Through a Sewer Darkly: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Turns 25
It's funny - it's one of the few things where I think, "Wow, it hasn't been that long." Which, I'm sure is due in part to the fact that they seem to be more popular and omnipresent than they were in the late 80s. That could be because of the new Nickelodeon show or the Michael Bay-produced movie that came out a little while ago. But, it's not. It's because of what came before - just look at the soft, colorful "vintage" incarnations that grace T-shirts and coffee mugs to know which pool is being swum in. Yeah, 80s and 90s nostalgia is fully erect right now, but we can't focus on that. Even upon its initial release 25 years ago, no one could discuss or critique or even watch the film without addressing the hype and cultural weight that preceded it (you know, like any blockbuster released today). Let's just go ahead and try and do something that's maybe never been done - or done rarely - and talk about Steve Barron's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).
Tim Burton's Batman had just come out the year before, and to this day I compare the two. Not because of their proximity in release dates or similarity in subject matter (though that's part of it), but as a movie of a certain era held in high regard - the way Jaws, Star Wars, and Taxi Driver are all cousins close in age. Batman had abandoned most of the comedy and camp of all previous live-action attempts, and plays out like the urban crime fantasy it deserves to be. Turtles did the same, doing away with the sci-fi glam of the show (and even the comic) and was replaced with what is ironically known today as "Chris Nolan Grittiness." That's a tricky feat - to portray mutant turtles realistically as crime fighters. Whether or not they pulled it off entirely is not the point, but that's the direction they chose, and that's what's notable. That is the point, because that's all they had, and for argument's sake, it works. There's some gaffes and stiffness in the facial puppetry and dialogue sync, but that's really it. Everything else is totally fluid and believable. And, to punctuate that further, to sum up all flaws in the movie, that really is about it. I mean, every movie lends itself to a long list of imperfections, but that's not at all what this is about. Besides, those Jim Henson costumes look way better than whatever they had in the new movie, or the "Money For Nothing" animation of the new show. But we won't focus on that.
It's tough talking about these old movies and why I love them. It's always easier to talk about how they're good, like a college appreciation course, than to wade blindly into my own childish joy. I've already made the case time and again (and again and again) of quality vs. nostalgia (quality always wins). But when all's said and done, technique can't beat subjectivity. I addressed what I thought were a lot of the high points in this movie when I reviewed Secret of the Ooze and not too much has changed. I'm still enamored with Elias Koteas and Judith Hoag, and their entire dynamic and narrative adds to the movie - when it could've easily subtracted. But beyond that stuff, there are so many way-above-standard qualities that it's still surprising. The drab cinematography and mucky set design better serve the story than the candy-colored cartoon, placing it more in the ranks of French Connection or The Warriors, and further away from The Mask or Tank Girl. Or The Phantom or Spawn. Or, I'll say it, modern Marvel movies. But we won't focus on that.
Let's focus on Shredder for a while. For any kid who likes The Joker more than Batman (and etc.), "The Shredder" holds a lot more weight than the Turtles themselves. In the movie, he is presented as more sinister and sadistic than Darth Vader. No, really! Just to add that extra layer to this "kids movie," after we've taken chapters from the crime genre, the comic book genre, romantic comedies, and family films, let's not forget -- let's not forget -- kung fu cinema. The unbeatable warrior at the end of the maze - we don't know how unbeatable because they save it till the end of the movie, per tradition - is introduced to us in a more chilling way than most horror movies. Some of that is due to the score by John Du Prez, which is absolutely flawless throughout, and is a beautiful marriage of music and movie. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is a bit of a head-scratcher. The film is full of generic, family-friendly hip-hop (?) which, someone obviously decided that's what teens listened to in 1990. Personally, I feel - like Prince and the Batman movie - pop music doesn't belong in that world -- even if it is so generic that no one's ever heard of it. But it's not without its charm. It's not as horrible as MC Hammer and The Addams Family movie. But we won't focus on that.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a member of the foot clan. Maybe because it seemed more realistic than being a mutant turtle. Or maybe because I wanted to live in an arcade/skate park where I could get free cigarettes from Sam Rockwell. Or, because I wanted to call Shredder "Master." At any rate, there was a period when I would get home from school and pop in that videocassette (usually on rainy days, because it matched the aesthetic of the movie), put on my black sweatpants and sweatshirt, and practice my "ninja moves" in the living room. Today, my viewing habits have changed in some ways, but not all. But we won't focus on that. One more thing we should focus on is, a few years back, Jess and I viewed an original print of the movie at the Brattle theater in Boston. Paired with Howard the Duck, it was billed a "Schlock Double Feature." Now, that's tricky stuff. It's tricky in the sense of, which part of that, if any, should be addressed. Forgetting that, in my world, that's an astronomical "Huh?", I'd have to start to think of reasons why a movie I like is universally bad. Of course, I could get creative enough to explain why Wizard of Oz or Raging Bull are really bad. Point is, I won't waste my energy coming up with ways that good movies are bad because lazy, inarticulate "movie buffs" said they were. And it's also pretty late in this retrospective or whatever it is to start a heated defense. But I will say that I was surprised. I had no idea it was "shlock." To reiterate, it's as though someone told you that Chinatown was shlock; it's the opposite of what you thought. But, please, let's not focus on that.