Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a property near and dear to this semi-professional escapist’s heart. I had (and still have) the toys, the posters, the games, the videotapes, the cereal and all the other ninja turtles themed crap that the 90’s squeezed out. The odd thing about reviewing a movie thats over 20 years old is there are already a galaxy of reviews out there that have snarkily explored every aspect with the venomous wit only movie critic can spew has but I wanted to take a look back at this movie through the eyes of a fan. Like most of my childhood favorites, there is a great difference of opinion between the critics and the fans. It currently sits with a critics score of 41% and audience score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m with the audience on this picture. For me this picture falls under the cinema junk food category, its loaded up with the sugary goodness of substance free laughs, lots of action and is devoid of any real emotional involvement. Its the perfect kind of film for those of us that
have suppressed our emotions for the entirety of their adult lives and fear the unexpected uncorking of the bottle of forbidden feelings are young at heart.
The bulk of the reviews criticize this movie for some lazy story telling but come one, its a surprisingly solid flick for a premise as insane as four mutant amphibians and their rodent Ninjutsu master saving New York City from an underground crime syndicate thats populated almost entirely by pubescent runaways who are led by a Japanese immigrant who’s only outfit looks like something Suzanne Sugarbaker would have worn on Designing Women. Besides, junk food movies aren’t supposed to be that strong on story. They’re fun, shallow time killers. Your not supposed to think about their nutritional value, your supposed to laugh at the silly one liners and
forget about your inability to form lasting relationships enjoy yourself.
I will admit, while I do love this movie with a fiery passion, I find myself wanting for the movie it could have been. The first 20 minutes set up the promise of a much better movie than what follows. A brilliant reporter’s quest to find who is behind a mysterious crime wave in NYC. A group of outcasts trying to find their place in a world to which they’ll never belong. A faceless man building an army out of the teenage sons of the city. A masked vigilante dispensing his own brand of street justice. They set up this awesome world full of interesting characters and conflicts but never really do anything all that interesting with it. I know I shouldn’t complain since they did so much right and its amazing that we got a Turtles movie that respected its source material so much in the first place. We easily could have been served up something that was more along the lines of the face palm fest of TMNT 2 & 3 if we didn’t have an indie studio developing it and the creators of the comic so heavily involved in the process.
The live action TMNT movie had a considerable impression on my young self. It launched me into two life long passions; martial arts and mouthin’ off. In the weeks after seeing the movie in theaters I found myself throwing all kinds of wild kicks and punches in a clumsy attempt to have moves like Mikey. So my wonderful parents, fearing I’d eventually pick up a hockey stick and walk down a Casey-Jones-trash-compactor-murderer-like path, swiftly enrolled me in Ninjutsu training or rather the suburbanite equivalent; the Tae-Kwon-Do school in the strip mall sandwiched between the pizza place and the nail salon. While Master Kim sharpened my mind and body, I spent my free time sharpening my tongue on any who crossed my path. The 90s was the salad days of name calling. Insults were high art back then and we the foul mouthed masses took great care in crafting our bile. The insulters of today are lazy, I miss being called things like “atomic mouth” or “elf lips” instead of the tired names I’m called today, like “douchebag” or “defendant“.
Much of the magic of this move comes from its beautifully analog visual effects. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for CG effects when it used tastefully for things like animating a fully nude Angelina Jolie as an old english monster in Beowulf but there is a certain magic practical effects have that computers will never have. I feel much the same way about visual effects as I do about synthesizer music; the best stuff coming from the good old days when the chaos of imperfection and unpredictability were part of the magic making equation. The puppetry work in this movie completely redefined what I thought was possible with special effects. I didn’t know it then in that movie theater seat as a kid but if you’ve ever seen any of the behind-the-scenes segments you know just how monstrous of a feat bringing The Turtles to life actually was. Each Turtle’s performance is the combined efforts of three separate people; a body actor, a facial actor and a voice actor. I have come to greatly appreciate the work of this era in recent years as CG has all but ended the practicality of practical effects being part a modern films production.
Looking back, it was definitely a show for the 90s generation. Non-comic reading adults didn’t see the appeal in the same way they didn’t see the appeal of the screeching electronic blips and beeps of the NES. It wasn’t for them, it was for those with skate boards and ripped jeans, with dirty mouths and pure hearts. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will always be a time capsule of sorts for those of us starry eyed escapists that grew up in that special time in the 1990s. Its one I like to open up every few months and remember when a text message was note taped to your car door, when the phone was answered by a message machine and not your voicemail and if you wanted to see some friends you just had to pop in a tape and they were there when you needed them.