Worst 80s movie you’ll see all week: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
(This review was written for one of my Patreon review requests. If you’d like to compel me to watch and write about movies like this, please check out my Patreon campaign.)
I have no business telling the guys who invented the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles what they did wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway. Hey, comic book guys from the 80s, when you invent a team of superheroes, the superheroes should be different from each other. For instance, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Incredibles, or the Justice League. A team of superheroes shouldn’t be four copies of the same thing. Even Charlie’s Angels always have at least one non-blonde. But the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are four of the same hero. That’s not how heroes work. That’s how bad guys work. Bad guys are all indistinct copies of each other. Heros should be the opposite as sure as white hats are the opposite of black hats. Heroes should represent individuality while bad guys represent conformist masses.
But these four turtles have to wear colored bandanas so you can tell them apart. There’s the orange one, the red one, the blue one, and the purple one. Even the color scheme is a big fail for leaving out a primary color in favor of two secondary colors. I eventually noticed that each turtle uses a different weapon. The red guy uses two sais, the blue guy uses katanas, the orange guy uses nunchucks, and the purple guy uses a staff. For me, watching the 1990 movie for the first time, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is just a color and a weapon.
If I was inventing these superheroes, I’d mix it up. How about a turtle, a gecko, an opossum, and a Yorkshire terrier? I just improved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I didn’t even have to rip off Guardians of the Galaxy by picking a tree or a raccoon. They’ll need a new name, of course. Teenage Mutant Ninja Critters has a nice ring to it. I wish I’d thought of this back in the 80s.
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was directed by Steve Barron, who was segueing from a career making music videos for Toto, A-ha, Spandau Ballet, and Bryan Adams. He apparently brought along the same lighting rig, because every scene is lit as if someone is about to come out to dance. I suppose this is just that washed-out sheen that characterizes movies in the 80s. Sometimes it looks great. Sometimes it looks like Big Trouble in Little China. But most of the time, it looks like this movie.
Another way you can tell this 1990 movie is as 80s as 80s can be is that one of the turtles is voiced by Corey Feldman. I’m not sure which one. They all sound like Corey Feldman to me. Which just gets at how this whole thing is a slurry of dated references, starting with the Dominos product placement and ending with the discovery of the phrase “cowabunga!”. People ride skateboards unironically. Moonlighting and Gilligan’s Island are still relevant. And talk about dated, the turtles themselves are named after Renaissance artists. The human sidekick is named after a famous railroad engineer. The heroine is named after a porn star.
Aside from that last detail, this is clearly for kids. You can tell by the wacky slapstick, juvenile jokes, and comedic freaking out at the sight of talking bipedal turtles. The turtles by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop must have looked great at the time, but there’s none of Dark Crystal’s weird aesthetic. They just look like foam and latex expressions of simple comic book drawings, designed so the people wearing them can still kick their legs, swing their arms, and do the occasional pre-wire-fu flip. Offscreen, someone is operating their weird mouths to make it look like the turtle is talking. The actors inside still overcompensate by wildly gesticulating in the same manner as sports mascots.
Among the actors who don’t have to wear latex turtle suits, Judith Hoag is a classically spunky April O’Neil, obviously cast for her Molly Ringwaldness. She’s probably the most memorable thing about this forgettable movie, with her freckles, dimpled chin, and ravenous enthusiasm. After this movie, she apparently went on to star in things I’ve never seen or heard of. Elias Koteas looks really out of a place as a loveable mook, or whatever he’s supposed to be.
“You’re a claustrophobic,” someone notes when he seems uncomfortable about being in the turtle’s underground lair.
“You want a fist in the mouth?” he challenges. “I’ve never even looked at a guy before.”
A porch swing breaks under him while he’s eating an apple and he’s all comically indignant, setting the stage for a career in sitcoms. It will never happen. He will instead do an unending string of really serious movies, many of them Canadian. If you look closely, you might notice Sam Rockwell doing nothing whatsoever to stand out. He’s barely even being Sam Rockwell.
The worst thing about this dippy kiddie movie is saved for last. It is a song that plays over the credits. It’s called Turtle Power, but it’s spelled “T-U-R-T-L-E Power”. It is performed by Partners in Kryme. Yep, Kryme with a K and a Y. Which is what I call it when I’m at Krispy Kreme and I get skipped over when they offer everyone in line a free warm donut. The song is a hellscape of commercially brewed inoffensive soft rap. If any federal agency wants to guarantee the peaceful resolution of an armed standoff with a fringe group, this is the perfect weaponized sonic pain. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover this is what sickened those people in the US embassy in Cuba. Whatever you do, do not click on this link. And not just because it features cheerleaders with granny panties. It’s a music video so bad that half the turtles skipped the filming.
But this isn’t where the story of my familiarity with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ends. It is only the beginning. Because, in the interest of due diligence, I just watched the 2014 version, directed by Jonathan Liebesman, but known better for being produced by Michael Bay. And guess what.
I liked it.
Yep. Now, to be honest, I mainly mean I liked it more than the insufferable 80s movie that preceded it. It’s modern filmmaking, engineered to occupy the short attention span of children or childish adults. Megan Fox fills out her tops nicely. Her hair looks pretty good, too. Will Arnett gets some funny moments. Well, maybe just one or two moments. Okay, just one that I can remember. It’s a throwaway gag about wearing a hat and it’s funny. But he’s Will Arnett, so at least you can think about how great Arrested Development was when he’s onscreen. William Fichtner is William Fichtner so you know he’s the bad guy, and you remind yourself that you should probably watch Go or Drive Angry again, because he’s great in those.
But what’s best about the 2014 movie — and I suspect this is going to annoy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle purists, if there are is such thing — is the CG turtles. They look like angry monsters. They would scare the hell out of me if I saw them in a dark alley. They’re huge. Jim Henson’s foam turtles are actually kind of short. They stand about as tall as Tom Cruise. Most of the stuntmen they fight have a good six inches on them. But not these CG turtles. They look like they would kick your ass. And if they’re teenagers, think about what they’ll be like when they reach adulthood! Terrifying.
They’re also better distinguished from each other. Or maybe I’d just accidentally learned a little about the turtles from watching the earlier movie. The purple one is the hacker, with fancy imaging glasses and a hi-tech tech backpack. The orange one is the slightly ethnic comic relief. The red one is the hothead. The blue one is the vanilla one that doesn’t get any special features. He might even be the leader. But if he were to take a day off, I don’t think I’d notice.
The CG also lets them have some pretty cool action set pieces. The big action sequence in the 1990 movie is a fight that destroys April O’Neil’s apartment, limited by all the practical effects that had to be marshalled on a sound stage in North Carolina. But the action in the 2014 movie has all the freedom of animation studios around the globe. The big action sequence is a semi sliding down the side of a mountain chased by an avalanche. It looks like something out of a Michael Bay movie. Oh, right, it is something out of a Michael Bay movie.
The only thing better in the 1990 version is the rat sensei, Splinter. The latest Splinter is a bad-ass fighter with a freaky prehensile tail. For some reason, they hired Tony Shalhoub to do the voice, but they didn’t give him anything interesting or funny to say. The scruffier Henson Splinter obviously owes a lot to Yoda. He looks ragged and unassuming, like a hobo. Which is how Yoda looked before George Lucas slathered CG and Flubber animation all over him. The earlier Splinter even has a couple of cool moves during the finale that play better than anything the latex turtle costumes do. Why couldn’t that Splinter be in the 2014 movie?
And while I’m annoying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle purists, let me tell you how serious I am about the 2014 movie compared to the 1990 movie. I have no desire to watch any of the sequels to the 1990 movie. I have even less desire to watch the successful cartoons that started in 2012, with Mae “Egg” Whitman as April O’Neil and Sean “Sam” Astin and Seth “one of the Mass Effects” Green as turtles. But as soon as I press the button to publish this review, I’m going to tab my browser over the Amazon.com to watch Out of the Shadows, the sequel to the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Wish me luck.