I do not consider the recent reboot of the famous humanoid, be-shelled martial artists, beginning in 2014, to be the real Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nor really would be the 1990 movie under examination today. If you were a kid in the 1980s like me, you will remember the way the cartoon version seemingly invaded American culture and swept aside all that came before it. GI Joe, Smurfs, He-man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers, to name a few, were suddenly replaced by anthropomorphic reptiles. All my classmates at St. John the Baptist School in tiny (but not so tiny anymore) Winfield, Illinois, were talking about them. In a rare moment in my childhood when I received an allowance, I insisted on spending the couple of bucks I received on a figurine, preferably Leonardo, my favorite member of the team. Truly, it was borderline mania. Thus the 1990 film was a fitting culmination to this meteoric rise to popularity.
For a kid watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990, the movie was incredible. For an adult seeing it in 2020, it is not so cowabunga. Pay attention early on, though, and you will see a twenty-something Sam Rockwell. He plays a young thug, part of a mysterious crime wave headed by a shadowy organization of ninjas known as the Foot Clan. We learn about this group and their activity through an evening news report by April O’Neil (Judith Hoag). After being on air, while walking to her car, she is jumped by some would-be robbers in the act of stealing video equipment. She is saved by the title ninjas, though the angrier member, Raphael (Kenn Troum, voiced by Josh Pais), drops one of his trademark weapons, a sai. The rest of the turtles are triumphant over what was apparently their first time emerging from their sewer hideout to fight crime. They return to their teacher, a giant humanoid rat named Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash), and because they are every bit the teenagers as well, decide to celebrate with a pizza. Raphael is still upset about losing his weapon, and decides to go out to find it. In the process, he happens again upon April in the subway, where she is being attacked once more by the Foot. Fighting off the ninja muggers, Raphael whisks April away to their secret base, but is followed. The team later gentle-turtly escorts April home, but while they are away the Foot kidnaps Splinter. Unfortunately, the bad guys also find out where April lives and assail her apartment in great numbers, so many that it draws the intervention of Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), another vigilante with a penchant for sporting equipment. Together, they all escape to a country home owned by April in order to regroup. Once there, the Turtles see Splinter in a vision around a camp fire, convincing them their master is still alive. Renewed, they journey back to the city to take up the search for Splinter, which brings them face-to-face with their ultimate enemy, Shredder (James Saito). Apparently there is some history between Splinter and Shredder, something about the person Splinter learned the art of the ninja from as a rat and Shredder murdering him. Whatever. The Turtles prove unable to defeat the knife-wreathed bad guy, but then Splinter shows up (having been freed separately by Casey Jones) and use the momentum of Shredder’s mad rush to spear the rat to toss the age-old enemy into a garbage truck. With their leader seemingly disposed of, the Foot Clan gives up.
What do you get when you combined Three Stooges comedy with martial arts action, not to mention the mutant animals? Why, it is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course. As such, I am not sure what value the film has from any perspective, Catholic or otherwise. It is not a bad movie. And it never takes itself too seriously, which is actually a blessing. But as an action film, the moments of slapstick comedy and whimsical background music are a little jarring. It is also very much of a late 1980s/early 1990s movie in its sensibilities. You have overt product placement and kids smoking and drinking in the Foot headquarters. If nothing else, I suppose one could say that the desire of children to do whatever they want can be used by some unscrupulous adult for nefarious purposes. However, the film never makes much of this idea. As an adolescent myself, I was just jazzed that my new favorite cartoon had sprung on to the big screen. I did not care about things like plot or a message. I just wanted to see Leonardo (David Forman, voiced by Brian Tochi) wielding his twin swords. As an adult, I need a little more.
I am also not sure I would recommend Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to young ones, at least not the 1990 version. I have not seen the modern ones, so I have no idea if their content is any better. Again, I would fall short of calling it morally objectionable. Of note, the original comic books on which the entire franchise is based are extremely violent, so you might not want to give them to your children. However, nor would I say it is something that will teach you an important lesson about life. It is apparent that this film was a cash grab at the time it came out. It struck on a moment of popularity and made over $200 million. Not bad.
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