Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hong Kong U.S.A. 1990
Directed by Steve Barron.

Four mutant turtles make the way of the ninja trendy among nine year olds.

In 1984, really at the height of the American ninja craze, independent comic book writers and artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came up with an idea for a spoof of the new type of dark, gritty comics that had been the latest trend -- comics such as Daredevil, in which the blind avenger was fighting off a ninja clan called "The Hand," and facing Elektra, a ninja assassin. They wrote and self published their comic book, called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, about exactly what the title says, and that's pretty much when all hell broke loose. It became a runaway success, prompting four re-printings of the first issue by the time the second one came out. I still remember the excitement surrounding the comic at that time. Stores couldn't keep it in stock. I managed to pick up the second printing of the first issue and the first printing of the second issue, then watched in amazement as the value of both of them shot through the roof. I held on to them, thinking that, as time went on, they would be more and more valuable. The comics were dark, bloody, but a little funny, as well. If nothing else, they were unique. Or at least, they were unique at first. But almost immediately, other independent comics jumped on the bandwagon, and had some success riding their coattails. Comics like Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hampsters and Cold Blooded Chameleon Commandoes.

But there was only so far such a parody could go, and by the eighth issue, I was pretty bored with the whole thing. The knock-offs faded away, and it seemed that TMNT would do the same. My comic books, once valued in the mid-fifties to one hundred dollars each, could now barely command ten. But where the original concept fizzled, the overall idea, about four ninja turtles, blossomed. With just a little re-tooling, a lighter tone, some more fun added to the stories, the Turtles went on to kids cartoon fame. The licensing dollars started pouring in for creators Eastman and Laird, for action figures, bedspreads, hats, T-shirts, costumes, books, and everything else under the sun. Archie comics started publishing a series of TMNT comic books, based on the new look of the cartoon series. By the time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie was released, the creators were millionaires several times over. The rest of Eastman and Laird's comic book history plays like penance done for their sin of success, forming their own comic company and promoting and printing only the highest quality alternative and independent writers and artists.

The movie retells the origin of the four turtles, and introduces the main characters and villains of the comic book series, including their arch-nemesis, the evil Shredder. It is unclear what Shredder is trying to accomplish in the movie, except that he recruits teenagers to do a lot of small time theft for him. Shredder is sort of a modern day Fagan, conducting the young thieves actions and handing the merchandise they steal over to ninja UPS workers. Not that there's any clear reason given to do any of it.

The Turtles, and there are four of them, are each named after a famous artist: Raphael, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Leonardo. I still remember the day when my wife, who worked in day care at the time, came home marveling that one of the kids knew who Donatello was. I had to break it to her gently, that in fact the little boy was talking about a radioactive comic book ninja turtle. Anyway, the turtles cross Shredder when they save news reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) from his minions. Shredder's ninja gang, called "The Foot," (parodying the Daredevil storyline of so long ago), go on the assault, capturing and imprisoning the Turtles mentor and big ass rat, Splinter. It turns out Splinter was the pet rat of a ninja master who was killed by Shredder in cold blood. So it turns out there is a score to settle, there, and the Turtles, with the help of April O'Neil and hockey stick weilding vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), take the battle to Splinter to rescue their master, and, in the process, save a young conflicted teenage boy from joining Shredder's ninja group.

The action sequences are not too bad considering how bulky those turtle costumes are. The violence is all pretty tame -- the Turtles whose usual weapons are swords seem to be constantly dropping them and fighting hand to hand. There's also a lot of what passes for witty reparte between the turtles as they fight and joke around. When Master Splinter asks the turtles to meditate, they put on "Tequila" and dance, shouting, instead of "Tequila!", "Ninjitsu!" at the appropriate times. They act like obnoxious teenagers -- they love pizza, and they are all in love with April O'Neil, who as played by Judith Hoag has a kind of older, mother-like quality that teenage boys would fall in love with immediately (as opposed to the girl-child quality of actresses like Winona Rider, which seems to appeal to older men). They say "excellent!" and "radical, dude!" and "rock on!" before settling on their now famous war cry, "Kowabunga!" All in all, the film seems to be the perfect entertainment for boys aged around 8-12, though it doesn't have much to keep the parents engaged.

And that's the age range that Ninja films stay at today. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie marks the end of the Ninja film for grownups and the beginning of the idea that ninjas are somehow only suitable for kids. Though on the face of it it's rather bizarre that in America we associate a deadly clan of assassins with kids entertainment. If one were to go looking for an explanation as to why this is the case, TMNT is where you would find it. TMNT was so successful at reaching its target audience, that older kids could no longer enjoy ninja stuff without feeling silly and childish. So ever since then, every ninja movie released in the states has had a name like Ninja Kids, Three Ninjas, Surf Ninjas, Beverly Hills Ninja, and no doubt coming soon Ninja at Home Alone and Three Ninjas and a baby. Perhaps Sho Kosugi, eighties ninja star, should host his own children's TV show, something like Mr. Kosugi's Neighborhood. At the start of each episode, he could stealthily creep into the house through a window, then change out of his ninja suit and put on a cardigan and loafers. Kowabunga, dude.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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