Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird introduced the world to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in 1984 with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1. Three years later, the comic – which had some blatant nods to Marvel’s Daredevil – would be turned into an animated show geared towards younger audiences. That’s when the franchise’s popularity became even bigger than the Technodrome. There were Ninja Turtles comics to read, a huge amount of merchandise to purchase, and animated episodes to watch. It was just a matter of time until the Heroes in a Half Shell appeared on the big screen, and that finally happened in 1990.
The franchise continues to be a household name several decades after it made its debut. A new movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, is on the way, and it’ll mark the live action debut of the fan-favorite duo Bebop and Rocksteady. But before those two goofy powerhouses appear in theaters, we want to look back on the first live action TMNT movie from 1990. Directed by Steve Barron, the comic book movie is clearly dated in some areas and there are of course some minor criticisms that could be made, but the film does hold up surprisingly well and it should be a great experience for any fan of the franchise. Not convinced?
Here are 10 Reasons Why the 1990 TMNT Movie Is Still Great.
10. Entertaining action
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is full of enjoyable action scenes. Are they sprinkled with sillier moments? Yes, but that’s part of the fun! The movie was made with kids in mind, and those lighthearted and goofy parts in the fights can also serve as a nice reminder that these mutated ninjas are still teenagers who have a lot of growing up to do. What’s really important is that the levity and silliness doesn’t overshadow everything else. As you probably already know, that can’t be said for the sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
Yes, there’s stuff in the 1990 movie like Donatello momentarily defeating a ninja by spitting water in his eye, but that doesn’t take away from things like Raphael attempting to hold his own against overwhelming odds, Casey Jones taking on the Foot, or the Heroes in a Half Shell finally confronting Shredder on a rooftop, just like they did in the very first comic. Picking apart and criticizing the fights would be easy, but at the end of the day, the action scenes are still a whole lot of fun; they’re a good mesh of comedic material and solid choreography from people in practical costumes. Is it up there with The Raid? Obviously not. But is it entertaining? Absolutely.
9. Comedy for kids and adults
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blended two different very incarnations of the franchise: the Mirage comic books and the cartoon, which was geared towards kids. While the Ninja Turtles have their signature personalities in Eastman and Laird’s comic, the animated show cranked up the comedy and focused on kid-friendly humor over everything else.
The 1990 movie does a good job blending the two styles of humor to deliver memorable bits of comedy for TMNT fans of any age. From slapstick gags to remarks that will only be appreciated by older viewers, there’s a number of legitimately funny moments scattered throughout the film: Michelangelo meeting a “fellow chucker”; Casey Jones misunderstanding the word “claustrophobic”; Mikey’s strict policy about late pizza; the cab driver’s reaction to Raphael. The list goes on and on. There’s a fair amount of slapstick material and catch phrases in here for kids to enjoy, but there’s also more than enough levity for older viewers to appreciate as well. “Ninja-kick the damn rabbit!”
8. Balances darkness and fun surprisingly well
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets surprisingly emotional at times. One minute they’re having a dance party, and the next minute Donatello is wondering what life would be like if their father was no longer around. Mikey had all of his attention on pizza, obviously, but the point remained: could they deal with the loss of their mentor? Coping with a loss plays a big role in this film – it happens to the Ninja Turtles twice. Splinter is abducted and chained by the Foot, and Raphael is incapacitated after suffering a major beating at the hands on their enemies.
There’s plenty of smile-inducing material in the movie, but the overall picture is much darker and far more emotional than the two live action movies that came after it. There’s pizza gags, catch phrases, and silly moments in the battles, but there’s also dealing with the potential loss of a parent and a sibling. It may not be the most compelling film around, but it sure offers more than pizza comments and kicking bad guys in the face.
7. Judith Hoag as April
Judith Hoag is April O’Neil. From the comic book character’s frizzy hair to the cartoon character’s passion as an investigative reporter, Hoag’s performance is a good mix of the two prominent versions of April (at the time, that is). Her dynamic with the Ninja Turtles is friendly, not creepy, and she had great chemistry with Elias Koteas’ Casey Jones.
The movie also gave her career a fair amount of attention without allowing it to get in the way of time spent with the Ninja Turtles; her desire to unveil the truth successfully adds to the bigger picture instead of coming off as just blatant exposition. Not only does she get her job back after being fired, but she’s also able to become the highest paid reporter in the city. Not shabby at all, April. Plus, you have to give her credit for the way she attempted to hold off a group of hostile ninjas in the subway. She completely failed (to be fair, she was seriously outclassed), but at least she tried to put up a fight!
6. A message about the importance of family
There’s more to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than just mutations, one-liners, and ninja action. Those may be the things that initially get people interested in the franchise (and what it’s best known for), but family is what the team’s really all about. Whether it’s getting into a conflict with a new eccentric, mutant villain or giving one member of the team a little more insight, the theme of family always plays a role – or at least it should. With the Ninja Turtles, it’s about sticking together, no matter how bleak the odds may be and no matter how drastically different your personality may be from the other people you care about.
The importance of this bond is made crystal clear in the movie numerous times, especially through speeches from Master Splinter and how the group responds to the harsh beating of their brother. Not only does the film shine a spotlight on the dynamics between the four brothers and their father, but it also further drives this message home with its portrayal of the Foot Clan.
5. Stealth isn’t forgotten
“We strike hard and fade away into the night!” The Ninja Turtles’ abilities as, you know, ninjas, are sometimes forgotten. That’s understandable, since the franchise often needs to balance comedy and these characters are usually still mastering their abilities, but, thankfully, stealth isn’t something the 1990 movie forgot. Barron’s movie remembers to display just how sneaky these vigilantes can be when they really want to put their training to good use.
While the movie does have a ton of lighthearted material during the fight sequences and the way the four brothers interact, the Heroes in a Half Shell make their debut in a scene that’s all about their ability to attack in the darkness and vanish before being spotted by their enemies. Their training later comes in handy when they need to hide from two humans in April’s apartment as well. Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo may not always be presented as the most tactical and talented fighters around in the movie, but there’s certainly moments that give the popular characters proper credit.
4. Elias Koteas as Casey Jones
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does an amazing job bringing the brutal vigilante Casey Jones to life. Thanks to a faithful costume design and actor Elias Koteas’ amusing performance, the first live action version of Casey Jones is unforgettable. (Good luck following this act as the second live action Jones, Stephen Amell!)
While the original animated version of Jones was hilariously over-the-top and offered non-stop puns in his first appearance, Koteas’ version feels way more grounded and relatable. His mission stays true to the comics – as does a good portion of his design – but he doesn’t always come off as an intimidating vigilante. His guard is lowered a few times, and Koteas handles those scenes very well.
The movie makes it obvious that Casey isn’t someone you’d want to fight, but it also develops him without really getting in the way of the story with the Turtles and the Foot. It’s a shame Koteas never had the chance to exclaim “goongala” – which is Casey Jones’ catch phrase from the comics – during a fight, but we’ll forgive the movie for that since everything else with the character is so enjoyable.
3. Very faithful to the source material
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows the comic series and the animated show a lot of love. Changes to the story are, of course, made along the way, but any fan of the franchise can see just how many nods the film’s narrative gives to the other incarnations.
A noticeable chunk of the story is blatantly inspired by what came before it, yet it doesn’t come off feeling like a warmed-over retelling due to small changes which are made throughout the story. So many pivotal moments are pulled from the franchise’s history. A turtle is severely injured by the Foot; April’s building was set ablaze after a fight; the heroes fled the city to recover at April’s country house; Casey is introduced by fighting Raphael; a rooftop showdown with Shredder ended with the villain suffering a dishonorable defeat; Master Splinter mimicked his master’s martial arts moves! We really could go on and on, but we think you get the point by now.
It’s understandable there wasn’t room for stuff like the Triceratons, Fugitoid, or Utroms, but it’s looking like one of those aliens may make an appearance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows…
2. This isn’t just Raphael and Leonardo’s show
Sometimes TMNT stories can have trouble balancing each of the recognizable brothers. After all, successfully juggling the four heroes, Splinter, a couple of humans, and the villains can’t be the easiest task around for a 90 minute movie. For example, the 2007 animated movie, TMNT, focused heavily on the dynamic between Leonardo and Raphael, and this left Michelangelo and Donatello in the dust.
Despite the 1990 movie being an origin story that also balances the villain organization and a few human leads, each of the Ninja Turtles receive a noticeable amount of attention, and each one absolutely has a standout moment or two. Raphael certainly earns a little more of the spotlight than the others do, but his story doesn’t overshadow what’s going on with Donnie, Mikey, and Leo. In fact, his story generated a way to give the others a little more insight. How they cope with Raphael’s injury offered yet another look at how each of them are so very different, and this even created some really delightful dynamics (e.g. Donnie bonding with Casey; Casey attempting to flirt with April).
1. The practical costumes & character designs
There’s a lot of criticism surrounding the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie reboot. From the generic story to the lack of time with the Ninja Turtles, there really is no short supply of negative comments floating around about the film. However, one complaint is the most common, and to some, it’s the most important one: the character designs. In the new reboot, the Ninja Turtles have undergone drastic changes to both their physique and attire.
The 1990 movie doesn’t have that problem – not at all! The only noteworthy difference is their height; they’re quite short in the comics, and in the film they’re around the same height as humans. Aside from that, everything else is spot on. The Ninja Turtles are instantly recognizable as the classic characters. Casey Jones looks just like Casey Jones. Master Splinter is recreated superbly. Shredder is heavily inspired by his comic book counter-part.
It’s obvious that a lot of respect was given to the source material when creating these designs and, thankfully, the Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Aside from a few lip syncing issues, the creations still look solid. Some of the slang, styles, and music may be noticeably dated, but the practical costumes sure do hold up.
A few other reasons the original TMNT still rocks:
- Partners in Kryme (“T-U-R-T-L-E power!”)
- Sam Rockwell (“Regular or menthol?”)
- MC Hammer (“This is what we do!”)
- Some of the cinematography (Shredder’s big entrance!)
Those are just 10 of the reasons why we think the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is still great… if you’re a fan of the franchise, of course! What do you think about the first live action TMNT film?