‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Is An Overlooked, Comic-Book Movie Classic
Nostalgia is a two-way street. It can blind us to the flaws in things we loved as kids, but it can also have the opposite effect, making us skeptical of childhood favorites. I know I’m sometimes wary fo revisit movies that I enjoyed when I was young, particularly if I’m worried what they will look like through the eyes of cynical adulthood once the rose-colored glasses of warm childhood memories are removed.
That could be one reason why I haven’t watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in at least 25 years; not even when the movie celebrated its 30th anniversary back in March. My brother and I were in the demographic wheelhouse for Ninja Turtles in the late 1980s and early ’90s. We collected the toys, watched the cartoon series, and eagerly awaited the movie — which did not disappoint at the time. Then you get older and you think “Y’know, maybe the movie about the talking turtles who like pizza and hang out with Elias Koteas wasn’t quite the cinematic masterpiece as I thought it was.” You move on.
I only returned to it now (on HBO Max, where it’s currently streaming with its sequels) to see if it could be something to watch with my two daughters, who’ve shown a lot of interest in superheroes lately. It’s not — it’s a bit too adult for them for now — but I might rewatch it without them anyway. To my great surprise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is as good or better than my nostalgic recollections of it. It’s a convincing live-action version of truly absurd characters, not to mention a very solid action movie — despite the fact that many of the performers are buried beneath mountains of foam latex. It surely deserves more credit than it receives for bringing comic-book heroes further into the Hollywood mainstream.
Its achievement in that regard is particularly notable because the film was not produced by a major Hollywood studio. In fact, every big distributor turned the movie down, assuming the film would flop. (It was ultimately released by New Line Cinema, which was later acquired by Time Warner.) Ninja Turtles was produced on a modest $13.5 million budget — with inflation, the equivalent of about $27.5 million in 2020. (For sake of comparison, the live-action Dick Tracy movie released the same summer cost $46 million to produce.)
In short, the film was made cheaply — but it doesn’t look like it. The Turtles themselves were built by the wizards from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Their suits were comprised of 15 interlocking pieces worn by actors; their facial movements were controlled via remote control by puppeteers while the motors and receivers for the facial movements were cleverly hidden inside the Turtles’ shells.
The Ninja Turtles are one of the Jim Henson Company’s unsung triumphs. An Entertainment Weekly article from 1990 describes the insanely complicated process required to get the Turtles to convincingly “talk”:
For each Turtle, a joystick works the eyes, a glovelike apparatus works the jaws, and headsets fitted with infrared light sensors work the lips, synchronizing them with the giant mouths so that they look as if they are actually saying the voiced-over dialogue. The sensors essentially can read the puppeteer’s expression and then relay it by radio to the Turtle mask, which then mimics it.
As believable as the Turtles’ “puppetechtronics” faces are, their martial-arts movements might be even more impressive. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was produced by Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong action house behind many of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s greatest films, and they clearly brought a wealth of action knowledge to the project. The Turtles fight like ninjas, not dudes encased in rubber. These scenes aren’t just good given the limitations of the participants; they’re better than almost any major superhero movie released in the last 10 years. Watch the fluid movements and minimal edits in this sequence where Raphael (performed by Kenn Troum) fends off an army of Foot Soldiers:
The blunt reality is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was made for an audience of undiscerning kids; they would have been happy with any movie they got as long as Michelangelo screamed “Cowabunga!” at some point. Yet the film is decidedly not a hacky cash grab; it was obviously made with care and attention. Look at this long take that introduces the Turtles’ nemesis, the Shredder (James Saito), for the first time. It begins with an overhead crane shot that follows him and his enormous shadow into a large hall, then pushes in and down until the camera is just over his shoulder as he addresses his Foot Soldiers — all without a cut. This is a legitimately great shot.
When people write histories of comic-book movies, a few key titles always appear: The first Superman in 1978, Tim Burton’s Batman a little over a decade later, Fox’s X-Men another decade after that. These films are hailed as landmarks in the depictions of superheroes onscreen, each one bringing movies closer and closer to the unfettered imagination (and unlimited budgets) seen in graphic novels.
In 1990, most movies based on comics were still running away from their source material every chance they could. It would be more than a decade before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man embraced Marvel’s four-color soap opera; it would be six years after that before Marvel began its own comic book-y cinematic universe with Iron Man. In the sequence above, you can see director Steve Barron using exaggerated camera angles and expressionistic shadows to lean into Ninja Turtles’ comic-book roots long before it was fashionable. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles showed that even the most outlandish comics characters — and the Turtles are about as bizarre as they get — could work on the big-screen. After that, the sky was the limit.
Also, Sam Rockwell plays a small role as a thug who very earnestly announces “We have a loyalty to the Shredder! We’re family!”
If that doesn’t make you want to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, nothing will.
Gallery — The Best Comic Book Movies That Don’t Come From Marvel or DC: