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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Well here we are with the last review of my superhero season. And this one is special, so much so that I've had to give it a double dose of warning because this really is a very personal favourite which not many people are going to understand. Like many of the reviews just now I knocked this up for my top 100 list in an attempt to explain my love for it and wasn't sure whether to post it as a review or not or just wait. But here it is anyway

Despite complaining about the lack of rep the other day I really don't see this one garnering much at all! It's a very personal, individual taste. In fact I should perhaps dedicate it to Rodent seeing as he might be the only other person on here who has a hope in hell of appreciating and agreeing with this in the slightest.


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Year of release
1990

Directed by
Steve Barron

Written by
Todd W. Langen
Bobby Herbeck

Starring
Judith Hoag
Elias Koteas
James Saito
Josh Pais
Kevin Clash

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Plot - Down in the sewers below New York a rat and four turtles are transformed when they come into contact with a mysterious ooze. Mutated in size, in intellect and now with the ability to speak, the rat named Splinter becomes like a father to the turtles. He becomes their sensei, dispensing to them his knowledge of Ninjutsu. When a crime wave begins to sweep the city it brings the turtles into contact with a local news reporter, April O'Neill (Hoag). Doing so reveals their existence to the Foot Clan and their leader Shredder, an enemy from Splinter's past. When Splinter is captured by the Foot, the Turtles have to band together and use the skills their sensei has taught them if they are to get him back.

Before I get onto the actual film itself I feel I should first outline my relationship with the Turtles. They are something that has held a special place in my heart since I was a wee young lad. I grew up with them and still dearly love them to this day. In a way they've also kind of developed to suit me as I've grown up. In my early years I had the classic cartoon series to delight me with its colourful and goofy ways. Then as I got a little older I could add the live action films into the mix. During my teenage years I then discovered the original comic series where the characters were born, as well as a new animated series which took a bit of a darker and edgier approach than the original cartoon. And even today at 27 years of age there is a new animated series on Nickelodeon which I have developed a great fondness for. Raphael, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo have always had a part in my life. I have several photographs from my childhood that show my great love for them. I have a photo at Christmas with my newly acquired Raphael hand puppet, and a Halloween photo where I dressed up as one of the Turtles. And while I think I was probably too young to see this particular film I have fond memories of going to the cinema to see at least one of the Turtles films. And what I largely remember is leaving the cinema and as I walked to the car breaking out my best martial arts; no lamp post that I passed was safe, quickly being met with a karate chop or a roundhouse kick.

Now while I enjoy all of the films starring the Turtles (three live action, one CGI and an animated TV movie that celebrated the 25th anniversary of their creation) it is without a doubt this first film that I truly love. In fact for many years this would have sat proudly at #1 as my favourite ever film. While both my personal love for the characters and the nostalgia factor undoubtedly play a large part in how I feel about this film, I also happen to think that in terms of what the film sets out to be it is pretty damn great. The film is actually a lot darker than you would expect and probably remember if you haven't seen it in many years. While it does adopt some elements from the cartoon series and the Archie comics, it most certainly takes a bit of the edge from the original comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The story unfolds in a rather gritty, unglamorous view of New York in derelict neighbourhoods and on streets swept by rain and strewn with graffiti. Much of the film also takes place almost exclusively at night. Even the way the film is shot gives the film quite a grainy, dark aesthetic that makes for an atmospheric experience. It really doesn't look like you'd expect a big comic book film to look.....except for you know, the four big walking, talking, butt-kicking turtles! Even a number of the turns that the story itself takes are rather dark given what you might expect. You've got Raphael brutally beaten to the point of near-death; you've got Splinter chained up and tortured; and while the sequel proved that he actually survived, the film sees a really rather grisly end for Shredder; crushed in the back of a garbage truck. Ouch!

Just the chance to see the Turtles themselves brought to life is a real treat for me. As someone who grew up watching their animated versions, and attempting to drew them over and over again, I still get a real sense of joy of seeing them in the flesh. Bringing the turtles from page to screen was the accomplishment of a number of individuals pulling together with one goal. To begin with you've got the stellar work done by the Jim Henson Creature Shop who created the Turtles costumes and the excellent Splinter puppet. You can definitely tell that the film is getting on in years and that its budget wasn't the biggest but they still hold up as being damn fine creations. The Turtles' suits were great creations, very detailed and even quite expressive at times when it came to their faces. Inside those suits were a series of performers who helped breath life into them. To begin with you had four individuals to handle their movements and interactions, aided by a team of assistants who controlled the facial animatronics. And then on top of that you had an additional four, extremely talented martial artists who performed all of the action sequences. All of the stunt performers deserve huge credit for being able to pull off what they did considering the immense restrictions that the suits placed upon them. They are somehow able to pull of some pretty impressive and complex action sequences that I just absolutely love, with favourites being the huge melee at April's antique shop and the epic final showdown on the roof with Shredder. The production company behind the film was the legendary Golden Harvest, famous for many martial arts classics starring the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. As a result a couple of consultants were sent over from Hong Kong to assist with the fight scenes, adding a nice Hong Kong flair to proceedings. I also love the way that the action is filmed because you can actually see it! In contrast to so many modern action films there is no shaky cam and no rapid editing in sight here. The camera is kept very steady and just allows us to take in and enjoy the action. Using his Transformers films as an example I would expect Michael Bay to go more for the shaky cam and rapid editing when he takes on the Turtles later this year.

Film Trivia Snippets – At the time of its release, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually became the most successful independent film of all time, making over $133 million at the US box office. It would hold this record for nine years until The Blair Witch Project came along, grossing $140 million. /// Even though the film was sponsored by Pizza Hut, we quite clearly see the Turtles ordering from and eating Domino's. /// Robin Williams, a big fan of the Turtles, helped Judith Hoag with her character by providing her information gleaned from his comic book collection. /// The late Sally Menke was an editor most famous for being a regular collaborator of Quentin Tarantino's. However it was with this film that she made her feature film debut. /// It took three puppeteers to operate the Splinter puppet. Kevin Clash performs the puppet while the facial expressions are remote controlled by another puppeteer and the arms are controlled by the puppeteer who works along with Kevin during the performances of the puppet.
While the in-suit performers do a great deal to bring the heroes in a half shell to life, the characters require strong vocal performances to complete the illusion. So it's fortunate then that they have exactly that. All four voices feel like perfect matches for the respective characters and their personalities. So much so that they are how I generally imagine the characters to sound and the standard by which I judge all others. Corey Feldman is a particular highlight as Donatello, his rather nasal and geeky tones capturing Donnie perfectly. And then with the Splinter puppet, it comes across as so much more realistic and nuanced than it really has any right to. It's a great little creation from Henson & co. It took three separate puppeteers to control him, with one of them, Kevin Clash, also providing his voice. His vocals also feel spot on, giving Splinter real character and wisdom, creating a Yoda like teacher for his reptilian sons. All of Henson's creations just give so much more soul to the characters than CGI possibly could, and make their interactions with the human cast seamless and believable.

With so much time dedicated to the turtles there are only a small handful of human characters who are given a significant role. Fortunately however most of the actors in these roles rise to the occasion. As April O'Neill we have the pleasure to witness Judith Hoag giving an extremely likeable performance. Her April is strong, feisty and independent. She makes you believe that her character could accept the reality of the turtles mere moments after learning of their existence. While she's tough and all business much of the time, in the company of the turtles she also proves to have a lovely easygoing and fun nature. And man she is really rather sexy. In particular she has a fantastic set of pins on her. As the turtles' other ally we have Elias Koteas who just absolutely rocks it as Casey Jones. The man is just bad ass! He brings a terrifically vibrant energy to the role and delivers a number of laughs. He is able to make Casey likeable without having to soften the character, retaining his vigilante edge. And you've got to give it to him, it's not easy to stand out and make an impression when you're sharing the screen with four full-grown turtles who know kung fu! But Koteas manages it. His interactions with the turtles are a lot of fun. Together Koteas and Hoag have a fun sizzle to their chemistry. Both put in great performances and provide my favourite interpretations of the characters so far seen on screen. It's also a real shame that Hoag would depart the role for the two sequels. On the villainous side of things we don't exactly get well-rounded characters, but what we do get are a couple of very colourful individuals who make you take notice. James Saito helps to make the Shredder quite the imposing villain. In fact between the character's striking look and formidable vocals (dubbed by David McCharen) there's a little bit of a Darth Vader vibe to him. While as his second in command Tatsu there is the visually arresting Toshishiro Obata. He doesn't have much else to do but talk tough and look menacing, but he pulls it off with flying colours. The man is a scary dude. Oh and something I only just noticed for the first time I think - in the role of 'Head Thug' the film features a very young Sam Rockwell!

Film Trivia Snippets - Toward the end of the movie, one of the street punks says to the police chief "Check out East Warehouse on Lairdman Island." This was a reference to the two creators of the Ninja Turtles, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. /// In the script and novelization, the young boy that Tatsu attacks was to die from the beating. The sounds of the boy breathing and others saying he would be all right were added at the last minute after the movie ratings board objected to the scene. /// The four actors inside the suits all lost at least 20 pounds during filming. This was as a result of the already heavy suits, the 60 pounds of animatronics stored in the shells and the intense heat and humidity of North Carolina. /// Judith Hoag decided against reprising her role as April for the sequels because she “was never satisfied with how the film came out”, apparently unhappy with substantial edits that were made to scenes involving her character. /// Despite its New York setting the large majority of the film was actually shot in Wilmington, North Carolina. In fact the fight scenes that take place on the streets and rooftops were actually filmed on a giant New York city set that had been re-purposed from another cult classic, Big Trouble in Little China.
I also happen to think that the film is really quite well written. The central story at the film's core is really quite simple but I personally think it's really well constructed. To establish the overarching story the film employs a series of interconnecting sub-plots. There's the relationships between all of the turtles and Splinter; there's April's investigation into the activities of the Foot; there's the possible romance that develops between Casey and April; and very importantly there's the thread detailing the experiences of Danny Pennington, the son of April's boss. It allows us a way to learn about the inner workings of the Foot. While the main thrust of the film is most certainly concerned with four mutated turtles who kick butt using martial arts, I think if you look closely there are a few interesting little tidbits to be found. A large part of the film is about family, and how you can sometimes find it in the most unusual of places; such as between four turtles and a rat. There is a real love between those five. Through the story of Danny it also shows the problems that can sometimes arise between families. His strained relationship with his father leaves Danny feeling unwanted and like an outsider, leaving him vulnerable to being recruited by the Foot.

And while it may not be humour of the most sophisticated and high-brow variety I also find the film to be very funny on a number of occasions. The script delivers to the cast a lot of witty fun in their dialogue, particularly when it comes to their back and forth banter and bickering. I thought the script also did a really nice job of capturing the distinctive character dynamics of the four turtles, and also of creating the interactions between them. In particular I love the classic sibling rivalry that is constantly on show between Raphael and Leonardo. In terms of personalities those two really are polar opposites. Raphael is hot-headed and impulsive, always reacting with his gut rather than his brain. While Leonardo is the cerebral and responsible one, always sizing up the situation and carefully considering his options before acting. Bring them together and sparks are sure to fly. And yet just like all brothers when you get down to it (perhaps very deep down in this case! ) they do love each other.

The film was directed by Steve Barron; a name I've got to admit to having no recognition of whatsoever. And it's perhaps no surprise. Known more as a director of music videos for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson and David Bowie, his only other feature film before the Turtles was 80s cheesefest, Electric Dreams. And since the Turtles he has been largely absent from the big screen, delivering just 5 films in the intervening years; the most notable of which being Coneheads and Mike Bassett: England Manager. Despite this rather lacklustre CV I think he does a damn fine job here in the director's chair. He handles the action sequences very well and has an eye for a great shot. I particularly love how he depicts the introduction of Shredder to the film; initially showing him as this long, ominous shadow before revealing the source of said shadow. I can easily picture that image of the stretching shadow as a panel in a comic book. Working alongside Barron to bring life and energy to the film is John Du Prez's brilliant score. While it will never be considered as a classic alongside the likes of Jaws, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Psycho etc it has got to be one of my personal favourite scores. It's a great piece of storytelling, whether it be fun and funky when the times are good or brooding and emotional when things take a darker turn.

So is this film as perfect as my 5 star rating indicates? No. Are there flaws? Yeah probably, but I personally am completely oblivious to them! And I couldn't be happier with my ignorance.

Conclusion - I'll be the first to admit that as reviews go this was not the most unbiased critique of the film's merits. Instead it was purely a love letter to a film that has a substantial place in my heart. Perhaps the best way I can think to sum up my feelings for this film is to say that in many ways this film is like my Star Wars. My relationship with the turtles is like the experience many people have with George Lucas' 1977 classic. It's a film that I first discovered at a very young age and that became an instant favourite, and that I watched countless times. And I hope that I will continue to watch and enjoy it on many more occasions to come.


Oh and as a fun little bonus to further highlight my personal connection with the film and the Turtles in general I dug out the couple of childhood photos I mentioned in the review. One from Halloween and one from Christmas

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