Remembering... Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
It’s natural to want to remember the good things from our past, regardless of where you’re at in your life. I’ve loved movies since I was four, and I love that I can pinpoint the age when it all happened. However, I admit I tend to be in the present vortex when it comes to them; I focus on films that are coming up and ones that are just a few years old. Every now and then I’ll think about to the movies I saw as a kid, and I’ll have a few fond memories. That’s how I normally operate.
Without going in too deep or boring y'all too much, things in my life have been a little rocky going on a couple of years now. Lately, if there’s anything good or positive around, I’ll latch onto it. Hard times equals remembering better days which can either help me or make me heartbroken that things couldn’t stay the same. The only time thinking back brings me absolute joy is when I remember movies I treasured as a kid. I’m referring to those days when you get home after school and you munch down half of the Little Debbie’s brownie two-pack, just to save the other half as you pop in a VHS of your then-favorite movie. I remember stress eating that snack pack while I watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for the fifth time that week. Combining the aspect of putting on a physical copy of a film with the comfort of being home under some blankets is my absolute zen. My happy place. My time to not let negativity out there or even within come out. “To hell with you, demons. I’m watching a movie.”
From being a child to a teenager to a childish adult to a less childish adult (kind of), and from VHS tapes to laserdiscs to DVDs to Blu-rays, watching movies in the comfort of my home has been a genuine saving grace. So this is my tribute to the ones that got me through as a kid.
“I have always liked...Cowabunga.”
Raise your hand if you too made a giant turtle out a cardboard box! (Hey, not everyone could afford the real thing) The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a colossal part of my childhood as they were for countless others during the early 90’s. The 1987 animated kids show, born from a comic that was actually pretty dark, featured the action-packed saga of four brothers and their master as they kicked evil’s ass and ate pizza. But wait... they were also turtles and a rat? “Forget it-- take all the money in my piggy bank. It’s yours”.
I had the tapes, the toys, and even the cookies. The Ninja Turtles were a breakout hit, so naturally, a big-screen movie was summoned. And let’s face it, movies that are born out of murky lakes of merchandising don’t really have to be of sound quality, they just have to keep kids entertained and push out more toys in 80 minutes or less. I don’t think kids or parents were expecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be anything more than fluff, nor do I think they were expecting it to be live-action. My six-year-old-self ate this up and then some. I walked around the house quoting it nearly word for word (especially Donatello), adored the movie poster (it still gives me goosebumps), and was convinced for awhile that the sequel was just as good. As I got older and wiser, even I knew there was something about the first cinematic incarnation of the Turtles that lingered within me. After sitting down with my Blu-ray - 15 years since last seeing it - I realized what it was, like a snap of my fingers: this has stayed with me because the filmmakers treated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles like an actual film.
I have no earthly idea what prompted the team at New Line Cinema, and director Steve Barron, to have that meeting where the quality decisions were made to treat this like a worthy event, but to everyone in that meeting I’m convinced existed... thank you. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t just a good kids movie or a good movie in general, it’s a great movie. My recent viewing had me in awe and answered so many questions as to why I took it personally years ago.
The story isn’t mishandled in the slightest; instead, it’s given to us as building blocks to worthwhile payoffs. It establishes the Foot Clan organization as the menace of New York City and their ingenious ploy: take advantage of the confused and easily impressionable youth by making them feel that a life of crime is cool and their band of misfits is their real family - not their parents. The way this is shown to us is clever, beat-by-beat, thanks to some excellent editing (and a huge part of that is because of the great Sally Menke, R.I.P.). News reporter April O’Neil (played by a solid Judith Hoag) is the only one taking crime wave seriously, and on the night those punks try to rob her, we’re introduced to our heroes in the coolest way possible. They act like actual ninjas (well, teenage ninjas) and save April. From that point, every action from nearly everyone leads to a consequence, down to failure, and back up to legitimate redemption.
This movie excels at reveals. From the Foot Clan to the Turtles to The Shredder (Remember how 90’s mainstream villains were just awesome?), director Barron and composer John Du Prez built up these moments with cinematic flair, and you couldn’t help but feel pulled in. The reveals within the script are great, but what’s even better is the script itself. Remember... this didn’t really have to be that good. This isn’t a slap-job of a story about the Turtles versus The Shredder and his goons. The story is formatted to make these teenagers go through a journey of personal growth and understanding. They have to deal with loss when the Foot Clan kidnap Splinter. One of the Turtles, Raphael, struggles with his animosity (in a wonderfully constructed scene with Splinter early on, a scene that speaks volumes to me personally). And throughout their journey, they deal with defeat and the soul-crushing harshness of failure.
This is heavy for your average child moviegoer, but I think it’s important. For a movie aimed at a certain demographic, it presents real-life situations through fantasy filters and displays them with raw, brilliant energy. Maybe this connects with me because I can imagine 30’s me talking to childhood me, telling him to take these neatly packaged lessons to heart: “You’ll deal with hardships, and you’re going to get knocked on your ass from time to time. But like the Turtles, you can’t give up. They found the strength within. And you can too”. Childhood me went through some ordeals. So maybe that’s why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles means so much to me? Maybe that was the adult me speaking through a movie. Who knows.
All of that, plus it’s severely entertaining. So if you haven’t seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yet, make it a priority. I dare you not to have the time of your life during the best action sequence when the Turtles first fight the Foot Clan. “I guess they’re not game show fans.” “And I thought everybody loved Vanna!”
See, there I go quoting it again.