Movies from the 1980s and early 1990s have a unique look and feel to them. They are instantly recognizable and have such a nostalgic tick. These movies also hold up a lot better than movies in the late 1999s and early 2000s since CGI (Computer Generated Images) wasn’t as heavily used as it is now. They relied a lot more on practical effects, and puppeteers to have fantastical worlds made. One the more famous puppeteers comes from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who are responsible for The Muppets, Dark Crystal, along with Sesame Street and a slew of other films and televised programming. Their effects and work are one of the reasons why I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) still holds up in terms of look and feel. It’s a fun, film and one I go back to every so often.
Let’s make this clear up front. This is a 90s movie. The plot isn’t complicated, nor should it be, and for the time this was considered “dark” like The Dark Knight dark. Looking back now, it’s not considered that at all but back in the day this was a violent movie. So violent, parents complained and then we got the second movie which was more more tamed and much more kid friendly. The film starts with exposition from one of April O’Neil’s (Judith Hoag) news reports detailing the surge of crime in New York City. She believes it may be linked to a band of Ninja Thieves due to stories of what happened in Japan many years ago. After her report, she gets mugged by people who were stealing from a news van one of them being Sam Rockwell, although not doing his Justin Hammer dance. Just then something destroys the light in the area, and we hear struggles and wind from kicks and punches. The police show up, and from their headlights we see the thieves have been brought down and tied up with April seemingly fine. She finds a weapon of some kind, the same that hit the light earlier. We then see a figure lift a sewer hatch slightly to see what’s happening and as April puts the weapon in her bad, we hear the figure exclaim “Damn” before the main theme hits and we are introduced to our heroes.
This song got me hyped as a kid. The whole opening sequence is how I think movies should open if done correctly. It sets up the premise very easily, and mysteriously introduces us to the main cast. On top of that in the first few moments we can easily see how the turtles personalities are. Three of them are wise cracking and making puns while the fourth is brooding and upset. We can tell from the three, Donatello is the awkward one trying to keep up with the others and Leonardo leads the way. The score composed by John Du Prez hits perfectly I feel. It feels happy but gritty for the area and matches well with tension and hits with the touching moments as well. It’s also very memorable. Just hearing certain beats allows me to replay scenes in my head and as I mentioned the main theme is so fun. I have variations of it on my phone and listen when driving. As for the song choices that play during credits and during specific scenes, yes very 90s sounding songs. There is of course the tie-in movie song that every 90s film had.
The opening is where we get our first glimpse of the turtles walking and talking. The costumes are fantastic. The little details in their faces and and on their shells are very intricate and even their faces, my goodness can these animatronic￼ faces emote. You can see when they are sad, angry, scared, and when they are full of happiness. There are also limitations to to the costumes, and that is the way the actors moved in them. You can tell they were heavy and hard to walk in, which is why the turtles themselves don’t really do too many flashy moves when fighting. A lot of close up shots and quick editing makes it seem they are doing a lot, but this is understandable. It’s one of the many reasons why we may never get a turtles movie like this again, it’s just too easy to do CGI than to get multiple actors or stunt doubles in heavy suits. Speaking of the fighting, the choreography was actually pretty good all things considered. While it’s not groundbreaking, there are some fun fight scenes like the fight at April’s apartment which transitions to her antique shop below, the barn sequence with the turtles training and the Shredder fight scene at the end. All are visually well done and the antique shop fight in particular has some fun comedic sequences using props to fight. The Shredder fight being the best choreographed out of all the action scenes. It feels like old school martial arts films, and it just shows how powerful the Shredder actually is against the turtles.
Speaking of the Shredder (James Saito), he is very intimidating. He has that presence and you feel it. This is probably my favorite version of Shredder, the second being the 2003 cartoon Shredder. You can see fear in all who follow him. That being said, he doesn’t really do anything for the entire film until the ending. A shame really as I think there could have been a lot more done with the character. Still, I feel he was much better done here than in the latest two live action versions. Just like Shredder, another character who didn’t do much, again understandably so due to his puppet being so intricate was Splinter, voiced by Kevin Clash. He’s mostly used for exposition and to motivate the turtles through the story. He does have one of the best moments in the film when he is talking to the turtles while they are meditating, very emotional. All the actors did great, Judith Hoag’s April has been my favorite version as well. It doesn’t help she was also in the HalloweenTown Disney films, so I’m a little biased. I also like that she wasn’t a woman in distress. She holds her own and gets in on the action as well. While is she is overpowered by the Foot Clan in the subway she at least tries to fight and doesn’t run away screaming. She’s a go getter, and not afraid to speak on her own terms. Another favorite version of a character is Elias Koteas’ Casey Jones. While I’m not entirely familiar with the actor, having not really following him after the turtle films, his portrayal is what I think of when it comes to Casey. Now when it comes to the turtle voices, we have Josh Pais as Raphael, Brian Tochi as Leonardo, Corey Feldman as Donatello, and Robbie Rist as Michelangelo. They all do a great job brining personality to the turtles. You can hear the the emotions in their voices and with the actors inside the suits bring these turtles to life. I wish I could say these are the definitive voices for the turtles for me, however as much as I like them together, individually I like turtles from different interpretations. Example, Raph is my favorite turtle. My favorite voice is Nolan North from the TMNT animated film. Josh Pais does a very good Raph and is the reason he is my favorite turtle, so I am not dismissing his portrayal at all. The 2003 animated series is probably my second favorite collective voices.
This film was my first exposure to the turtles, as I’m sure many were also first exposed from this. As a first exposure, it does a great job in fleshing out the origin, and introducing us to the characters. It’s a great entry point to get into the rest of other adaptations. I mentioned the 2003 animates series, which to my is my next favorite versions of these characters. To this day I have not read the original comics, or the latest comics. This does mean that I don’t know the original origins of these characters, but I do know they were much darker in the beginning. I was surprised to find out that they were a parody of DareDevil later, when I thought it was the other way around. I don’t know why, but The Foot sounds like a cooler name than The Hand. The Hand is the one that sounds like a parody but that’s just me. All this being said, The 1990 film is still a very fun and enjoyable movie. It still has the best live action portrayal of the turtles after all of these years, and arguably the best live action turtles movie as well. If you are not a fan of the turtles and haven’t checked out the film, please do, it’s a great entry experience. If you are a long time fan of the turtles I probably don’t need you to check it out, but if you haven’t watched in a while, give it another go. Rewatching for this review/look-back, I was surprised by how much it was still enjoyable. While the 90s hit hard on the film if you can get passed that it’s good. Again, it helps that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was working on the film, they made a world of a difference as we know with the 3rd turtles film, but that’s a conversation for another time. Also, I don’t know why in the original trailer the voices are completely different from the final version, it is very strange.