It is odd to think that not that many years ago, a successful comic book adaptation film was considered unusual. While there had been some exceptions, like 1977’s Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve, it was not until the monumental success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 that it seemed like comic book movies might have a future. One of the single most successful movies of that wave of comic book movies is currently streaming on HBO Max, but is leaving at the end of June. So if you want to revisit 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie and witness the bizarre contradictions of this film, you need to get on it quickly.
Firstly, it is worth noting that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not just one of the most successful comic book movies ever at the box office (grossing over $200 million off an astonishingly tiny $13.5 million budget), it was also the highest-ever grossing independent movie at the time. Reportedly, distribution for the film was not secured for the film until it was already mid-production, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop had already been working on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves for weeks. But nothing about this very weird, oddly fun movie is traditional.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was primarily produced by the Hong Kong production company Golden Harvest (far more known for Enter the Dragon and Jackie Chan films than family entertainment), and every distributor from Disney to Warner Bros to Paramount to Columbia turned down the movie. That alone is pretty odd, considering that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property was well-established in pop culture by that point, beginning as an independent comic by Peter Eastman and Kevin Laird, then transitioning into a very successful toy line and children’s cartoon. Eventually, the still-nascent New Line Cinema (best known for the Nightmare on Elm Street horror series at the time) took a chance on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Audiences across the world followed. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a tonally bizarre film, opening on an aerial shot of New York City and a news broadcast by April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) describing the mysterious crime wave. It could be the beginning of a 1970s-era Charles Bronson urban vengeance film, up to and including April being attacked in the middle of a dark, garbage-filled street. Then Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo (he’s a party dude), and Raphel show up to save the day and then jaunt back down to the series to upbeat synth-pop while cracking jokes. THEN Splinter turns things grave and mysterious with words of advice to his adoptive sons about staying in the shadows, plus also comes off as really, really leaning into Asian stereotyping.
But the weirdness does not end there for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Foot Clan has essentially formed a child of New York child thieves and delinquents (in what looks like a dry run for Steven Spielberg’s Hook) that Shredder trains into an army of ninjas for unclear reasons. Elia Koteas plays an ex-hockey player/janitor/vigilante who uses hockey sticks to beat pickpockets, plus has a love-hate relationship with April that is explicitly described as Moonlighting-like, because the turtles rarely stop cracking very topical jokes.
It would be easy to simply say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a children’s movie, and of course, has a lot of goofy jokes. But if this is a children’s movie, why is there a giant rat crucified and clearly severely beaten that is returned to again and again? Why is there a love triangle that involves two people that have been dead for decades? Why is Sam Rockwell there?
In truth, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is weird because the entire concept of the franchise is weird: an over-the-top parody of a gritty Frank Miller comics that got turned into a brightly colored cartoon involving aliens and then back into an oddly grim, violent, just cheerful hit movie. There truly is nothing like it. It is even difficult to say whether Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie is a good film or not, (critics said no, fans said yes) it so rapidly changes what it appears to be from moment to moment. But it is well worth watching, while you still can.