Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The Movie

After the original Mirage comics had their cult following and the cartoon had made the turtles a worldwide phenomenon, we got the first live action movie.  A damn good movie.

Who remembers this teaser poster? I do!

The movie mixes a few elements of the Mirage comic with the cartoon of the time for a fantastic result.  April O’Neil remains a TV news reporter, and the turtles keep their intense love of pizza, but otherwise there are a lot of nods to the Mirage comics and the movie strikes a near perfect balance of taking the property seriously while remaining light hearted and just simply fun.

Visually, the movie is one of the greatest testaments to Jim Henson’s creature shop, who developed the suits for the turtles and Splinter.  24 years after the movie’s release, the costumes still hold up and are pretty convincing.  The eyes look believable, the bandannas have a bit of an eyebrow shape that move enough to give some impression of expression without being too distracting when they move.  The mouths move well and can shape to give smiles and mouth movements, though they don’t perfectly match up to the spoken words with exact syncing.  Despite the limitations of the animatronics in the mask, the facial structure and the heads are able to do a lot to convey their speech and emotion.  Peter Laird, co-creator of the series, has said more than 20 years later that these are still the most accurate representation of the turtles in live action to date.

Henson’s TMNT suits

From the neck down, things only get more impressive.  The turtles stand just a bit shorter than 5’7″ April, played by Judith Hoag, and Casey, played perfectly by Elias Koteas at 5’11” tall.  The turtles limbs have a good look of being skin rather than rubber, with the sculpted but not oversized muscles showing definition and veins and giving the actors a good bit of movement.  The fight scene on the roof with Raphael against the Foot is a particularly nice display of how much motion and maneuverability they had in the suits.  Best of all, the turtles’ shells look just plain awesome, both shell and plastron at the front.

The turtles hanging out with the late, great Jim Henson

The turtles and Splinter are voice acted well and the movie properly focuses on the turtles as their main characters, though admittedly Casey Jones steals a few scenes as well.

My one complaint I’ve had since it first came out to today is that, to maintain a PG rating and being a movie for kids, Leonardo is largely restrained and unable to use his weapons for any actual offense.  He attacks, but can’t actually make contact, keeping most strikes to punches and kicks.

The film establishes a crime wave in New York being reported by April right off the bat, showing teenagers stealing throughout the city and giving a first glimpse at Foot ninjas as the stolen goods are handed off.  Looking back, I wouldn’t mind a bit more explanation of Shredder’s ultimate goal since petty theft and teenagers doesn’t exactly indicate a larger criminal empire, but it worked to establish the Foot as a criminal organization.  Within the first 5 minutes we meet the turtles after they save April from being mugged and Raphael leaves a sai behind, giving the first shock of the film when it was released as the first word heard from any turtle isn’t “cowabunga” but “damn.”

The turtles return to their lair and are reminded by Splinter the importance of remaining hidden. Frustrated by the loss of his sai, Raphael goes to see a movie while the others stay home for pizza.  After the movie, we meet Casey Jones as Raph faces off with him over his method of teaching purse snatchers a lesson.  My friend and I still, to this day, will quote “you gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket.”  Raph returns home angry from his overall loss to Casey and has a bit of a father/son moment with Splinter.

The next day, April is confronted in a subway after Shredder sends the Foot to silence her since her investigative reporting is starting to find the threads that might uncover them.  She’s knocked out, Raph saves her and brings her back to the lair, trailed by a single foot soldier.  When April awakes and is told their origin, the foot ninja looks on and reports back to Shredder.  The turtles return to April’s apartment and stay for frozen pizza and hang out a bit, but upon returning to the lair, they find Splinter missing.

Returning to April’s, they stay at her apartment a while and she continues reporting on the Foot.  Raph grows frustrated and impatient and after an argument with Leonardo, heads to the roof for some air where Casey spots him from another building’s rooftop just as Raph is about to be jumped by Foot ninja.  Inside, April gets home from work and takes the other turtles on a tour of the 2nd Time Around antique shop, which is the same name as the shop from the comic.  From here we start to really get a lot of Mirage comic references.

Raph replaces Leo from the comics in facing off against ever growing numbers of Foot until he’s thrown through the ceiling and crashes into April’s apartment beaten within an inch of his life. The turtles fight the foot swarming into the apartment and carry on the fight in the antique store after the floor gives way.  Casey arrives to help the turtles, fire breaks out and the turtles escape with the Foot vanishing as the police arrive.

Following the comics, they head out to April’s family’s farmhouse (presumably in Northampton but not stated in the film).  The turtles are suffering the defeat of losing Splinter rather than being defeated and driven out by a returned Shredder, but there are still a lot of nods to the comics on the farm.  The farm has a windmill like the comics, Raph is replaced by Don working with Casey to repair a truck. Once Raph recovers from his injuries, Leonardo spends most of his time in the woods when we see him, we get a scene of Mikey working a punching bag in the barn, and we get a scene of Raph on the rooftop (though he cries out for Splinter rather than keeping silent guard).  A lot of nice references to the comic for those aware of them.

Leo makes a connection to Splinter and brings his brothers out to a campfire one night where they all meditate and are met with a vision from Splinter.  It’s not really explained, but suffice to say it’s just movie ninja mysticism, though the comics were full of that as well with Splinter swapping bodies through astral projection in an issue.  With training and Splinter’s words preparing them, the turtles head back for the show down.

Back in New York, the turtles get some rest before planning to take on the Foot and Danny (son of April’s boss who ratted the turtles out in the first place) heads back to the Foot headquarters, followed by Casey Jones, and seeks out Splinter.  Shredder learns the turtles have returned and sends the Foot after them, going himself to finish them off.  Casey and Danny rescue Splinter and deal with Shredder’s second-in-command while the turtles fight the Foot through the sewers, to the streets, and onto rooftops.

We get a lot of enjoyable fight sequences, my favorite of which might be Donatello skateboarding through the sewer using his bo to take out Foot ninja as he goes.  The fight culminates on the rooftop where the turtles face off against Shredder one on one, each getting beat, until he gets Leo pinned at the point of his spear.  They give up their weapons to save Leo, but Shredder moves to strike until Splinter appears on the ledge of the roof to distract him.  Realizing its the same rat that scarred him years ago in Hamato Yoshi’s home, Shredder attacks Splinter instead, who reacts defensively.  Ultimately, Shredder falls into a garbage truck below where Casey activates the crushing mechansim.

And Shredder was awesome in this movie too

April gets her big story at the end, Casey and April share a kiss, and the turtles celebrate on the roof top.

Honestly, though critics weren’t crazy about the film, I still find very little weak or wrong with it to this day.  The costumes and animatronics hold up so well where a lot of special effects in the last 5 years don’t age well at all.  Poor CG doesn’t age as well as quality props, costumes and animatronics it seems. Similar can be seen in Jurassic Park where the animatronics still hold up today as well.

Unfortunately, the thing that made TMNT such a great movie was the passion from the people working on it, something that often comes from films made by independent studios.  After the first movie’s success, the sequels came under more scrutiny by studio bigwigs and we got more and more decisions to lighten the movie and make it fun for kids where the original film was more apt for both kids and adults to enjoy with attention given to those connections to the original source material.

It remains the definitive TMNT movie and the one by which other live action adaptations are measured by.  It remains to be seen if the new movie set for August 2014 will hold a candle to it, but in my opinion it’s a very large set of shells to fill.

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