Monday, March 24, 2014


This movie is nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and is probably the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. --Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 

Don't confuse the specter of your origin with your present worth, my son. -- Splinter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.

I don't think anyone will claim that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a great movie, but, given its context, it's actually a little bit remarkable and arguably underrated. 

The original black and white magazine-sized comic book was self-published by Eastman and Laird in 1984, a sort of parody of both the gritty Frank Miller fare that was on the rise at the time (See Ronin) and the more askew, quirky underground stuff (see Cerebus the Aardvark). Eastman and Laird's lark managed a balance between the two, and took off. The CBS cartoon appeared around 1988, a far cry tone-wise from the source material. These Turtles were more wise-cracking and pizza-snarfing; they did not, as Rosenbaum points out, kill anybody. Essentially, the cartoon was a launching pad for the Playmate Toy line, and if you grew up watching it, you're probably fond as hell of it. The darker comic continued independently of the cheesy phenomenon, expanding in its own mythology, but these two separate realities rarely overlapped.

1984 vs 1988

On account of the cartoon's ubiquity, it's easy and common to forget that 1990's Ninja Turtles is, essentially, a comic book movie--and a fairly good one at that. Tim Burton's Batman was released the summer of '89, drawing heavily from Frank Miller's recalibration of the hoary and previously campy character, and--after the triumph of 1978's Superman (which made you believe a man could fly) and its subsequent dwindling quality--Burton's Bat is considered one of the few functional comic book adaptations until Bryan Singer's 2000 adaptation X-Men ushered in this generation of comic book blockbusters that you're either revelling or barely tolerating now. In the shadow of the Turtle's cartoon's success, it's hard not to see the movie as connected to the Saturday morning shenanigans. Certainly that connection owes to the movie's box office triumph; at the time it was the highest grossing independent movie ever, hauling in almost $135 million. All that money was coming from kids obsessed with the cartoon and the toys, and the phenomenon was so big that it's difficult to separate the movie from it. But, once parsed, Turtles comes out as being mostly true to the look and feel of the original comic.

Released at the height of Turtle fever, it's odd that this is the movie that got made. 1991's sequel, The Secret of the Ooze, visually and tonally seem to be a product of a franchise. Consider the difference between the original Ghost Busters and it's 1989 sequel, and the tonal havoc wrecked by the success of the cartoon and toy line in between. In coming to terms with how incongruous this first Turtle's movie is, the best litmus may be the fact that Playmates declined to produce a line of tie-in toys, finding the adaptation to be too dark. The movie certainly features the cartoon's predilection for zanyness and surfer's one-liners--as well, it carries over the cartoon's mask colours, where the comic simply leaves everyone with red coverage--but it's also dark, grimy, and violent. It takes place in a grungy, crime-pocked pre-Giuliani New York City, where teens are recruited into an ancient ninja clan called The Foot (see Ronin's "The Hand") who are terrorizing the city by stealing all its stereo equipment; Raphael gets savagely beaten; Master Splinter is held hostage and similarly abused and bloodied; you can cut the sexual tension between April and Casey Jones with a katana; and there are a few instances of unfortunate, of-the-time casual homophobia--Casey doesn't like being called a "claustrophobic."

I don't mean to put too fine a point on the adultness of the movie. I only mean to stress that this is not an adaptation of the cartoon. If a movie had to be made that represented the franchise, Steve Barron's Ninja Turtles braids the threads together pretty tightly, supplying equal amounts of grit and gags.

But the Ninja Turtle franchise, now 30 years old, will probably always obfuscate any autonomous enjoyment of this first movie. Which is no great cinematic crime, necessarily. The real shame of the movie being overlooked is that the work of Jim Henson and his Creature Shop gets over-looked as well. Ninja Turtles was one of Henson's final movies, and unfortunately he didn't like it much, finding it--like Playmates--too dark and violent. The servo-filled Turtle heads are a standout example of how effective practical effects were becoming when computers curtailed that art.

Computer-Generated Ninja Turtles
The Turtle movies got progressively worse, collapsing into screen version of the Saturday morning pith--there were extensive toy lines for all of those. Maybe most confounding is the Pizza Hut-sponsored live musical show the Turtles staged in the wake of the movie's success. The Coming Out of Their Shells Tour has the Turtle's realize that, on Splinter's advice, "You can do more good with music than any pair of nunchucks" and that "Music can let you accomplish more than all the weapons in the world." This is the message they across the country, joined by balletic pizza delivery guys. Of course, Shredder and the Foot eventually crash the good times and the Turtles have to beat the hell out of them. The stage show is undoubtedly the nadir of the franchise, and it's hard to imagine even the most besotted little fans finding this of any worth.


But of course, when playing fast and loose with mutations, it's inevitable that you'll wind up with something hideous.

It's not without suspicion of kismet that I received, as I was working on this assessment, that I came in to work to find on my desk an advanced reading copy of "Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" by Broken Pencil fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum. The book (one of the first in ECW's "pop classics" series) tackles wonderfully and deftly the TMNT history, which I didn't even nick here. Whether you're a diehard or just a looky-loo, this small book is jam-packed and worth your while.

"The other thing that makes Ninja Turtles so amenable to adaptation," writes Rosenbaum, "is that adaptation itself--in the biological, dictionary-definition sense of an alteration in a living organism that allows it to become better suited to thrive in it's environment--is it's most basic and primary theme. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about how to live in a world where you are something strange and new, something different and unprecedented. How to be a person--how to be a hero--when there's never been anything like you before... In this way, TMNT has mutability built into its very DNA, which gives the concept an amazing degree of flexibility when it comes to the stories it's capable of telling and the ways it can be stretched and altered without breaking."

By dint of it's varied source materials (the original comic being inspired by Miller and Sim, the cartoon being inspired by the comic, the movie being inspired by a mix of the whole lot it) any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles incarnation will always be some sort of adaptation, and I maintain that the 1990 movie is one of the smoothest amalgams of all those sources.



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