A Look At: TMNT 1990
September 20, 2018
I have always had a special place in my heart for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ever since I first saw the original 1987 animated series when I was young. I even remember having this plastic table with four chairs that were, not surprisingly, each of the turtles (I have a photo of it somewhere but alas, I could not find it in time).
I don’t remember exactly what it was that drew me into the series, or what got me to watch it in the first place, just that it always seemed to be there; a neat, fun love of mine that didn’t simply stay in my childhood. Then I came upon the original 1990 film and, obviously, fell in love with it. For the longest time I held the movie as something that I loved based purely on my already (massive) enjoyment of the series, but the older I got and the more I explored writing, especially that of adaptation, I loved it even more. As more and more adaptations have been made, and even more are being greenlit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always struck me as a good one. Not just that, but a really good one. Is there a hint of nostalgia that I feel towards it? Undoubtedly, it can’t be helped, but I still feel as though there are many elements to it that work successfully, coming together that gave us a film that I believe is way better than anyone was expecting, and one that does justice to fans of the series. It is a film that feels the way most adaptations should; it feels like it was made by people who are fans of the property themselves.
While each of the characters are written the way they are supposed to be, even keeping elements that does genuinely make them seem teenager-like, the writing also treats the material seriously without ever getting to be too much. The plot and scenarios keep things grounded enough to make the events happening have weight; we genuinely feel sadness toward Splinter once he is captured and beaten; we feel Raph’s frustrations with himself; the reactions to the Turtles from April and Casey; and we do see Shredder as a legitimate threat, even though for the majority of the film we don’t really see him do anything, yet we know he is capable of so much.
The characters go through a variety of emotions as the plot swerves and twists and turns to throw them through different hoops, and the changes in tone are handled very well. There’s plenty of humour and light heartedness, but there’s just as much tension. Even the humour that is dropped into more serious moments work great, never taking away from any of the scenes as a whole. It’s refreshing to see how great the writing is handled here, as the film could have very easily been a quick cash-grab to capitalize on the success of the comics and the massively popular animated series. At a time where a lot of adaptations of franchises like this were very haphazardly tossed together (even to this day), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie comes off like it strives to be something more, like the creators do seriously care about what the fans would think upon leaving the theater. A big part of the franchise has been turtles kicking ninja butt, and we get amazing action choreography here. The turtles all look great here, being a physical entity you can actually buy interacting with their own co-stars in the feature. The suit and animatronic work is still wonderful to see, and it adds in the sweet nostalgia of the entire thing. There’s a charm here from the past that you don’t necessarily get with CGI. Practical effects have a tendency to age a lot better, because everything does grow to feel very charming. You believe that these turtles are walking around the city (even in trench coats, sometimes). Seeing them interact the way they do gives them real life, and as hard as that alone may have been, the action sequences come off even more spectacular. Everything feels so crisp, and the level of work by the stunt workers cannot be understated. Besides the fact that each of the Turtles are written the way they should be, giving them their own individual identities, the writers were able to nail that most important aspect here; they feel like family. The four turtles and Splinter have amazing chemistry, coming off as a genuinely loving unit. We quickly understand their relationships, seeing that they are still young yet take the words of their master very seriously.
Splinter is the heart of the film, which shouldn’t be surprising. He is a sweet, caring father; one who would do anything to make sure that his sons are okay, yet knowing full well that he can only guide them. Splinter has a lot of fantastic lines in the film, ones that resonate to everyone and not just the Turtles in general.
One moment in particular that sticks out for me comes early in the runtime. Raph returns home after leaving in frustration, finding Splinter still awake and waiting for him. Asking for him to sit, Splinter tells Raph that he is someone who, unlike his brothers, tries to battle his own anger and frustrations himself, and that he should never forget that he has his family there, before laying a tender hand on Raphael’s head. It is an incredibly sweet and touching moment, and one that is extremely relatable, along with being something that is important to remember. Nowadays it sometimes can feel like certain films try to cram way too much of what they’re adapting into the finished product, and yet here it is balanced so well that it never distracts or makes you feel as though you’re spending time at a moment you don’t care about. It’s impressive as they had to build up the story of the Turtles, Splinter, their familial relationship, April, Casey, the relationship between all of those characters, and Shredder, not to mention the plot of the film and a few other subplots as it is.
Everyone is here to focus first and foremost on the Turtles, and they’re written exactly as you hoped, but the inclusion of both April and Casey really pushes what I love about the movie so much further. While April is kind of a given in needing to be included, they could have held off on Casey Jones to make the writing process a lot easier, to make sure they have time to get everything right. Yet, with everything they already had to build and establish, both of these characters feel like, well, fully established characters. Both are written to be very three dimensional characters, with wonderful moments with the others, and it never feels as though they are taking away from time that could be given to others. It’s a testament to the writing here, as we also get plenty of bits that make fans happy (Raph and Casey are always a joy and April comes off as more than just a possible damsel in distress).
As a matter of fact, April, Casey, and their relationship with Splinter and the Turtles is so well written that I could have probably watched a film of them around a table eating dinner and bantering and been satisfied. And while I do mention writing a lot, Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas are fantastic as the two human friends of the main family, both perfectly embodying their characters and what makes them special and likable. With so much already covered with success, with the building of the Turtles and their relationship with Splinter to Casey and April and their stories, it is impressive how well Shredder comes off as well. Mysterious and incredibly intimidating, Shredder comes off as a legitimate threat, even though we don’t see him do much hands-on before the final confrontation; and he doesn’t need to. His presence is commanding, and while his screen time is shorter compared to everything else that needs to be fit in, he comes off as a legitimate threat. His scenes are filmed in a way that makes you –feel—that he is dangerous. It’s quite easy to see how he would have such a hold on the ‘lost’ teenagers, commanding respect and loyalty with his words and intimidation. With Shredder not doing much of his own heavy lifting in the film and us still knowing he is a worthwhile foe, we fully expect the Turtles to work together in overcoming him, but that’s not what happens. The fact that the Turtles are still obviously in way over their head and flat out lose, spectacularly, is one of my favourite touches of the film. You’re used to films like this putting the heroes in the corner and for them to eventually, with heart and determination, beat the villain of the piece. It’s pretty much a given for this to happen. The choice to have the Turtles not just lose but get essentially swatted aside makes absolutely perfect sense, and is a touch of detail that also goes to show that the filmmakers knew the source material and loved it (the fact that Leonardo is the only one to get a hit in on Shredder, eventually, is also a fantastic decision).
While the Turtles aren’t new to their skills and fighting, they are definitely knew to actually having an outside force opposing them, so they wouldn’t be ready to handle a situation as serious as this or know how to best work as a team in their offence. They take the fact that there are four of them for granted, as it leads to some cockiness from them before realizing that, yeah, maybe Shredder is a real problem they wouldn’t be able to just easily get over. All of this leads to my favourite moments in the movie, and the one that I think really shows the care that went into it by people who understood the source material. The (one-sided) fight between the Turtles and Shredder lends enough time for Splinter to arrive on top of the roof, having a moment with the villain that reveals to him just who the fatherly rat is. Angry, Shredder charges with his spear, only to have Splinter sidestep and use a fallen nunchaku to wrap around Shredder’s weapon and flip him, dangling from the roof.
This was always, in my mind, a showcase of how Splinter is properly realized in this film. He isn’t just a master who has trained his sons and is their father figure, but he is also a peaceful sort. He knows how to fight and defend himself, but knows that fighting isn’t everything, at all. It is something he repeatedly returns to, not just here but in other media. Use Shredder’s own anger clouded judgment and choice against him is exactly what Splinter would do; there is no need to fight, but to be smart and calm. It’s one of those moments where, as much as I’ve repeated this, you can tell the writer’s and filmmakers cared about the source material. There have been so many adaptations that don’t seem to understand their characters in their entire runtime, yet here we have a simple few seconds that so perfectly sums up a character and what they stand for. It’s one of my favourite movie moments ever. With Splinter’s move we can see what is, in many ways, the point of the Turtles. While it is incredibly exciting and fun to see them battle ninjas and other dimensional evils, it’s the family element and chemistry between them all that really brings us in. The film was able to portray all of their characters wonderfully, lovable and relating in their own ways. It’s sad that we haven’t seen another live action Ninja Turtles film that succeeded the way this one did, especially since this one showed us just how easy it could actually be if you understand why people love the material. Over time it’s held up way better than it probably has any right to, and easily ranks as one of the best adaptations of existing property for the silver screen. Hopefully we will someday get a film that can stand alongside this one, but at least we will always have the original to return to in order to show others why we love all of these characters so much.