It is normal or at least it was normal years ago to expect the worst of Hollywood treatments of popular comic books, children’s cartoons and video games. And with the exception of the latter, this is not as true as it used to be. Although I’m quite over them myself, many of the movies based on comic books and children’s cartoons have been well-made at the very least. And some have actually been excellent films with the Christopher Nolan Batman films prominent in mind as I write this.
A movie I was extremely excited to see when I was a child was the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film released when that franchise was dominating in pretty much every medium aimed at children. Like many young boys I watched the cartoon, owned the action figures, played the video games and even wore the shirt. So when the film came out I wanted to see it and living in the country made this an even more special event. I can’t remember how it was decided (I was 6 or 7 at the time), but I ended up heading to the closest town, watching the film in a cinema with my father and one or two of my four younger brothers along with me.
Now it is probably obvious from the title that this won’t be just a nostalgia trip. It most certainly is not. Watching the film again many years later, I noticed immediately that it has held up a lot better than any film like this deserves to. A film based on a comic book and made in order to bank off the franchises wild popularity is usually one you’d expect to be bad or at least one that will only be remembered as a product of that time. The idea that a film about four mutated turtles led by a mutated rat, who fight an ancient Japanese crime syndicate in modern New York would be worth writing about seems absurd. It really isn’t though.
The first thing to get out of the way is that what most children my age remember is the cartoon series and related video games and toys; not the original comic book. The movie is based heavily on the comic books which were considerably darker in tone. I did not know any of this when I originally saw it so although I very much enjoyed it, I do remember being surprised by the difference. It is probably also worth adding some context to the time as this was a product released when Japan’s economy was still booming and there was a lot of cultural exchange. This included fears of Japanese influence in the United States which is also explored in other films of the period.
But getting past all of this, there are within a positive message about brotherhood and fatherhood which is easy to miss. What most people talk about when the film is mentioned is just the time it was made and how it meant to them as a child. This misses what makes the film stand out and what makes it special even today.
The first thing to note is there is only one major female character in the film, April O’Neil who takes on a motherly role to the turtles and also a love interest to another character, Casey Jones. All the other major and most of the minor characters are male.
The four turtles are fathered by a mutant rat named Splinter who has raised them and trained them in ninjutsu. He has an odd background going back to Japan as the pet of a Ninja Master who he witness being killed by a rival. Going further into the background brings us more absurdity than is necessary. The short of it is that the turtles are raised and cared for by a strong, disciplined father figure and all things considered, are well-adjusted and healthy teenage males.
On the other side we see Shredder, the leader of the ancient crime syndicate known as “The Foot Clan” who draws in teenage boys who have absent or neglectful father figures. In parallel with many young men who go into crime, they go into this looking to older criminals as father figures. This is actually made explicit by Shredder himself in his first appearance where he plainly states, “This is your family. I am your father.” Though of course in contrast to Splinter, he is a false father figure who does not truly love his adopted children.
There is also a further thread in the character of Casey Jones who himself seems to have been without a father though we are not given much of his background. I think it is fair to infer this though and he acts as a bridge between these two groups. While he is seeking to stop crime, not joining it, he is doing it through vigilante action. He can be seen as a young man striving to do good in the world without a father figure to guide him and not getting it quite right because of this.
There is naturally also an exploration of brotherly relationships which I could very much relate to at the time. The turtles are four brothers and I was one of four until my youngest was born in the same year the film was released. The main conflict happens between Raphael and Leonardo, the two eldest who compete for leadership and influence. The younger of the two, Raphael is more of a loose cannon and a loner than the more measured Leonardo.
This relationship between Leonardo and Raphael is a smaller arc within the story and when Raphael is seriously injured following a quarrel between the two, Leonardo feels responsible for his injuries. When Raphael recovers, the awkward way they reconcile will be recognisable to most men who’ve had a similar experience with a brother or close male friend. Specifically the desire to forgive and move on with as little talk as possible.
Another character that comes up is Danny, the son Charles who is April O’Neil’s boss. It seems fair to assume that Charles is a widower if only for the fact that he has custody of his son. Like many men he is shown to be busy with work and thus doesn’t pay enough attention to his son who also becomes involved with the criminal syndicate. Danny is seen at the beginning of the film being told off by his father after trouble with the police and soon runs off again. He later discovers the existence of the turtles and Splinter.
One of the major sources of growth for the turtles happens when Splinter is kidnapped following Raphael’s injury mentioned above. What follows is a retreat from the dark city to the bright countryside which adds a vivid contrast.
Before going on, I want to digress briefly about the way the film has been shot. Everything in this film looks real. You can see the freckles, skin blemishes, sweat and whiskers on the human characters. When making the turtle suits they went to similar trouble with adding spots to them. All the sets look lived in too with damp, dirty streets and the dilapidated farm house where they stay after fleeing the city. Part of the reason for this would likely have come down to budget constraints. But because everything looks real, the turtles don’t seem all that out of place. This something lost in many films due to make-up and lighting and especially in films that make extensive use of CGI. This was certainly lost in the progressively sillier sequels and certainly the most recent film adaptations.
While in the country, the turtles have to learn to live without their father and become men themselves. What follows are a series of scenes of them training and working together as well as meditating. As this is a children’s film the writer can be forgiven for adding a scene with a ghostly Splinter telling them specifically what is happening. It is also at this time when Casey and April begin forming a relationship which naturally begins with them fighting. While April begins to beautify the house, Casey spends time repairing it and an old truck. April grows from your typical 1980s independent New York woman into a much more feminine figure. It is extremely rare to see character growth like this in a Hollywood movie. It also occurs to me that a scene where Casey massages April would have had red crosses all over if it were put in a script today.
So with the turtles becoming men, they decide to return and confront their enemy and hopefully rescue their father. At the same time as this is happening, Danny has met Splinter and is having second thoughts about his new “family”. He tells Splinter his father doesn’t care about him and Splinter sharply responds, “All fathers care for their sons”. When I heard that the first time, I had no reason to doubt such sentiment as my father had brought me to the cinema and we were sitting together watching it. I suppose then that there were many troubled boys similar to Danny who may have seen hollowness in such words. And today watching it, the culture that surrounds us makes it easy to be cynical about this sentiment. But it is authentic, or at least should be in a better world. When I watched it, there could be no doubt to the truth of the statement and I hope it was so for most children who saw the film.
There is not much to add for the rest of the film. The turtles confront Shredder and are outclassed before Splinter himself confronts Shredder and defeats him by throwing him into a garbage truck. Casey then pretends or deliberately activates the crushing mechanism which I will say seemed a bit grizzly for a film aimed at children. Before this, Casey confronts many of the lost boys and shows the emptiness of the family they have joined. They turn on the clan and disperse. There is also a touching scene with Charles and Danny where Danny sees directly how much his father loves him and how mistaken he was to think otherwise. The film then ends in a silly but satisfying way with the silly being put into overdrive for the next two films.
I looked up the writer Bobby Herbeck, out of interest. He sadly doesn’t have many more credits to his name since which I guess isn’t surprising given how against the grain the story is here. It is amazing that a movie about giant anthropomorphic turtles better speaks to boys than almost anything else made and promoted to them today. I do recommend giving the film a watch if you haven’t before. It isn’t a masterpiece but considering the source material and the nature of the film industry, I would recommend it above almost any film nominated for an Oscar.