Sunday, August 17, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"  *** (out of ****)

After watching the latest live action movie adaptation of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) and the huge amount of disappointment I felt afterwards, it seemed like a good idea to go back and watch the original live action movie version, the 1990 adaptation.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" originally began as a comic book published by Mirage Studios in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It was intended to be a parody of existing comic book superheroes such as Marvel Comics' Daredevil character and New Mutants as well as Frank Miller's Ronin.

While I have never read these comic books (comics was never really my thing) I have been told these comics had a very dark and serious tone to them.

In 1987 a Saturday morning cartoon adaptation was created, which lasted until 1996. Other versions followed, but, for the purpose of this review we will only discuss the original cartoon series. It became very popular with young children. An impressive marketing line was created featuring action figures, t-shirts, bedding, lunchboxes, pencils, Halloween costumes and video games. Even I must admit to having these products when I was younger and was a fan of the Saturday morning cartoon.

With all of this marketing in place and a built-in fan base a live action motion picture only seemed natural. Even if the movie was bad it was going to make money because children would be excited to see the ninja turtles "come to life" on the movie screen. And, you wouldn't know the movie is bad until after you've seen it and spent your money. I also remember when this movie was released and pleaded with my parents to take me to see it.

This version of ninja turtles is much more playful and comical compared to the Michael Bay over-budgeted remake. In my review of Bay's adaptation I wrote the movie takes itself too serious. You have to have a sense of humor when dealing with a movie about human sized, English speaking, pizza loving ninja turtles. I also wrote all I saw on screen when watching the new version was an over budgeted silly story.

Make no mistake about it, this 1990 version is not a great movie. It is not as intellectually stimulating to me as watching an Ingmar Bergman or Akiria Kurosawa film, but, it has fun with the concept. It is basically a live cartoon. Children who walked into this movie would be pleased. They are familiar with the characters, their personalities are presented faithfully and they will laugh at Michelangelo's wise-cracks. He is usually the favorite character of any young boy.

As I watched Bay's version I felt the idea of humans talking to giant turtles and a rat was just too bizarre. I suggested the movie should have been done in animation. When a movie is animated there is a greater level of suspension of belief. You can get away with more. You can ask more of your audience because it is not a reflection of the real world. We understand that walking into the movie. Having live actors interact with turtles and rats was too much for me to accept.

And that is an important difference between the 1990 movie and the 2014 movie. In the 1990 version, the turtles aren't meant to look real. In the 2014 movie they are. Some Hollywood genius got the idea, hey, why don't we remake the ninja turtles. There have been so many technical advancements with computers we could surely make the ninja turtles look more realistic than the human sized puppets used in the original.

This was the same problem I had with Peter Jackson when he remade "King Kong" (2005). Yes, Kong looks better. They threw a lot of money into the production. But, does that mean it was necessary? The 1933 version of Kong was fine. Yes, it looked fake but it was a fantasy adventure movie. Kong didn't have to look real. The same principle applies to the ninja turtles. The turtles don't have to look real in order for the movie to work.

Watching "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" it wasn't strange for me to see the turtles interact with humans. It was like watching "The Muppet Movie" (1979). In fact, Jim Henson was responsible for the ninja turtle costumes in the movie. The look of the turtles help add to the cartoon effect of the movie. The fact that the turtles don't look real makes it okay when you see humans talk back. Though, for a child, it would be very exciting to see the turtles presented this way because this is how they would envision the cartoon characters looking in "the real world".

The movie takes place in 1990 New York City. Crime is rampant. A group known as The Foot is suspected of being behind recent robberies. Nothing is safe. We see televisions stolen, people being pick-pocketed and delivery trucks stolen within the blink of an eye. A news reporter, April O' Neil (Judith Hoag) reports on these daily activities and blames the police chief, Sterns (Raymond Serra), who has no clues on The Foot and is not able to stop them.

April's boss, Charles (Jay Patterson) is getting pressure from Sterns and the Mayor to tell April to lay off. Her reports only make the people angry and the police cannot stop the crime. They want April off the story. Plus, Charles has his own problems trying to raise his teenage son, Danny (Michael Turney) who is going through that whole angst period.

One day April is attacked by The Foot, a clan that dresses like ninjas and is comprised of young boys. Coming to April's defense, from the sewers, is four human sized turtles who are ninjas themselves. They attack the clan without April seeing who did it however one of the turtles leaves their weapon behind.

In order to get the weapon back, Raphael (Josh Pais, who sounds a lot like Andrew Dice Clay) follows April, who is attacked once again, as the clan suspects she is in with the turtles, and rescues her, bringing her to the sewer where the turtles and their father figure, a human sized, English speaking with a Japanese accent, rat named Splinter (Kevin Clash) lives.

Splinter explains how he was the pet of a ninja back in Japan. They came to New York where Splinter was left on his own. While in a sewer he noticed four turtles in a radioactive substance. He gathered the turtles together for protection and noticed the next day they had grown in size and spoke English. He decided to teach the turtles the way of the ninja and gave them names; Leonardo (David Forman / Brian Tochi voice), Donatello (Leif Tilden / Corey Feldman voice), Raphael and Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti/ Robbie Rist voice).

The head of the clan, Shredder (James Saito) learns about the turtles and how they are interfering with his crime wave. He wants to capture the turtles and kill them.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" does a pretty bad job developing characters. The human characters fare the worst. Not much is really known about April O' Neil but the worst is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) a street thug who becomes friends with the turtles and serves as an eventual love interest for April. When Casey first sees the turtles he doesn't even question their appearance. He never asks for an explanation. He doesn't seem surprised. Have New Yorkers really seen it all? No real back story for him is given. And, if he is to serve as the love interest, nothing is developed between him and April. We never sense any chemistry between them. We don't see love blossom between them.

Only two of the turtles are shown as having distinct personalities which helps us separate them. Raphael is the rebel, the teen with a chip on his shoulder. He likes to beat people up and ask questions later. Michelangelo on the other hand is seen as the wise-cracking party guy. The other two turtles; Donatello and Leonardo aren't given much to work with. I was never sure which is which. Fans will argue it is easy to tell which turtle is which by the color of the mask they wear. I am color blind so I can't tell based on that alone. I need a personality to tell them apart. A filmmaker or screenwriter should not rely on the color of a mask to help its audience tell which character is which. Work on development of character. Give them something to do.

It is silly to wonder if this movie is trying to make some sort of social statement. It is a movie about turtles. But, what is/was the point of all of this? Why make this movie? Does it say anything? Or, was it all just an attempt to make money and cash in on the marketing success already established by the Saturday morning cartoon? It was clearly an attempt to make money. Notice the product placement; Burger King, Domino's Pizza. But is there anything to the story?

It is interesting the younger characters are products of a broken home. Danny doesn't seem to have a mother. It is only his father we see take care of him. We suspect the teenagers we see working for The Foot come from broken homes. The turtles have a father figure but no mother figure. There is no Mrs. Splinter. This makes the young boys feel like outsiders.

I would imagine one theme of the movie is families stick together. To follow the old cliche, the family that plays together, stays together. When people work together they are at their strongest. As individuals we all have something that makes us special but when people work as a unit, they are unbeatable.

The movie was directed by Steve Barron. He worked on music videos prior to the movie. He directed the video Burning Up for Madonna and Reckless for Bryan Adams. He also directed the SNL movie adaptation of "The Coneheads" (1993). Nothing in this movie suggest the work of a truly talented filmmaker, a visionary. Just about anyone could have directed this. Just don't try to do anything fancy and keep the actors in focus. To Barron's credit, he does just that.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was a hit at the box-office, grossing more than a $100 million dollars. Two more sequels followed. This is the movie version I would recommend watching if you want to see the ninja turtles brought to life. Leave the Michael Bay adaptation alone.