Well, I guess it was inevitable. First came the comic book, then the merchandise, then the cartoon, then the action figures, and now the movie: the live-action version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is upon us. Is there anyone who was awaiting this with less enthusiasm than I was? Never mind. The important thing is, this’ll probably be the biggest hit of 1990¹, because it has a huge built-in audience — the little kids who watch the TMNT cartoon religiously. And indeed, the kids in the audience did seem to cherish the film — but it’s useful to remember that kids are known for eating their own boogers to see what the green stuff tastes like.
The green stuff on the screen takes the form of four warrior turtles named after Italian masters of art: Michaelangelo (that’s how they spell it), Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo. They live in the sewers under the city and take orders from an oversized rat named Splinter. They meet an attractive TV reporter, April O’Neil (the lovely but untalented Judith Hoag). Some evil ninjas called the Foot (an in-joke for those who remember Frank Miller’s run on the Marvel comic Daredevil, in which the evil ninjas were named the Hand) are after the Turtles; a Darth Vader clone called Master Shredder is their leader. Some nutso with a hockey stick (Elias Koteas) joins the Turtles. There’s lots of fighting, rap music, pizza-eating, and general mayhem. All of it is about as boring as it sounds.
TMNT began life as a black-and-white comic book written and drawn by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The book was witty — it parodied a bunch of popular comics, including The X-Men and Ronin. As soon as the Turtles themselves became popular — and Christ, did they ever become popular — they simply lost their edge. The subsequent cartoon was downright silly, and this new movie isn’t much less puerile. Only one thing in it is striking: the Jim Henson Workshop’s nicely realized Turtle suits. Henson’s crew used animatronics to make the Turtles’ mouths move naturally. Too bad the same couldn’t have been done for the human actors, whose line delivery is unfailingly wooden.
Director Steve Barron lacks the necessary knack for cartoonish violence (someone like Sam Raimi would’ve been ideal), and the fight scenes come off dead. Barron can’t make us forget that the Turtles look too clunky to be effective in battle. The photography is clunky, too — whose idea was it to shoot the Turtles’ flashback scenes in a grainy soft focus that makes the action look as though it was filmed through a pepper shaker? Screenwriters Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck are more or less faithful to the comics, though they throw in more than their share of lame jokes. Couldn’t Eastman and Laird have been tapped to prepare the script?
TMNT joins the limited but infamous ranks of Comics Characters Who Never Should’ve Gotten Their Own Live-Action Movie. I can think of only two other inductees to this hall of shame: 1980’s Popeye, which at least sported some great sets and lively acting, and 1986’s Howard the Duck, a witless bastardization of Steve Gerber’s satirical cult phenomenon. Eastman and Laird didn’t create the Turtles for little kids; they were meant to appeal to hip comics collectors, but tykes have embraced the heroes-in-a-half-shell anyway. I wonder if that makes Eastman and Laird a bit uncomfortable. The Turtles fight with great aptitude, using lethal weapons like swords and nunchaku, yet miraculously never kill anyone. Who’s going to pay the hospital bills when dumb little kids emulate their Turtle heroes in the back yard with Dad’s garden tools?
The Turtles worked fine on the page; they were clearly intended as parody, and the scuffles they got into were parodic, too. On the big screen, big as life and twice as ugly, they lose their parodic elements, glorifying inane violence more effectively than ever. TMNT tries to be both kick-ass and cute, a toxic and unpalatable mix.
¹It wasn’t; Home Alone was.