PG – 96mins – 1990
“Where do they come up with this stuff?!”
It’s been a good number of years since I last watched this original Golden Harvest/New Line Cinema live action Turtles treatment, but a US trilogy blu-ray triple-discer was the perfect excuse for a rewatch of this alternative origin story ahead of Out of the Shadows on May 30th.
Amazingly, the physicality of the Jim Henson Creature Shop-designed animatronic shell suits still holds up 26 years later, with ragged rat Splinter (Kevin Clash) arguably looking better here than he does in CG in Platinum Dune’s 2014 reboot. His meditative characterisation is also the perfect counterpart to his teenage student’s goofiness (“Hrrm… kids!!”), and you genuinely sympathise for the furry Yoda-like mentor when he is kidnapped, strung up and tortured by arch-nemesis Shredder (James Saito) and his gang of lost boys-turned soldiers, the Foot Clan.
It is in the film’s portrayal of this real-world street crime undertaken by misguided kids feeling rejected by society that a real dissonance in tone is felt. While the sewer-dwelling siblings are getting teenage kicks from trading 90s pop-culture references (Rocky, Wheel of Fortune, Wayne Gretzky, Grapes of Wrath, Ghostbusters) and frivolous banter (“Give me three!”), the grittiness of the plague of thievery which reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is investigating lends the film a darker tone akin to punkish urban noir – a million miles from animatronic heads doing James Cagney impersonations!
This uncomfortable alliance is most evident when Raphael’s (Josh Pais) gang attack is juxtaposed with Mikey’s (Robbie Rist) playful symbol clashing – its as if director Steve Billie Jean Barron wanted to retain the “gnarly radicalness” of the popular Fred Wolf Films cartoon series while balancing the kid-friendly yucks with a more visceral and conscientious adult-appealing levity, like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s edgier original panel-premiering inception.
There’s an astute level of catharsis achieved by a post-second act out of town ‘breather’ sequence, not to mention a nostalgic appeal to the dated vibe, but in attempting to darken such a wacky premise my mind was drawn to an uncomfortable recent parallel: Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. I’ll always look on this memento from my childhood through rose-tinted glasses, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not without its faults, even if the pizza guzzlers’ irresistible charm wins through in the end. Hrrm, kids!