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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

If I may, I’d like to momentarily digress from the tour to celebrate my birthday in another manner: With a bit of childhood nostalgia.

I was still in preschool during the Ninja Turtles heyday, but I don’t think there was a child alive at the time who wasn’t in love with the franchise. Those toys and the cartoon were everywhere, after all. Still, it’s been ages since I last saw the first live-action film, until I was lucky enough to see it on a big screen tonight. It was quite an event, and I’ll be sure to tell you about it some other time.

For now, I’ll just say that it was a joy to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a large group. There’s a certain kind of joy in reliving your childhood memories and knowing that so many strangers are taking the same trip, laughing at the same outdated pop culture references and groaning at the same surfer lingo.

Not only is this movie totally a product of the late ’80s, but it’s also smart enough to know exactly how goofy it is. This is, after all, a movie about overgrown turtles who were mutated into talking, bipedal monstrosities by radioactive ooze and were trained in martial arts by a giant talking rat.

Not only did the movie need to present all of this bizarro backstory in a plausible way to the audience, but it also had to do the same to poor April O’Neil. The latter is actually the far more difficult challenge, since April doesn’t have the relief that comes with remembering that it’s all just a kids’ show. Delivering this premise in an easy-to-follow manner was certainly no easy task, but the movie is smart enough to play the origin story for laughs. It’s hokey in a self-aware way, which helps the audience suspend disbelief and gives the movie a lot of its charm. It also helps that Splinter gives out exposition and monologues in two or three strategically placed chunks, instead of all at once.

Another crucial reason why this film works is that the Turtles are perfect in their presentation. The facial animatronics are very impressive, and quite a remarkable feat in this era when such things are so easily done with CGI. Perhaps more importantly, these turtles can move. I don’t know how they did it, but those full-body suits did not impede the actors’ movements one bit. More than that, the suits were apparently so durable that they were capable of taking abuse as well as dishing it out. The fight choreography in this movie was amazing, not only because of how deceptively fast the Turtles were, but also because the characters all had such visible weight to them. Even when the stunts get cartoony (and man, do they ever), the punches and kicks still have a visceral feel that live-action/CGI mixes just can’t accomplish.

Additionally, the Turtles were surprisingly well-written. Though their personalities were all two-dimensional, they were still distinct from one another and their banter perfectly conveyed that love/rivalry mix that could only be done between siblings. There were even a few clever twists on the Turtles’ famous “tubular” dialogue, as they consulted with each other about which phrases and puns to use. My only minor gripe is that Donatello should have been doing more tech work, as it would’ve gone a long way toward making him more distinct from Michaelangelo. There were several times when the two of them were just playing off each other as the film’s comedy duo. Then again, I did find the humor to be quite funny in places (the “penicillin pizza” comes to mind).

As for our villains, we’ve got a bunch of ninjas that all dress in the same dopey uniform; and we’ve got a bunch of kids who smoke, drink, gamble, play pool and go skateboarding. The Foot Clan is two outlandish ’80s gang cliches in one! Still, the movie was smart enough to paint the Foot Clan as a kind of dark mirror to the Turtles: Another group of misunderstood youths just looking for a family. Luckily, this is made just overt enough to let the audience know that it’s there, but not so much that the movie treats it as some grand moral lesson. It’s there for a couple moments of screen time and no more.

Side note: Imagine my surprise when the third act came and there was Sam Rockwell onscreen. Seriously, before he had shot to fame in Moon, Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens and Galaxy Quest, Rockwell was some Foot Soldier punk who came to the dawning realization that Shredder didn’t really care about him.

Speaking of Shredder, there’s no denying that the movie makes him look really cool, both as a martial artist and as a general menacing presence. I’ll grant that the voice makes him sound like a Darth Vader rip-off, but it fits the character. What really upsets me about Shredder’s presentation more than anything is in how he’s killed off. The whole movie builds him up as a great badass and the Turtles have just suffered defeat at his hands, but they don’t get the chance to beat him back. Instead, Shredder just runs toward Splinter and he trips. Also, wires are clearly visible during Shredder’s fall, which is really the final ignominy.

On the subject of April, I don’t think that Judith Hoag was nearly pretty enough to play one of Rule 34’s greatest godmothers. Nevertheless, she played the character as a very determined reporter while also doing a great job with April’s “disbelief/acceptance” arc toward the Turtles. Hoag clearly did the best she could with what she had. Still, there’s little doubt in my mind that Elias Koteas did a far better job as Casey Jones. He was funny, he was immature and he could kick ass. The mask was a little stupid, but Jones was otherwise a fun character that was effectively played.

I won’t bother pretending that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a masterpiece and I’m honestly not sure how it stacks up against kids’ films today. A lot of the jokes are groaners, there are several outdated references, the story is straight as a flagpole, and there isn’t a character here that comes close to three-dimensional. Still, the movie shows ample awareness of just how stupid it is, which goes a long way. The action scenes are wonderful, the banter between characters is solid, and the Turtles themselves come out looking aces, all of which also help.

Any kids of the ’80s and ’90s out there should definitely revisit this film sometime. If there are any people out there of that time period who don’t immediately get a rush of nostalgia and childhood memories out of this movie, I don’t ever want to meet them. Moreover, there’s been a lot of talk lately about rebooting the franchise, though I’m personally not sure that would be such a great idea. The original cartoon was so perfectly a product of its time, and — let’s be honest — it’s a pretty stupid premise to begin with. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that a TMNT reboot is coming sooner or later. You can never keep a good cash cow down.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Bryce Baker:

    I recently watched the second turtles movie and then the first, so backwards in order, now that they’ve been up-mixed to HD. When compared to the second movie I really found the first lacking. The facial movements felt noticeably more clunky and downright off in several parts of the first movie whereas I felt it was extremely realistic in the second movie. You should watch #2, I would love your opinion on that one too!

  2. Comment by Boozer:

    One of the best adaptations, it stayed (mostly) true to a plot from the comics but also pleased the cartoon kids. And who does not love Splinter’s last line to Shredder?

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