014

80s Revisited: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Directed by Steve Barron; screenplay by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck; produced by Simon Fields, Kim Dawson & David Chan.

This one showed up on Disney XD over the weekend, and I hadn't seen it since I was in high school, so why not?

I've always liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Turtlemania was huge when I was a pretty decent age for it. I was only vaguely aware of them from too much time spent at comic book stores when the original cartoon miniseries aired in 1987. I loved it right away. In fact, digging it right off is one of the many things I was teased for in sixth grade, when all of the other sophisticated 10 year-olds were eschewing things like cartoons, comics, toys and, I don't know, fun. Little assholes.

I stuck with the Turtles for years. I had a lot of the action figures--in fact, it's probably the last action figure line I really collected and played with as a kid. Not quite as seminal to me as G.I. Joe was, but something I really loved. I collected the cards and once actually got arrested stealing a few packs of them. (Kids, don't shoplift.) I tracked down the original comics and/or collections of them. I once recorded an entire episode of Murphy in the Morning on Chicago's Q101 because cartoon voice artist Rob Paulsen was guesting in character as Raphael, the voice he performed on the show, and I had to go to school. I loved the arcade game from Konami so much that I was actually trying to figure out how to buy one. And I was sure excited when this movie came out; I had the stickers, I had the trading cards, and the soundtrack album was, believe it or not, the first rap album I ever owned.

So, yeah, I was a Turtlehead.

And right now the current comic book incarnation, published by IDW, is one of my favorite comic books. So I guess I still sort of am.

Despite the powerful presence of TMNT in my life, this movie hasn't really stuck with me over the years. I always found it somewhat forgettable. I've heard people praise it for 24 years now (even Kevin Smith called it one of the most faithful comic book adaptations), and I've always sort of shrugged it off as something I liked once but never really needed to see again. But I knew it would probably be on somewhere over the weekend, what with the new movie coming out, and my curiosity was killing me: how had the movie aged for me?

Honestly, it's something of a mixed bag.

First, I want to mention the Turtles themselves. The Turtles are pretty well-done. They were created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (which is why he's in the picture at the top of this post, along with the film's director, Steve Barron, who had also directed three episodes of Jim Henson's The Storyteller around this time), and they're very sophisticated for the time. They're not perfect--some of the facial expressions are wonderful, but sometimes the masks aren't quite expressive enough to be convincing in more dramatic scenes. Yes, yes, they're obviously men in suits, but so what? They're fun and they're charming.

I also love the characterizations and the voices. Though they litter their conversations with surfer slang, they're more out of the original, darker comic books than they are out of the very popular cartoon.

The whole movie's like that. The film's story is an amalgam of several comic book stories, and the film is surprisingly dramatic and, for a lot of people, violent, though it takes a lot of the more colorful elements and humor from the cartoon. I think that took a lot of people by surprise at the time, which led to a lot of heavy criticism. It's almost funny to look at this movie now and think that so many adults attacked the film for its violence, when it's more or less like anything you'd see in a Jackie Chan movie.

One complaint I have about the story: what the heck are the Foot doing with all of that stuff they're stealing? It seems like they're stealing anything that isn't nailed down, but to what end? To make a really bitchin' hangout for kids with a chip on their shoulder? There's nothing else going on? I know the Shredder has some vague "Take over the city" plan, but it's so vague as to not even be window dressing.

The cast is alright. I couldn't get too invested in at-risk ginger Danny and his arc from sullen kid to kid who cares, but I liked Judith Hoag as April. I actually still love Judith Hoag. From Halloweentown to Nashville, Judith Hoag is my lady. Elias Koteas is a lot more fun than I remembered as Casey Jones. And Toshishiro Obata as the Shredder's lieutenant, Tatsu, is a more compelling presence than Shredder himself is.

I'm surprised, seeing it now, at how sloppily made the film is. Not Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves level sloppy, but there are a lot of errors and goofs. This flick was going to make money no matter what--I saw it a couple of times, and it was packed every time--but it looks like such a rush job in places (and that's with three editors, including Sally Menke). I also don't like how dark it is. I understand that it's to hide some of the deficiencies of the puppets, but even the daylight scenes are hazy and murky. It's not pleasing to look at. (Though, funnily enough, it does conform to the look of New Line films, which used to have that rough look. New Line released the film in the US, but they didn't produce it.)

Overall, I enjoyed the film, both as a Turtles fan and as a fan of creature movies. Although there's a lot of comedy, there's a lot of drama, and it treats the Turtles and Spinter as credible characters rather than jokes. There's a lot of emotion that the filmmakers and the puppeteers pull out of them, and that's special. It's not really a defining movie of my lifetime, but it was a really nice walk down memory lane. I was going to say it's harmless, but that's dismissive, and I don't feel like dismissing it.

What it is, is shameless, silly fun. It's not a great movie, but who cares? It's a good time, and I won't apologize for having a good time.


Roger Owen Green said...

Never saw any TMNT TV or movie stuff, except in passing. Did read the comic book for a time.

Devilham said...

I actually really enjoyed the movie, while a little older than you, it still a bit of a time capsule for a way I felt at a certain time in my life, and those feelings come back when watching this flick. It is, in my mind, a classic.

Autumn said...

You know, I love this movie, it's probably mostly nostalgia, but I just love it to bits. But I also always wondered what the foot was stealing all that stuff for? We steal this stuff to entice children into our lair and make them...drinkers and smokers...who gamble...and then become...ninjas to fight for us..? So we can take over the city? Huh.

Also, when I wasn't trying to grow up to be Donatello, it was all about April, lady was a dame and I loved her!

SamuraiFrog said...

For me it's Raphael. Watching this again, I was struck by how sarcastic and angry Raph was, and I just thought, wow, that's me. I get it.