Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Turtle power!
"Heroes in a half shell!"

Hello friends, welcome back, to the Thursday edition of The Tagline, where movies are things that dominate most of your waking hours. Today I once again peer into the maelstrom of streaming media, and pluck out a gem from 1990, which if anyone was wondering is now about 25 years ago. I'm talking about those totally radical dudes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In particular I am talking about the first live action outing, not the one with that totally fresh Vanilla Ice song (haha I made a funny). This film was an interesting attempt to capitalize on the success of the TMNT in the mid to late 80s, first as a comic book and then later as a tv cartoon/merchandise and toys fuckstorm. This film acts as an origin story for the turtles, and also chronicles their first battle with the Foot and Shredder. An interesting thing to think about before I talk about the movie in greater detail, is that you are in somewhat perilous waters when you are trying to market a series that is about ninjas to children, because ninjas as a rule are assassins, in other words their job is murdering people. The original comic wasn't really intended for the kiddie audience, and so as it became mainstream concessions were made. At the end of the day though, they are still "ninjas" and that can cause problems. For instance censorship is apparently pretty wacky in the UK, and they changed the name to Teenage Mutant Hero turtles for the 1987 cartoon, and also in all of the original movie releases (the original trilogy) they censored out in particular Michelangelo's nunchaku, because I don't know. Maybe in the past the UK had a serious issue with ninjas that we just didn't hear about in the US. The point is, the movies were stuck toeing a fine line between boring and too violent, with varying degrees of success depending on the movie.

Look at these lovable goons.
Weirdness in the UK aside, let's talk a little bit about TMNT the first, notable for having a different lady playing April O'Neil (Judith Hoag as opposed to Paige Turco in II and III) and also as being generally less kid-gloves than the subsequent two films (again due to violence concerns, remember this was a franchise popular mostly with kids and the year was 1990). The movie opens with news reports about a growing crime wave in New York City, that has the police baffled and ineffectual, particularly because no pattern has been established, and no perpetrators have been even identified, much less caught. We are then introduced to the turtles, most easily identified by their voices and the colors of their ninja eye-mask things. Leonardo, the blue leader-turtle, Donatello, the purple smarty-turtle, Michelangelo the orange surferdude-turtle, and Raphael the red emoangst-turtle. The turtles have lived and trained in hiding in the sewers, under the tutelage of their master Splinter, who himself is a mutated rat, and finally enter their first battle against several thugs attempting to mug April as she's headed to her news van (though they break the lights so no one can see or identify them as giant turtles). April is headed into trouble as she is determined to prove the existence of the Foot, and their responsibility for the crime wave. This is the first in a series of questionable decisions that marks her as probably a pretty troubled individual, and gets her unwanted attention from the Foot, who at the behest of their leader pay April a social call in a dark alley. She is rescued by Raphael, who is out being a moody teen turtle when she is attacked. He brings her down into the sewer, where she meets the rest of the gang, and is pretty okay with hanging out in a sewer with mutated reptiles (and one mammal of course).

Not the behavior of a stable individual.
I could see people being concerned with the level of violence in this movie, but that is I think also part of what makes this movie the best one. The turtles may be in big kind of goofy green suits, and display an immature attitude (remember they are teenage!) but there is a serious escalating pattern of crimes and violence being committed by juvenile delinquents being trained as the servants of a ruthless killer. In response the turtles act as a vigilante group who use their ninja training to fight back, and with what could be deadly force. They get beat up pretty bad in a few instances (though still the violence in this movie is stylized and not really graphic) and that sort of dangerous consequence I think gives the movie at least some sense of danger. Besides, the message the movie is sending isn't that beating people up is super cool and you should do it, the turtles are fighting a bad guy to try and make things safe again, and there are pretty clear messages against juvenile delinquency in the movie, so chill out parents of the 1980s and 90s! I do have to say that Casey Jones should probably see a psychiatrist about his pattern of sports related violence though. I'm not sure he needed to turn on the trash compactor, and he was pretty cavalier about it...

Fair play is not important to the Foot.
For a live action movie involving big green mutant turtle ninjas, this movie is as not silly as I think that could possibly be. I also never cease to be amazed at the degree of dexterity the actors inside the turtle suits achieved. These suits were made by  Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and were actually really cool in their range of motion and general appearance. Overall I think that this movie was very close to being the best you could make about the Ninja Turtles, and most of the attempts since have pretty much supported that statement (fear not, the 2014 movie's judgement will come in good time). It can be silly at times for understandable reasons, but generally its not a terrible movie, and if you like the TMNT then it is a lot of fun. Also I imagine the guys who made it thought it was pretty fun, because they shot it for 13 million dollars and it grossed more than 200 million. So that SOUNDS pretty fun doesn't it? I'd say so.

Get it?
In the end we're left to wonder for ourselves why criminal charges aren't pressed against Casey Jones for crushing a man to death, and what it says about a grown woman that she has no friends, except for mutant sewer dwelling turtles that hang out at her house. I'm trying not to make a judgement here but... that's a pretty rough life you're leading there lady. This is not even considering that these are mutant turtles with the demeanors and maturity of mayyybe late teens. Yikes. Anyway that's all for today gang! Join me next week, when I consider what makes a science fiction movie really bad.

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