Thoughts on… Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 1990.

Directed by Steve Barron.
Starring Josh Pais, Michelan Sisti, Robbie Rist, Leif Tilden, Corey Feldman, David Forman, Brian Tochi, Kevin Clash, Judith Hoag, David McCharen and Elias Koteas.


Four teenage mutant ninja turtles must face a villainous foe in order to protect their master and save New York City.

Before beginning this review of the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I must first acknowledge my strong sense of nostalgia for the movie. This was one of a select few films I owned on VHS when I was a much younger boy, and would often delight in drawing the curtains on a sunny day to sit in awe of the four heroes in a half shell. Of course, what would follow would be heroic (in my mind at least) ninja kicks leaping from the sofa, and which would inevitably end with me in pain of some form. Despite the fact that I haven’t seen this film in well over a decade, as soon as I pressed play I had reverted back to the awe of my younger self, once again wanting to climb onto the sofa and ninja kick my way across the living room. Therefore it may be worth bearing in mind that my opinion of this film is steeped in nostalgia which considerably interferes with my maintaining a critical distance.

With that minor disclaimer out of the way, let’s crack on. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a comic-book adaptation (created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird) from before the days when CGI saw a huge influx of similar titles. Relying on puppetry and men in costumes, there’s an inherent tangible charm to this movie which you just don’t get with CGI heroes and villains. As with most comic book movies a healthy suspension of disbelief is required, but that should be no problem for the intended target audience of youngsters. Adults coming to this film without any nostalgic attachment may struggle a little, but the sheer lunacy of the premise should be enough to win over anyone looking for a fun film.

In this movie we’re given a little back-story to the four turtles – Raphael (who is both portrayed and voiced by Josh Pais), Michaelangelo (Michelan Sisti, voiced by Robbie Rist), Donatello (Leif Tilden, voiced by Corey Feldman) and Leonardo (David Forman, voiced by Brian Tochi). They were discovered by a rat named Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash) swimming in toxic waste, which mutated the four turtles and Splinter into humanoid speaking creatures. Splinter, whose previous owner was a master of ninjitsu, trained in the turtles in what he knew of the art of the Ninja. Fifteen years later they’re living in the sewers of New York City.

Meanwhile above ground, crime committed by youths is soaring. They seem to be working together, united under the same banner. News reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is trying to get to the bottom of the crime spree, unwittingly making herself a target. The turtles rescue and befriend her from a select group of the criminal youths who have been trained as ninjas and joined the Foot Clan, lead by the wicked Shredder (David McCharen), and who kidnap Splinter. With the help of the mysterious Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), the turtles have to rescue Splinter and find a way of ending Shredder’s reign of terror.

The plot is standard comic-book storytelling with clearly defined heroes and villains (and few villains are as impressive as Shredder). The heavy influence of ninja-styled fighting adds an interesting Oriental spin, with each of the turtles trained in a specific weapon of choice. This lead to much editing and cutting in the UK due to the BBFC’s tyrannical censorship of nunchucks, which were Michelangelo’s preferred weapon. Thankfully the film is now available in its glorious uncut form, but those who remember the VHS release may find certain scenes are noticeably different and largely improved.

What is perhaps most impressive about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the vast array of ninja moves the performers are able to pull off whilst encumbered by the turtle suits. The majority of the fight scenes are really rather fantastic, but even during the quieter moments the turtles are brought to life in a believable manner. This is the benefit of using costumed performers over CGI creations inserted into real environments – they interact with their surroundings in a way which is just too difficult to replicate on a computer. There’s a great on-screen camaraderie amongst the turtles and everyone is bound to have a favourite – I was always a big fan of Leonardo. The pacing of the plot is pretty standard, but it ensures that there are no moments of boredom and hits the required marks, although the love interest between April O’Neil and Casey Jones feels a little forced.

Perhaps I’m struggling to put nostalgia aside, but I can’t really criticise this film. It’s utterly enjoyable and great fun, with director Steve Barron translating the story onto the big screen incredibly successfully. New York City is dark and gritty, the turtles are loveable and witty, and it’s all just great no-brainer cinema. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, without a doubt, awesome, bodacious, bitchin’, gnarly, radical, totally tubular, wicked, hellacious, mega, and, as Splinter would say…. cowabunga! This right here is my childhood on screen, and I love every second of it.

Flickering Myth Rating: Film **** / Movie ****

Liam Underwood