Here is a pitch for a film that would never get made in a million years.
So I have this idea to do a film right, and it’s based on this kids TV show but we’re going to put swearing and violence in it that means a lot of the audience for that show can’t go and see it. Also when they do eventually see it they’re going to be confused because we’ve changed how all the characters look and act and their origins. And the reason we’ve changed it is that this is actually based on a comic book which barely 3000 people in the world read.
Oh and did I mention the main characters are anthropomorphic turtles? Yeah, turtles. Turtles with ninja weapons. And we’re going with suits and puppeteers to get the turtles so that means we need to hire martial artists who can perform stunts wearing heavy and constricting rubber turtle suits. Oh and it means our stars can’t really act for most of the film as y’know, they’re puppets.
You go pitch that to a Hollywood exec today and watch how fast the door hits your ass.
Nonetheless they made it, and it became the highest grossing independent film of all time.
Yes, THE HIGHEST GROSSING INDEPENDENT FILM OF ALL TIME!
Maybe that’s not such a surprise. TMNT was basically the biggest thing in kids entertainment from its debut until Power Rangers came along and dethroned it. Certainly it was in North America if not the whole world. The desire to milk the franchise for all its worth was logical and inevitable and so of course a film would get made.
But what was popular about TMNT in 1990 was the cartoon. Sure the comic was a moderate success by comic book standards (and a huge hit for independent black and white comic book standards) but for most people, and especially most children, the image of the turtles that they had in their heads (and also on their backpacks, lunchboxes and t-shirts) was that of the animated series.
So why not make an animated film? After all G. I. Joe and Transformers had done animated theatrical releases that had been moderate hits. In contrast He-Man had done a live action film that was a critical and commercial flop. A live action film might be slightly cheaper but you immediately run into the problem that your main characters are turtles and so have to be portrayed using actors in suits and expensive animatronics.
And why base it on the comics? The comics may be more mature and more serious but they’re also a lot less well known. You also quickly run into the problem that your audience is expected to take anthropomorphic turtle men seriously. That’s hard enough to do in animation or comics which both have a long tradition of animal protagonists but guys in rubber suits?
I’ve looked and looked but I can’t find any material about the decision making process that led to TMNT being made but however strange those decisions seem at first glance they worked. They absolutely worked.
So a brief plot summary. April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is a reporter covering a recent crime wave in new York City, a crime wave that has the police baffled and the residents of Japan town (is that a thing in New York) reminded of a similar crime wave by The Foot Clan some years ago. Basically April thinks that the crimes are being committed by dun dun dun Ninjas!
And she’s sort of right. Actually the crimes are being committed by teenage delinquents being trained in the ways of Ninjitsu by the mysterious Shredder (James Saito but voiced by David McCharen). He sees April as a mouthy female that can ruin his plans (we never learn what his plans are incidentally other than steal stuff) so sends a team of Ninjas to shut her up. She is saved by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who take her back to their lair when she faints. There she meets Splinter and learns their origin.
Shredder tracks her to the lair though and a team of Ninjas destroy it and capture Splinter. The turtles, with nowhere to go, end up crashing at April’s place whilst they plot how to rescue Splinter.
Shredder becomes obsessed with stopping the turtles since he recognises their ninja style as his own and perceives them as a threat. Through one of his clan named Danny (the delinquent son of April’s boss) he learns the Turtles hiding place and sends another group of ninjas to kill them.
An all out brawl ensues and Raphael is greatly injured. As a result April, The turtles and their ally Casey Jones flee out to the countryside to recover and recuperate. After some time they get a spirit vision from Splinter and go back to New York where they meet Shredder in an epic show down and defeat him.
Then Splinter makes a funny.
In many respects the film is a synthesis of the comics and the cartoon taking the best elements from both. The plot, for example, summarises the first 13 or 14 issues of the original comics, or at least those elements related to Shredder. The brutal ninja beatdown of a turtle (in the comics it was Leonardo but in the film it’s Raphael) the trip to the farmhouse and the first meeting of Raph and Casey Jones are all straight from the comics. Since the comics had much better realised plots than the cartoon using them as a story basis is a good idea.
The tone though is much closer to the cartoon. These turtles crack jokes and eat pizza. The fights are full of flips, pratfalls and slapstick moments. This is all for practical reasons of course. This is a PG film and you simply can’t get away with the kind of violence that was present in the original comics* (poor Raph and Leo will never get to stab anyone outside the comics I fear). You’re also working with actors in suits who have somewhat limited movement for what are supposed to be expert ninjas so going the slapstick route is the smart choice. And it works. The tone it resembles most closely is a Jackie Chan film. You have a serious plot with real consequences and emotions all broke up incredibly silly fight scenes full of slapstick that nonetheless are real fight scenes with people hitting each other. It’s not executed even a tenth as well as a Jackie Chan film of course but the fight scenes are still pretty enjoyable to watch and are one of the few parts of the film that still hold up today.
Character wise the film freely mixes and matches elements of both the comics and the cartoon, usually picking the best version in my opinion. The turtles have their colour coded costumes and love of pizza here but they’re treated as real people with real feelings not just catchphrase spouting jokers. Michaelangelo is the loveable goofball we know from the carton but Raph, rather than being the sarcastic wit he was in the cartoon is much closer to the angry lone wolf he is in the comics. Leonardo is the taciturn stoic he is in both versions. Donatello however gets the most changes; he’s voiced by Corey Feldman here (pretty much the highest profile celebrity in the film, which is saying something) and they make him more humorous and light hearted to match the casting. He’s basically portrayed as a slightly more intelligent Michaelangelo and other than fixing a van never gets to do anything particularly nerdy or intelligent. This is a shame since the turtles all have very distinct personalities in most versions and Donatello’s good humoured nerdiness makes a nice contrast with the other three. Making him into just another Michaelangelo makes both Donatello and Michaelangelo less effective.
The suits, which were provided and operated by the Jim Henson company, are pretty great. The design keeps the big friendly faces from the cartoon rather than perpetual scowls of the comic which helps sell the emotions of the main characters. The actors in the suits also do a great job, they avoid the big over the top gestures most performers in costume opt for and they perform some fairly impressive stunts and martial arts in what must be restrictive costuming.
April is a reporter because April being a reporter is such a good plot device it’s insane to waste it but she also owns an antique store like she does in the comics. She’s also less ditzy than the cartoon version. Oh and she wears normal clothes not a banana yellow jump suit, although the film makers do give a visual nod to the cartoon version.
Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) is pretty much directly lifted from the comics and is a much more nuanced and fun character than the cartoon version. They do play up his humour quite a bit in this, particularly by making him obsessed with sports, and especially hockey. I like that choice though since it produces some of the films best gags, for example;
Casey: Time for a new game (pulls out cricket bat) cricket!
Raphael: Cricket! Aw no not cricket! Nobody understands cricket. You gotta know what a crumpet is to play cricket.
Casey smacks him in the face and knocks him into a dustbin
Casey: Hmm, 6 runs.
Casey is easily my favourite character in the film since he’s basically a fifth turtle here but with the benefit of being able to see the actor’s face and Elias Koteas just has this great laid back smug delivery.
Splinter (Kevin Clash, most famous for being Elmo of all things but doing a pretty good impersonation of Peter Renarday from the cartoons) uses the (worse) original origin of being a rat that mimicked martial arts. Sigh. He’s basically a non-entity in the film since the puppet can barely move and he spends most of the plot tied to a wall.
By far the biggest set of changes apply to Shredder. Rather than being based on the comic or cartoon version he’s pretty much a third version here. His origin is mostly like the comics but simplified a bit. He’s still Oroku Saki and he’s still a foot clan ninja but his brother Oroku Nagi is removed entirely. Instead Saki is the one in love with Tang Shen and the one jealous of Hamato Yoshi causing Yoshi, Shen and Splinter to flee to New York. He tracks them down there, murders Yoshi and Shen and Splinter scars his face before fleeing.
Because his face is scarred he starts wearing a mask and because he’s in New York now he decides, what the hey, let’s start building a new Foot Clan by recruiting delinquent youths and training them in Ninjitsu.
There are things I like about movie Shredder and things that simply don’t work.
On the positive side I like his simplified origin. Comics Shredder had a weird double standard problem where it was wrong for him to want to seek revenge for his brother’s murder (presumably because his brother was a dick) but totally okay for Splinter to seek revenge for his master’s murder. The movie wisely side-steps this issue by removing Shredder’s brother entirely and making Saki the murderer of Yoshi. The move also constructs the initial encounter between Shredder and the Turtles much more elegantly. In the comics the turtles are specifically sent out to kill Shredder making them little better than Shredder is himself. In the movie Shredder attacks the turtles first and kidnaps Splinter. The Turtles have a much more heroic reason to go up against him, they want to rescue Splinter and they also want to stop him using children to commit crimes.
I also like his costume which mixes the super villainy of the cartoon version (purple in the colours and the cape) but also looks like somewhat realistic samurai armour. He’s also just portrayed as very threatening and powerful. The cartoon was a straight comedy so wanted a comedic villain but the movie is an action adventure film with a light hearted tone. You need a serious and threatening villain for that to work and James Saito’s Shredder is decent in that role able to dispatch all four turtles with ease when they finally face him.
My main problem with him though is that whilst he’s intimidating to look at he’s absolutely terrible in a fight. He’s a vague mysterious presence for the first two acts seen briefly and with his power and menace only hinted at. The film builds him up to be this great and terrible threat and, quite logically, builds to a final fight with the turtles. And that fight is lame. Utterly, irredeemably lame. Shredder basically draws a stick along the ground, the turtles get defeated by editing and then Splinter throws him off a rooftop with a stick. It is such a huge and disappointing anti-climax.
Also many people have drawn comparisons between Shredder and Darth Vader. And it’s true, they do look alike. But that’s because they’re two dudes in capes and stylised samurai helmets. But movie, don’t draw attention to this problem by having Shredder declare “I am your father,” to the turtles. It isn’t cute.
I also have to question his plan. His motivation is fairly low key, steal stuff, but his method is bizarre. Train gangs of teenaged delinquents to become ninjas and employ them to steal the stuff. I think the idea is that you have to get them young to make them effective ninja but teenaged delinquents are not exactly famous for their obedience or work discipline. What are the odds that one kid gets sick of being hit in the face by nunchucks all day and decides to rat the operation out to the cops? I mean its not like their imprisoned there. Danny seems to be able to come and go as he pleases. And wouldn’t you know it, Danny rats Shredder’s operation out to the cops. Next time Shredder use either real ninjas or robots.
This does lead to one of the film’s best scenes though with the ultimate underground hide out for teenaged kids. This thing has a half pipe, arcade cabinets, a pool table, a resident D.J. and all the cigars a 16 year old can smoke. This film makes joining the foot look pretty awesome. Hell I’m, 27 and I’m tempted to join if I get to spend my off hours playing arcade cabinets and pool.
The film has two other major characters not present in the comics, Danny and Testu.
Tetsu is Shredder’s right hand man and he’s basically someone to do all the acting in scenes between ninjas in full face masks and turtles in full face masks. Since all he has to do is look menacing and yell instructions he’s fine but he has no character to speak of.
Danny is the son of April’s boss. He’s probably the only character in this film with a real character arc (you could maybe argue Raphael and Casey but it would be a stretch) since he starts out as a member of the foot clan and after meeting Splinter and the Turtles decides to repent. Ultimately he redeems his former bad actions by leading the turtles to Shredder’s base. Now in most films the character with the arc is the protagonist but Danny is barely in the film at all and we don’t get any scenes that give us any sense of why he joined the foot in the first place or what leads him to realise that stealing is wrong. Which is a good thing because the kid is a terrible actor. His range runs from mumbling and scowling to confused mumbling and scowling. He’s immediate death to any scene he shows up in. Worse he is given the challenge of spending most of his scenes acting opposite a largely immobile rat puppet. He is not up to this challenge.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Movie is ultimately not very good but considering the challenges inherent in adapting TMNT into live action it is miraculous that the film is as good as it is. The plot is utter bobbins, the fights are nothing special, the final fight is a huge anti-climax and it lacks anything in the realm of character growth or proper character arcs. Nonetheless it possesses a sort of goofy charm, there are some good gags in here and there’s just enough of a plot that it feels brisk rather than flabby. It’s a perfectly affable way to spend an hour and a half.
But as a kid I hated this film because of how different it was to the cartoon. I couldn’t get over the lack of the van or the blimp, or Kraang or Bebop and Rocksteady. Or why it was literally so dark, or who the hell these teenaged gang members were. However, I was an idiot as a kid and now, whilst the execution is lacking the conception of TMNT in this film is actually the one I prefer. Take an action adventure spine with real emotions and consequences but rather than wallowing in angst, gore and violence keep the tone light and breezy. Have the characters quip and fight with ridiculous slap stick moves but have them occasionally need to grit their teeth and get serious to put down a real threat like Shredder.
Oh yeah, and Sam Rockwell is in this film. Yes, that Sam Rockwell, the guy from Moon and Iron Man 2. See if you can spot him.
Next on Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins we’re going to look at the 2003 animated series but i have seriously underestimated the amount of research it’s going to take to review this so this feature is probably going to go on the backburner for a few weeks whilst I plow through the important episodes of the first four series.
*Although actually the film was widely criticised for how violent a PG it was. To today’s eyes it’s pretty tame stuff but at the time the use of martial arts in any children’s entertainment was considered controversial. Evidently the producers took this seriously enough that the turtles basically never use their weapons in the immediate sequel and the slapstick gets toned up even further. It also got heavily criticised for the language. There are at least three very loud “damns” in the movie and one scene where I swear a Japanese character says “kuso,” the Japanese word for shit. He kind of hisses it so it might just be the actor hissing but I listened to the scene a few times and I swear he’s saying shit under his breath.