5 Reasons Why TMNT 1990 Still Kicks Ass (Mine, And By Extension, Yours)

Written by: The Pac

With the exception of ‘90’s cult favorite Coneheads, director Steve Barron went on to fade into relative obscurity among music aficionados and a documentarian subset of filmmakers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from a feature film standpoint, it is almost as if he was put on this earth to direct Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and then exit stage right (or is it left? Whatever), barely to be heard from again. If you believe in that kind of stuff, which I don’t, but for the sake of this article, I will.

Depending where you’re sitting, this is either an honorable distinction or the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. I’m sure he’s doing fine, so let’s not shed tears, eh? [Editor's Note: Ryan is Canadian; this "eh" was his own, and I think that's swell] That’s not what we’re here for! We’re here to tick off the reasons why I believe his signature franchise achievement of cinema was a terrific comic book film when it was released, (one that somehow manages to hold up as a perhaps great comic book film to this day), and why is age irrelevant for appreciating it between generations.

So! Let us count the ways, in no particular order...

Turtle FX

You can keep your CGI. I’ll take the imaginative and painstakingly practical work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop any day of the week, including and especially this day. Thanks to Barron and company’s adherence to real world grit – and a welcome minimization of cartoonish aesthetics that would’ve been in line with the popular animated series (a childhood favorite of mine as well, by the by, for full disclosure...) – the Turtles actually look and feel like natural, believable extensions of the grimy, scum-ridden world they inhabit. Which, if you think about it, should be next to impossible to accomplish in a movie about walking, talking, pizza-munching amphibians with a giant rat as a Kung Fu Master. Some of that is due to the quality of the effects; most of it is due to how they were used, framed and utilized. The brothers and their interactions with humans, be it in an emotionally-charged character moment or a lighthearted fight scene, are seamless and hold up remarkably well for what are essentially animatronic heads on top of stunt actors in funky rubber suits.

New York City, The Other OTHER Main Character

From glistening wet streets to smoke-filled alleys from which you can almost smell the stink, cinematographer John Fenner and production designer Roy Forge Smith together brought to neon life one of the more underrated depictions of the Big Apple as a city with a life (and particularly nightlife) all its own. It’s nothing on the seminal works of Martin Scorsese, of course, but it is something artistically sound and teeming with scuzzy life, whether that be rats on two legs or four. In any event, it does help to ground and wed the fantasy elements of the Turtles themselves to a more realistically fictionalized big-city crime wave.

It’s still a comic book at heart, but it doesn’t necessarily try to sugarcoat or overstylize the harsher urban world that a lot of people call home, and for a movie originally marketed to younger kids like me at the time, I respect that bold creative stroke all the more when the pressure to make the movie even more kid-friendly had to be enormous.

The Shredder

For my admittedly limited amount of money (Canadian, at that), James Saito’s incarnation of the legendary Turtles nemesis is one of the great screen villains of all time. For me it’s the diabolical combination of his supreme martial bearing, which promises nothing short of a world of pain if you dare get up in his samurai grille, with a booming voice that has to challenge Harbinger from Mass Effect 2 or Pinhead from Hellraiser as a prime example of intimidating diction.

The dude took on all four Turtles in the film’s entertaining rooftop rumble finale, sustaining a single minor injury but generally beating the shit out of a group of mutants who had, up to that point, dominated human foes with ninja moves and endearingly corny jokes alike. Tag to all that, the fact that Oroko Saki’s villainy is not just in his ruthless methods, but that he gains all of his power in New York’s criminal underworld on the backs of wayward, disaffected youths that he recruits into the Foot Clan. Not mercenaries or hardened criminals like, say, Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, but just your average troubled teenagers and runaways who have no outlet for aggression and are looking for an otherwise absent father figure. That’s some shameful exploitative shit right there, but it brings the Shredder down to “our level”, rather than that of dime-a-dozen supervillains from Saturday morning cartoons.

Dramatis Familia

I’ll be the first to admit, the humor in this film is not for everyone. It can even be downright childish, and sometimes not in a charming way, even if you take into account that the Turtles are teenagers. It’s more apparent now as I near my 30th year compared to my adolescent self, but, with that having been acknowledged, for all of its tongue-in-cheek pop culture cracks at Jose Conseco and Vanna White (remember them, ‘90’s kids? ‘Course you do!), the film is ultimately about family and that relationship-building that deepens any familial bond.

What sets this film apart from its more goofy plot-driven sequels that pandered to increasingly lower common denominators is how, at the onset of the second act, the filmmakers uprooted the Turtles from NYC entirely and dropped them in the middle of rural nowhere. Having been driven from their home by Shredder’s thugs, had their father/mentor kidnapped and one of their own brothers brought to the brink of death by the Foot, the Turtles, alongside Casey Jones and perennial ally April O’Neil, are forced to reassess the bonds that bind, to find their place in a world without their father’s wisdom, and to come back stronger than ever to take down Shredder and the Foot once and for all.

The writing and acting is surprisingly rich in emotional depth, especially now with the benefit of hindsight, and considering how blatantly idiotic the sequels became. The rivalry between steadfast boyscout Leonardo and the temperamental Raphael remains compelling to watch every time I sit down to relive it. Not to mention that Raphael as a character resonated with me on a personal level, and still does now. I felt much like he did in my formative years, angry at the world and wracked by insecurity, and one of the best scenes in the film is when Raph is given a compassionate lecture on life and the importance of family unity by the kindly Master Splinter. Right in the feelings, that one.

 Casey Jones aka Wayne Gretzky... On Steroids

The film that singlehandedly turned me into a massive fan of Elias Koteas, the man behind the mask (emphasis on The Man, the record should show). It’s safe to say that without Koteas’s charismatic contribution to the wise-cracking, street-savvy vigilante with an abundance of sporting goods and hockey-related puns, I wouldn’t hold this film in as high a regard. But he is, and I do, so here we are. A seemingly one-dimensional character that was deftly drawn into a more complex individual from the page, Koteas understood what the role of Casey required, in all aspects. He simultaneously realized that he had an obligation to the Turtles’ comic book roots, but also that Jones needed to be real, first and foremost.

What resulted was a character who never met a one-liner he didn’t like, and also a cocksure young man mired in his own poorly disguised insecurities, related to both his lack of formal education and his masculinity. Sometimes the two combine to bring about inspired moments of hilarity, a case in point being the scene where brainy Donatello teases that Casey might be claustrophobic (in relation to them hiding out in the sewers, which gives the tough-talking Casey the jitters), and Casey replies with offended macho pride that he’s “never even looked at another guy before!”

So there you have it!

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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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