Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a hardshell: A crime wave grips New York City, courtesy of a gang of ninjas known as The Foot Clan. Meanwhile, mysterious vigilantes are fighting back and news reporter April O’Neill discovers that the heroes happen to be four teenage mutant ninja turtles who call the sewers their home.
If you grew up in the 1980s, you couldn’t really escape Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). “Turtlemania” was everywhere. What originally started as a niche comic parodying the current Marvel scene (namely New Mutants and Daredevil), had quickly become a licence to print money, with a hit animated TV show, an ever-growing toyline and other merchandise.
Considering our current cinema scene is dominated by comic book films, you would expect a TMNT adaptation was a no-brainer. Yet, back in 1987, no movie studio wanted to touch it. You see, Superman IV, Howard The Duck and He-Man: Masters of The Universe had all been recent box office flops (though arguably, would become guilty pleasures). Tim Burton’s Batman was still in development, yet to become a box office and merchandising behemoth.
Eventually, Hong Kong studios Golden Harvest (Enter The Dragon) and New Line Cinemas decided to take a gamble on TMNT adaptation and raised a relatively small budget (for a comic book film) of $13m. Most comic book movies rely on a healthy special effects budget and TMNT was no different. To work, the film needed to portray four walking, talking (and fighting) two-metre tall turtles convincingly. This would require cutting edge animatronics and a director familiar with the technology. As such, Golden Harvest hired the best in the industry – Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, throwing them a hefty chunk of the budget to bring the Turtles (and their mutant rat Master Splinter) to life.
The Creature Shop rarely worked on projects outside their own, however, Golden Harvest had an ace up their sleeves. They had also hired Steve Barron as the director, who had worked on Henson’s Storyteller series and was considered a close friend. He also happened to be an in-demand, award-winning music video director (Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean and Aha’s Take on Me videos, amongst others) that had started his career working on Richard Donner’s Superman and Ridley Scott’s The Duellists.
Barron also won over the comic creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. He wanted to stay true to the dark and violent comic whilst including the colourful sibling squabbling that made the cartoon so popular. In his words, a hybrid of the two formats.
Similar to Batman (1989) the script wisely sidesteps a drawn-out origin story and drops us right into the action. Instead, we’re given some charming stop-motion flashbacks which tell us all we need to know about the Turtles, Splinter and The Shredder. Surprisingly, the film also includes some touching moments, whether it’s Leonardo watching over an incapacitated Raphael, or the four brothers communicating with Splinter via fireside meditation (or as Charlie described in our podcast review, “fire-skype”).
Like Michael Bay’s feature debut, Bad Boys, Barron applies music video style slick visuals and editing whilst stretching the limited budget available. To save money, most of the filming was done in North Carolina, with a small amount of some principal photography done in New York. With the Turtles themselves being the main draw, the casting of character actors like Elias Koteas and Judith Hoag works, especially as they seem at ease with the animatronics.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop does a fantastic job with their ground-breaking animatronics, convincing in both the well-choreographed fight scenes as well as the bickering banter between the brothers.
Like Donner’s Superman – Barron aims for that leap-of-faith believability and for the most part, it succeeds. Like every good creature, the Turtles are initially kept in the shadows before they’re properly revealed. The filming style and choice of lighting mean that even in daytime shots, the characters never look tacky or outlandish – you quickly accept them as characters.
The film does feel brisk at just over 90 minutes but let’s remind ourselves that this is a kids film, so it’s no bad thing. Despite the limited budget and animatronics challenges, the film was a huge success and for quite a few years, held the title of most profitable independent film. Sadly the film’s reception was marred by outspoken parents who felt the film was too violent for the target audience. Judged against today’s family-friendly blockbusters (are there any other kinds these days?) TMNT certainly feels tame.
In true Hollywood fashion, the producers were keen to capitalise on the film’s success (and feared Turtlemania train could stop at any minute) and quickly rolled out a sequel within a year. Unfortunately, The Secret of The Ooze loses much of what made the original so good – gone is the urban gritty style and all the martial arts violence is dialled down or played for laughs. I think it says it all when instead of a climactic showdown, we’re treated to a Vanilla Ice dance number. I think it’s no coincidence that Steve Barron was not asked to come back – but looking back, it feels like he should have been.
As the title suggests, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a ridiculous premise and certainly a tricky one to get right outside of animation. Barron finds that perfect balance of martial arts action, creature feature, comedy and importantly, heart. I think it’s fair to say the original is the most beloved adaptation by fans (and it’s creators) – something that has yet to be bettered despite significantly higher budgets and extensive CGI effects of the more recent Michael Bay productions.
For me, revisiting TMNT was a welcome slice of 90’s nostalgia, reminding me why I was such a huge fan as a kid and when done right, how entertaining they can be.
Would you like to know more? Check out our podcast review!
Recommended further reading – The Hollywood Reporter’s TMNT 25th Anniversary Retrospective