Heroes & Villains: Cowabunga! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Turns 30

You know, it’s pretty fitting that the first week without comics would just so happen to fall on April Fools Day. As it stands now I’m rationing last week’s haul of comics to keep me entertained until new books start to trickle out again…and when stores are open.

With all that said, I’m keeping myself busy with work, not sleeping, and clenching my jaw when I do sleep. It’s safe to say that I’m in desperate need of distraction of the comic variety. When I was scrolling through Twitter on Monday I just so happened to see a tweet pointing out it was the 30th anniversary of a particularly excellent comic book movie!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Cinematic comic masterpiece, Hollywood cash-in, or something in the middle?

At the time the larger questions didn’t even occur to me, I was much more concerned with the fact that a LIVE ACTION TMNT movie was coming the summer after Bat-mania swept the country. Better still, the Turtles were to be brought to life by Jim Henson’s creature shop. It was safe to say this movie was on track to be the biggest event of my life, up until that point.

The fact that the movie was being realized with guys in suits, animatronics, and actual actors instead of a slightly better-animated version of what was on TV every day was mind-boggling. I’d like to see Transformers do THAT. Subsequently, Transformers done did that in 2007 and I wished I hadn’t seen that.

The hype for this movie was unbearable. The very first teaser poster for the movie depicted the four Turtles peeking out from a manhole cover and showed just enough of them to confirm that they looked real. Beyond that, as a card-carrying member of the TMNT fan club, I received occasional club newsletters (I got two, maybe three tops) which were essentially ‘zines printed on green paper and between 4 and 6 pages long. It may not sound like much but it gave me my first look at a promo shot from the movie in poorly xeroxed form.

Following that, Good Morning America, Today, or some other garbage morning talk show was to premier an executive clip to ratchet up the hype some more. On the morning in question and I took my sweet time getting ready to go to school so I could catch a glimpse of the movie. Details on if I did or did not see the clip have been lost to time but one thing that I am sure of is that me waiting for the clip made me late for school that day. No risk, no reward, right?

As the release date neared, I’m sure that I was talking about the movie incessantly. This worked in my favour because my mother arranged to take me out of school on Friday, March 30th, 1990 to go and see the movie DURING THE DAY. I’m not sure what kind of Faustian bargain I had to strike with my mother or if it was just something she did to be cool.

The local multiplex (TEN SCREENS) had painted the windows in the lobby above the box office with all four of the Turtles. This was something they did for most major event movies, not paint the Turtles but rather something related to the movie being promoted. At any rate, I don’t recall the theatre being very packed at 11 AM on a Friday in March… I was too busy having my MIND BLOWN.

The movie was heavily inspired by the original Mirage comics which I had grown familiar with after graduating from the cartoon and Archie produced comics that were based on the cartoon. Hindsight being what it is, I was probably a bit too young to be reading the Mirage books and it turned me into a proto-hipster at a very young age. I was able to dispense knowledge on the playground along the lines of “Well actually, Splinter was always a mutated rat and NOT a human mutated INTO a rat like on the cartoon.” I was very popular.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mirrored the dark and gritty tone of Batman ‘89 (which was odd since it was being filmed when that movie hit theatres) but without any of Burton’s weird flourishes. It was still a PG movie that had its target demographic squarely in its sights but wasn’t completely unwatchable by the parents that were dragged along. I can still recall my friend’s mom sleeping through 1986’s Transformers: The Movie.

It’s safe to say that the movie wasn’t a critical darling but it made a ton of money, sold action figures, other merchandise, and most importantly entertained the hell out of me. Of course, sequels followed which taught me about the law of diminishing returns. Secret of the Ooze is definitely more kid-friendly and cartoony but still watchable. The third entry Turtles in Time came out right about the time I was claiming I was too old for ninjas and turtles (spoiler: you’re never too old for either) The movie had also used a different non-Henson Creature Shop to produce the animatronics which resulted in a noticeable dip in quality.

So here we are, 30 years on and amazingly the movie still holds up. Much like the 1978 Superman, it was probably the best big-screen representation of the characters and one they’ve been trying to duplicate for the last few decades (is it weird that we’ve all seemed to have collectively forgotten about the Bay TMNT movies for a few years ago? Those totally happened, right?). Personally, I was hoping we’d be treated to a remastered Blu-ray release of the movie this year but that has yet to materialize.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is streaming on the US Netflix RIGHT NOW. Order a pizza and check it out to escape from the world for a bit.

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