Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 4, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

I was born during that magical time known as the late 1980s. Growing up in the early nineties, I was right in the target demographic for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandising juggernaut. The Turtles are one of the earliest pop culture fads I can remember being invested in, though I don’t know how much that had to do with genuine interest and how much had to do with it being the popular kid thing of the day. In preparation for the new theatrical film, I’ve gone back and revisited the original Ninja Turtles cartoon. Which has made me realize the version of the Turtles I truly remember and have nostalgia for isn’t the goofy animated series but rather the live action film, simply known as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

In theory, a live action Ninja Turtles movie sounds terrible. The premise behind the series, laid out in its title, is intentionally absurd, originally meant to mock the popular comic books trends of the time. Despite the comical premise, those original comics are fairly dark and violent. The theatrical film takes many cues from those original stories. The plot – which shows the Turtles’ first encounter with April O’Neil, Raphael meeting up with Casey Jones, the rivalry between Splinter and the Foot Clan, and the eventual showdown with the Shredder – is taken straight from the source material. Most of the far-out sci-fi elements of the cartoon are ejected. There’s no Krang, Dimension X, or Technodrome, while the Foot Clan are regular ninjas, instead of robots. By following the comics so closely, the film is lended a certain grittiness which helps the ridiculous premise go down easier. However, the filmmakers were smart enough to realize that the cartoon show, silly as it was, was the most popular incarnation of the characters. So April O’Neil is a nosy reporter, Michelangelo spouts surfer slang, the Turtles love pizza, and Leonardo’s swords drawl blood all of once. There’s even a few cute shout-outs to the show, in the form of April’s yellow trench coat or the heroes briefly tooling around in a VW van.

By blending elements of the comic and the cartoon, the film pulls off an impressive tonal balancing act. Though less violent then the comics, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” is still considerably edgier then the Saturday morning cartoon show. Raphael shouts “Damn!” so much that it almost becomes his catchphrase. Unlike the cartoon, there are real risks involved here. The Foot intends on killing the Turtles, beating them savagely. They torture Splinter and burn down April’s antique shop. Shredder runs a miniature crime cartel and isn’t interested in loftier goals of world domination. Yet the film also indulges in the slapstick goofiness that regularly characterized the show. Michelangelo goofs around during the fight scene, spinning on his show during one moment. There’s even some silly sound effects, like when Donatello squirts water in the ninjas’ faces. The fight scenes are far-fetched enough that I’m honestly baffled that the film was criticized for its violence upon release.

What ultimately holds the whole movie together isn’t its mixture of grit and goof but its overarching sincerity. The film has a firm grasp on the Turtles’ personalities. Leonardo is the leader of the team. Though seemingly self-assured in his abilities, and easily holding the team together, he is still gripped with self-doubt. Raphael is less cool and rude then an active rage-oholic. Anger boils inside of him which he can only vent by beating up random street vigilantes. That same rage forces a schism between Raph and his brothers. Early on, during a surprisingly effective scene, Splinter reminds Raph that his family is there to help him through his strife. That emphasis on familial love and bonding forms the film’s heart. The rivalry between Leo and Raph drives the middle portion of the film and their eventual reconciliation creates a strong dynamic for the finale. The Turtles’ brotherly bond holds them together and Splinter’s fatherly love connects them. The four are reduced to tears when their father call out to them using mystical ninja joo-joo.

A lot of children's entertainment of the time had anti-crime message, encouraging kids to stay away from drugs and street gangs. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has one of those too, yet never feels preachy or heavy-handed. The warehouse where the Foot Clan and its trainees hang out reminded me a lot of “Pinocchio’s” Pleasure Island. The teen boys play video games, pool, skate board, and dance to loud music. The limits of the PG rating prevent the sex and drugs from being on-screen but both are assumed by their absence. The film makes it clear that each of the kids in the Foot Clan have troubled home lives. Without laying it on too thick, the script points out that the kids’ angers are born of pain, rejection, and bitterness. Shredder and the Foot Clan, like many real life predators, preys on that vulnerability, creating a place where the boys feel love and accepted, all while indoctrinating them into a life of crime. The Ninja Turtles’ family bond gives them strength. The same sort of love and acceptance is what the troubled youths truly need and what Danny, the young boy that moves the plot along a few times, ultimately accepts by the end. The film doesn’t hammer home this moral, instead letting it breath naturally in the story.

Something people probably don’t talk about much is how good “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” looks. Director Steve Barron didn’t have the most notable resume before this, mostly directing music videos, previous Jim Henson productions, and cult classic “Electric Dreams.” Yet his “Ninja Turtles” is a handsome-looking film. The sets are beautifully constructed, subtly invoking the look of the original comics. There’s a surprising moodiness to Barron’s composition. The scene where Splinter or Raphael talk is filmed in intimate close-up, the room behind them dark. Shredder’s first appearance has his shadow dramatically cast on the floor. The way the camera emphasizes the sharp curves of his armor draws a direct line from Darth Vader to the Shredder. The villains’ final showdown with the heroes is seriously tense, moreso then you’d ever expect kids’ flick to be. Moreover, the special effects in the film are fantastic. The Turtle suits are beautifully realized. While watching, never once did I see the Turtles as anything other then living characters. They blink, smile, gasps, and talk seamlessly. Even the fight scenes are believably pulled off, which is impressive since I’m sure the actors inside the suits could barely see and move.

In conclusion, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” might be my favorite incarnation of the characters. More or less everything I associate with the franchise is proudly, and fantastically, represented here. Elias Koteas is perfectly cast as Casey Jones. The film moves along at a smooth rate, even allowing for quieter moments like the extended stay on the farm. Really, the only issue I can pick with the film is that Michelangelo and Donatello get the short stick as far as characterization goes. The movie has even aged fairly well, aside from a one-off reference to “Moonlighting” and some synth-clicking on the otherwise fantastic score. (Oh, and “Turtle Power,” I guess.) Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I think it’s true now as it was when I was six years old: This movie is awesome. [8/10]

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