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Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
In 1990 Steve Barron released the independent live-action comic book film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, based off the characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Starring Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, James Saito, Toshishiro Obata, Sam Rockwell, Josh Pais, Robbie Rist, Brian Tochi, Corey Feldman, and Kevin Clash, the film grossed $201.9 million at the box office. The film was nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Costumes and the Young Artist Award for Most Entertaining Family Youth Motion Picture – Drama and won the BMI Film Music Award and the Kids’ Choice Awards’ Blim Award for Favorite Animal Star for the title heroes. It’s also the second-highest-grossing independent film of all time and was the ninth-highest-grossing film worldwide of 1990.
In New York, the police department is powerless to stop a crime wave caused by the Foot Clan and the responsibility falls on four mutated vigilante turtles. Under the leadership of Splinter the rat, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael band together with reporter April O’Neil and Casey Jones to take on the group led by Shredder.
Coming out in the middle of the original animated series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those films that thrives on its nostalgia factor. Bluntly put, it’s not very good and is another one of those films that’s really just confused about itself. On one hand, it knows that it wants to be a pumped-up action flick thriving off the popularity of martial arts at the time. However, on the other hand, it seems that it can’t really decide if it wants to be for younger kids or older kids and teenagers as it continues to shift wildly in tone throughout the film. This is possibly because the original comic book was anything but kid-friendly and the creators wanted to do so while staying as close to the source material as possible. But what’s presented is a film that has such an uneven tone with all the characters making the cheap jokes and providing such comedic slapstick violence that’s combined with scenes with characters beating others half to death and them using their weapons in a realistic manner, such as Shredder being thrown and crushed in a garbage truck. In fact, one really wild tonal shift comes during the fight in April’s apartment. The music makes it seem like it’s going to be a very one-sided fight in the turtles’ favor, but the Foot Clan overpowers and the entire apartment is set on fire and one ninja being electrocuted by hitting a power main with his axe.
And the above is quite jarring when the film’s overall thematic element is one of family, contrasting Splinter and the turtles with Shredder and the Foot Clan. The former group is a portrayal of a good family. They may get on each other’s’ nerves all the time and at some points, they may not even like each other. But when one member is threatened, Splinter in this case, they don’t necessarily drop their petty squabbles but they give them a back seat while working together to save the day. All while sharing barbs at each other along the way. As for the latter, it’s the portrayal of a dysfunctional and abusive family with Shredder as the father figure, forcing his family to perpetuate violent and criminal deeds in order to continue to have acceptance within the family.
But the most jarring weakness this film has is in its handling of Shredder at the very end. Throughout the film, the turtles are portrayed as quite adept in the art of ninja and are able to take out the Foot Clan soldiers easily at various points, with the only time they’re unable to being when the clan overpowers them in numbers. However, when they get to Shredder, it all falls apart. The turtles, who had been working together in their fighting very well until this point, try to take him out one by one and all fail miserably. And this makes sense and does lead to a good moment where the turtles fight him together and do a bit of damage. However where their teamwork would have eventually led them to defeat Shredder, that’s not what happens. What does happen is Splinter somehow gets on the roof where the fight is taking place (very quickly for having been severely weakened earlier) and reveals that he knows who Shredder is, causing him to rage and try to kill Splinter. Splinter then puts Shredder at his mercy with incredible ease and he’s defeated by his own hate. There may be a lesson or two on teamwork or the result of hatred in there somewhere, but it’s presented so haphazardly and badly that it just comes off an incredible mess.
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