Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

Cowabunga, dudes! Kev reviews the totally radical and bodacious movie that follows four pizza eating turtles and a giant rat taking on a metal faced baddie. Narly!

Comic artists, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early 80’s. Costing $1,200 they self-published the first issue on April 1st 1984. Initially the idea started off when Eastman doodled a turtle holding a pair of nuchaku. Peter Laird saw the potential in this and together they worked hard on evolving the character designs and a back story that would not only flesh them out but also make fun of several successful comic book character’s origin stories.

The first sales were huge. With only 3,000 copies originally printed, it sold out faster than the creators had expected. The premise of four crime fighting turtles named after Renaissance artists who fought on the streets against a formidable enemy became a concept that would continue to evolve many years later.

The adventures of Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo made its transition to animation in 1987. The series strayed away somewhat from the original comic book and introduced both old and new foes. The bloody violence was gone and the darker tone of the comic was virtually non-existent. Despite this, the show was popular with children but fans of the original comic were left a little disappointed. The original series continued to run until 1996 with a total of 194 episodes.

In 1997 a live-action spin off was made that introduced a female turtle…. It lasted only one season. In 2003 a brand new cartoon series surfaced. This time it would re-visit the original comic story and remain more faithful to its ideas and characters. Currently it is still in production.

So successful was the original series, a toyline was also formed. By the late 80’s the franchise had become phenomenal and kiddies were pestering their parents for the latest figures.

In 1989, production began on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. Golden Harvest headed up by producer, Raymond Chow produced this independent, live-action/adventure shortly after the cartoon series had made its first run on Television. New Line Cinema had acquired the distribution rights for the film that many disgruntled critics referred to as a shameless ploy to sell more toys. That may be the case but regardless of its intentions it turned out to be a surprisingly faithful and dark adaptation of Eastman and Laird’s original work. The film hit cinemas on March 30th 1990 and became one of the biggest independent movies of all time.

The story takes place in New York City where a new series of escalating robberies are taking place. Channel 3 News reporter, April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) has been covering these crimes, believing them to be the work of an organisation who once carried out the same tasks in Japan a few years ago. After finishing her latest broadcast one evening, she is stopped on her way home and attacked after witnessing a robbery take place by a gang of youths. From the shadows, a mysterious stranger comes to her rescue and leaves the gang tied up for the police to take care of.

Her rescuer is Raphael, the short-tempered brother of a family of mutated turtles who live in the sewer. After losing one of his Sais in the fight that evening he decides to track down April in a bid to get it back.

April expresses her views on the city’s state to police chief, Ross Sterns (Raymond Serra) who refuses to listen to her even though she believes she is onto a major lead regarding the criminals who are known as “The Foot Clan”. Meanwhile, Raphael is walking by the park when he stops two thieves from stealing an elderly woman’s bag. They are chased into the park where a vigilante called Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) tries to teach them a violent lesson. Raphael intervenes, resulting in a brawl between himself and Casey.

On her way back home, April is again attacked, this time in the subway station. Trying to defend herself with the sai she found the previous evening she soon loses but it is picked up by Raphael who now comes out of hiding to fight the clan who are threatening her. Beating them, he takes April to his home in the sewers after seeing her lay unconscious.

After waking up she is greeted by Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash), a talking four foot rat who proceeds to tell her the origins of himself and his four “sons” – the calm and graceful Leonardo, the technical wizkid Donatello, the playful Michelangelo and finally Raphael, the hot-headed and ill-tempered turtle who struggles to control his emotions.

Upon making new friends, she invites them to her apartment for dinner. However, upon their return home to the sewers they discover that master splinter has been kidnapped after a foot soldier had followed Raphael back the previous evening. The turtles vow to rescue him, with the help of their new friends, April and Casey. Together they hunt down “The Foot” and their leader, The Shredder (James Saito) who shares a long history with Splinter.

Of late there have been many comic book adaptations – some of which have worked, others have not but many people seem to forget about this one. As far as comic book adaptations go, this is very close to the original. Unlike the cartoon series that tweaked the characters and their history, this one goes back to the beginning and deals with them as they were originally explored. The movie was shot with a clear respect for the original source material. As mentioned previously, this may be a further marketing scheme but at least it’s one that does justice to Eastman and Laird’s original vision. For all the lousy game/cartoon franchises to make the transition to celluloid at least this one does it properly.

Obviously there are limitations for this kind of film. Where the comic is extremely violent with lashings of blood, the film is toned down to accommodate a family audience. The film is no less violent though and such was its content that it caused much fuss between parents and critics who started to blame it for influencing school fights amongst young children who would mimic the turtles’ actions. A few cases of accidents surfaced and again various media groups were unfairly holding the film responsible. The same controversy would arise later with the advent of The Power Rangers, another series that although was popular with children it couldn’t escape the bloated faces of the hammiest critics and old fashioned parents, who seemed to forget that back in the day Tom and Jerry and Road Runner were equally or more so violent than the shows we were seeing in the late 80’s to early 90’s.

The biggest issue in making the film though was bringing to life the comic heroes. With CGI technology still being dabbled with it was down to traditional methods. Jim Henson’s creature workshop was given the difficult task of constructing the suits that would play a huge part in the film. Using the latest in animatronic technology they finally constructed some of the most lifelike creatures seen on film.

With the actors in their suits it made for a challenging shooting process. The film features several key fight scenes that are expertly performed by the stunt doubles. Fighting in these suits can’t have been easy and it is surprising to see how well the effort paid off.
Today the turtles themselves are not without their flaws but they still hold up very well and retain a sense of realism that you don’t always get from CGI animated characters. They have impressive muscle definition and their facial movements are courtesy of intricate mechanisms built inside the heads. Mouth movements are not always in sync but that can’t be blamed, as it was new technology that was still in its infancy. Nevertheless it looks good and the budget is justified when you see the final results.

As difficult as some might believe, the film works well on an emotional level. There are a couple occasions that see the turtle’s face their insecurities and if you can achieve that with animatronic puppets then you’re onto a good thing indeed. The movie still has its fare share of awkward dialogue and ropey acting but it also has plenty of decent lines that make for a lot of fun to be had. The cast on the whole look as if they are really enjoying themselves, each actor getting into his/her character with ease.

For some reason the bulk of this film’s criticisms from fans of the cartoon is that that the film isn’t like the cartoon. Well no, of course it isn’t. It’s based on the comic book and so script-wise the changes are already apparent. It stays simple in terms of storytelling but its darker nature seems to divide opinions. For those who have seen the cartoon and expect the film to be the same, you will be shocked. The only thing it manages to retain are the heroes and main villain and some of the worst “cool” catchphrases ever.

Perhaps the only thing to have dated horribly during the course of the fourteen years since the film’s debut is the cringeworthy dialogue that comes from the heroes. I don’t know what cowabunga means and even when I was a kid I never said “narly” or “radical”. These are as confusing to me today as they were back then and so the occasional moments where we see the turtles enjoy a little wordplay session come across as being tedious rather than enjoyable but at least it’s not every five minutes that we’re subjected to these hideous sayings.

The soundtrack consists predominantly of rap and light dance music from artists M.C. Hammer, Hi Tek 3, Spunkadelic and Partners in Kryme to name a few. It’s harmless enough from a time when groups like Technotronic were selling big time, but not particularly memorable unless you remember Partners in Kryme’s, “T-U-R-T-L-E Power”, which made the number 1 chart position when released back in 1990. The film works better during the moments that John Du Prez’s score takes over.


Medusa Pictures present Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles uncut for the first time in the U.K. Scenes featuring Michelangelo using his nunchaku have been re-instated.


Digitally remastered and presented in Anamorphic 1.85:1, the film has probably never looked better. Skin tones appear natural and black levels are very good considering much of the film is made up of night-time scenes. Detail is also exceptional, although there is noticeable grain throughout but nothing that borders on distracting.

There are also optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing. Generally good but there is the occasional hiccup, for example: When Raphael says that he lost a sai, it is translated as scythe.


Dolby Digital 5.1 is on offer here. The sound has been well reproduced on DVD. Spatial sounds like trickling water in the sewers can be heard in the background and the score has more punch to it when the action elevates.


For a film such as this it would have been nice to see more of an effort being put into its release. Still, it’s a budget release. All we get are these:

Promotional Archive
First up is a newly edited trailer from Medusa Pictures, much in the styling of previous releases from them and Hong Kong Legends.

Original Theatrical Trailer – The original trailer. Interestingly this shows clips from the film and dialogue, prior to it’s re-dubbing of the four turtles and Shredder.

TV Spots
Four 30 second TV spots for the U.K theatrical re-release.

Press Interview
A completely pointless feature that doesn’t amuse in the slightest. A supposed text interview with the ninja turtles, it’s not worth bothering with. If Medusa Pictures wanted to fill up DVD space then they should have tried to get something more worthwhile like “making of” footage.

Further Attractions
Trailers for Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, The Swordsman, Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon, Iron Monkey: Platinum Edition, Musa The Warrior, Bang Rajan and Bichunmoo.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a film that successfully cashes in on a long running franchise while staying true to its origins. Still providing a lot of fun today for kids and adults it’s just a shame that the DVD release couldn’t have been better rounded off with more worthy features. Maybe next time, Medusa?

Kevin Gilvear

Updated: Apr 18, 2004

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