They’re lean, green, and according to the censors just a little obscene. Cowabunga prudes!
We all had that one phenomenon that we couldn’t resist as a child, that pop-culture juggernaut that went for the jugular and bled us dry like some kind of commercial vampire. And we loved it. For me, it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which, above all else, was the thing that every 8-12 year-old boy (it seemed at the time that this was predominantly a boy thing ― I didn’t know any girls who were into it) went absolutely nuts for. The parents? Not so much. But we’ll get into adult concerns about all of this later.
The Turtles began life as an independently produced comic series by new writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who first bonded as teens over their love for legendary comic artist and writer Jack Kirby and then went on to help out with each other’s comic strips. They then formed Mirage Studios (a name that was all too true: the ‘studio’ was actually just their houses) and, one day when they set each other a challenge to make the other laugh with a new comic design, Eastman drew a masked, anthropomorphic turtle armed with nunchaku and their amusement over this totally gonzo creation sowed the seeds of a phenomenon.
The two would then self-publish the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a thrilling, starkly monochrome story that wasted no time in throwing us into a story of four genetically mutated, subterranean, ninjitsu-trained, adolescent reptiles ― Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo – who seek revenge against organised crime boss The Shredder who, back in Japan, killed the master (and his wife) of their sensei, who has also undergone mutation, having grown from a pet rat into the wise, man-size father-figure Splinter. Turtles #1 would sell out all of its 3,275 copies within days, with huge demand for issue 2 a total inevitability. At the same time, licensing agent Mark Freedman was looking for a property that he could adapt into a toy line ― with the Turtles he felt there was something worth exploring, and with struggling Hong Kong toy manufacturer Playmates adoring the property and snapping up the proposal, the rocky road to success began.
There were plenty of artistic and commercial obstacles to surmount after all, such as no one on Earth considering a turtle, even one that was teenage, mutated or martial-arts equipped, heroic or marketable on any level. Then there were the pejorative, violent connotations of the word ‘ninja’, and even the fear that the colour green wasn’t a commercially sure thing. Then there was the necessity of toning down the vicious, vengeful content of the comic to make it more palatable to kids, which meant amping up the humour, the fun-factor, the visual palette (as well as ditching the monochrome, each turtle would also be assigned an identifiable colour, as opposed to the uniform red they sported on the front covers of the comic) and adding in tons more irreverence and memorable catchphrases. Oh, and also getting rid of their tails, which looked far too much like penises when seen in toy form.
Also, given that the comic was too gonzo and left-field to cross over into the mainstream, the toys needed a more accessible form of content to promote them, which is where the 1987 animated cartoon came into being, in the form of a 5-episode mini-season. The Turtles’ personalities were as follows: Leonardo the noble, fearless leader, Raphael the smart-ass joker (his angry side in the comic substantially curtailed), Donatello the enthusiastic tech geek, and Michelangelo the, like, totally surfer-dude party animal of the group. A ‘turtle for every kid’, in other words. Oh, and now they all were borderline-addicted to pizza, and who but the lactose intolerant couldn’t relate to that? Their homicidal tendencies were severely curbed by making all of Shredder’s Foot soldiers robotic instead of flesh and blood. Plus, there was a supremely catchy theme song, co-written by Chuck Lorre, who would later hit the jackpot when he created Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
Splinter: The little ones were crawling into a strange glowing ooze from a broken canister nearby. I gathered them up in an old coffee can and when I awoke the next morning, I received a shock. For they had doubled in size. I, too, was growing. Particularly in intellect. I was amazed by how intelligent they seemed, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened next: one of them spoke.
With Toys-R-Us promoting the toys throughout the latter-half of 1988, and the first season continuing to pick up major attention around the same time, by the time the second season arrived, Turtlemania was at fever pitch. Like The Simpsons, the Turtles are still around, but 1990 was when both shows were at their most enormous (100 million Turtles toys sold in that year alone) and maybe even a little bit dangerous. On one hand you had Matt Groening’s show, which was once seen as a subversive, worrying endorsement for dysfunction, rebellion and sass, whereas parents and politicians feared the bodies and minds of kids everywhere once they saw four amphibian vigilantes kick all kinds of arse.
Okay, so I was probably into The Real Ghostbusters even more, but to be honest that was already quite a few years old and not everyone was as into it as I felt like I was ― on the other hand, Turtles was the phenomenon that was utterly now, utterly exciting and totally/turtle-y impossible to resist. My first exposure to it was pretty innocuous ― Children’s BBC were making a big deal of this new big show – this was the first I’d heard of it, yet weirdly this episode, which I was certain was the first time the show had been broadcast in the UK, didn’t feel like a first episode. For one thing, it was called ‘Return of the Shredder’, and I was like, ‘Return? When did he go away?’ and the episode was making a hell of a lot of references to things that had already happened. I didn’t care though. I loved it. The action. The humour. The colours. The wild, crazy characters ― talking turtles, talking rats, a villain covered in metal, sharp armour, a goddamn BRAIN in a robot suit… yeah, this was my kinda thing. And it would continue to be my kind of thing ― the whole of this season was immensely entertaining, and yet it wasn’t the first season. It was the second. And that explains why ‘Return of the Shredder’ came across as a bit confusing ― it’s because there was, before that, the five-episode debut season that, to the best of my knowledge, was never screened in the UK. All that you could see of it here was a heavily condensed, feature-length edit called ‘How it All Began’ on VHS tape.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the Turtles show was arriving onto British shores in heavily compromised form. That first season was notably edgier, more weapon-friendly and violent than what followed, and given that UK censors were not at all happy with a show aimed at kids that essentially made playing around with exotic, nasty looking weapons look exceptionally cool (especially those nunchaku), the first season was instead bastardised into this ‘How It All Began’ abomination and the UK ended up having to play catch-up by starting with the brighter and more broadly comic (as in ‘funny’ ― the Turtles were performing in a carnival by the third episode) season 2.
Of course, the most obvious example of censorship the film suffered was in its title ― you see, I’ve been referring to it as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles up until now, but the cartoon was re-branded Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles here, and this extended to a new version of the title song being recorded, every image of nunchaku removed and almost all references to ‘ninja’ crudely edited. Hey, we were kids, the censors must have thought, they won’t notice. And in that pre-internet era, a lot of us didn’t. That was, of course, until the inevitable big-screen adaptation, which retained the Ninja here in the UK, and made viewers like me wonder what was up with the name change. However, that was the only instance where the film would remain unscathed in relation to its animated counterpart. Elsewhere, the snips and cuts were deployed with as much brutality as when The Shredder sliced off Splinter’s ear. The film would remain cut in the UK until 2003, by which time national hysteria over all things ninja had calmed down. Again, I didn’t know anything about all those cuts (a whopping 1 minute and 51 seconds worth), so I didn’t know I’d have anything to complain about, and besides, I loved the film anyway.
It was absolutely everything I wanted from a TV-to-cinema adaptation ― just like 1987’s Masters of the Universe, there was something utterly thrilling about how much more real this all felt. Although elements of the cartoon remained, these characters now felt like they were closer to reality than ever before. Add to that the more palpable threat of violence, the darker visuals, the equally dark story (definitely closer in line with the comics) and especially the lack of reassuring elements that we viewers already knew and loved (the theme tune, Krang, Rocksteady/Bebop)… it all made for an experience at once accessible yet thrillingly unfamiliar.
This was a thrilling alternative to the TV show, which, it could be argued, was already becoming a little too routine (even Shredder was bemoaning such repetition with his ‘they’ve escaped again, this is getting very monotonous!’ line at the end of season 2), while the storylines were getting sillier and sillier, with New York regularly under attack by all sorts of far-out situations, including a 50ft woman and anti-gravity devices. Although the comic featured literally out-of-this-world plot lines, it had still kept a degree of edge to proceedings. It was now time for the Turtles to get back to the streets, back to basics, to bring back that edge. Directed by Steve Barron, whose music video CV remains one of the absolute best ever (‘Take on Me’, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Don’t You Want Me’, to name just three), co-produced by legendary Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest and with live-action Turtles created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would, for a while, become the most successful independent film of all time.
Its excellent opening sequence gets down to business immediately, establishing that New York is really going to the dogs with an anything-goes crime wave. It was just one of many films I watched as a child that made me as scared of New York as much as it excited me. This is the kind of world where, if you miss the underground train (think the opening titles of The Equalizer for a perfect distillation of this fear), the platform becomes suddenly terrifyingly empty and leaves you at the mercy of street gangs. Extremely elaborate methods of pick-pocketing go hand in hand with larger-scale thievery such as the nabbing of TV sets and van deliveries, and they’re being performed with such slickness that there haven’t been any eyewitnesses. It turns out that those responsible are teenage runaways, one of whom ― Danny ― is someone we’ll get to know more of later. They’re all being groomed into joining a ninja clan known as The Foot, headed by the fearsome Shredder.
April O’ Neil (Judith Hoag) is the plucky, brave reporter who’s in trouble with her boss because she’s openly accusing the police and City Hall of not doing anything to deal with the crime wave. Stumbling onto a burglary after work just as it’s taking place lands her in immediate danger, but she’s saved by a mysterious gang of heroes, who we don’t get to see because the lamplight’s just been smashed by a strange looking weapon, with the melee occurring in total darkness. By the time the scene’s been illuminated, all the hoodlums have been tied up and the heroes have disappeared. Where? Underground, and one of them is upset to realise that one of his weapons ― the sai ― has been left behind and picked up secretly by a curious April. This ends a rather splendid opening sequence, where we don’t see the heroes yet (aside from a few flickering shards of light) and our eagerness to see the title stars in their new cinematic form is amped up.
Donatello: You’re a claustrophobic.
Casey Jones: You want a fist in the mouth? I’ve never even looked at another guy before.
When we do see them in the title sequence, even today, the results are amazing. They’re miracles of costuming and character, totally believable. It’s easy to take for granted how much this element of the film contributes to the success. If done wrong, we could have had another Garbage Pail Kids Movie on our hands. It turns out that this was their first battle, and aside from Raphael losing his sai, it was an unqualified success. They’re still kids of course, and have a lot to learn from their rodent sensei Splinter. They’re impetuous, goofy, love junk food and in the case of Raphael, very prone to anger and violence. The Turtles live and hide beneath the streets, in the sewers; their ‘domain is in the shadows’, and when one of the Foot tracks them down to their lair after they save April from an intense subway attack, their safety becomes severely compromised, with Splinter kidnapped and the Turtles now the target of the Shredder.
A spectacular assault on the foursome leaves our heroes defeated and forced to abandon the city to April’s farm, along with hockey-mask wearing vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), the kind of lunkhead who calls women ‘broadzilla’ and ‘toots’, and although he inevitably wins April over in the end, he at least gets cut down to size plenty of times beforehand. At the farm, the Turtles heal their wounds, both physical and mental, before returning to the city for a major, classic showdown on a rooftop, with identities revealed (The Shredder is the nefarious Oroku Saki, who murdered Splinter’s owner Hamato Yoshi and his beloved back in Japan) and scores finally settled. With bad guys either dead or arrested, all that’s left is to party down. Cue credits and Partners in Kryme’s enormous #1 hit ‘TURTLE Power’, which for a 9-year old like me, was the absolute goddamn JAM.
I left the cinema absolutely exhilarated and convinced I’d just seen the best film ever (to be fair, I think I did this with every film I’d seen on the big screen around this time) and my Turtles obsession had just gone up a notch. It wouldn’t end there ― the TV show would continue to rock my world, and I’d continue to read the comics (not the Eastman/Laird originals, but a new wave), the annuals and the story books, collect the trading cards, the sticker collection and the medals, play the arcade game (along with The Simpsons, my fave coin-op of all time), the handhelds and the home video games, buy and consume the official tie-in pizzas and even fashion my own Technodrome shuttles (as seen in the cartoon) from used 2ltr plastic bottles. As you can see, it was an an all-encompassing phenomenon ― the film was just one part of it, but it was a major one.
It’s really great in this day and age to see a comic book movie that clocks in at such a swift running time, and, despite the darkness, relative edginess and drama (there’s some very earnest dialogue), also never loses sight of the fun-factor. The craziness of the plot, best exemplified by the first flashback to how the Turtles and Splinter became mutated, is beautifully dealt with by simply telling it direct and swiftly, not wasting time by trying to go into the whys and hows (like, where the mutagen that transformed them came from, although this is explained in the comic and this film’s sequel).
Surprisingly, considering how utterly contemporary it was back then, it hasn’t actually dated that much. Maybe it helps that the Turtles are still, even today, a viable presence in children’s pop culture, but aside from some nods to Moonlighting, Wayne Gretzky and a few others, there’s nothing here that today’s kids won’t be bemused by. The four Turtles have wonderful, natural chemistry and are engagingly voiced (by different actors to the people in the costumes) ― they might be closer in character to the comic in that they aren’t as blatantly, separately identifiable in personality (though the colour scheme that the toys and cartoon introduced remains), but to me that felt like a good thing – it made them feel more real instead of overt cartoon characters. They just feel like a regular bunch of teenage friends, prone to squabbles (especially Raphael), joking around (Donatello and Michelangelo have a kinda double act thing going on) and ultimately forced towards adulthood by the threat towards their family and safety. Throughout, Leonardo is the de facto leader: the responsible, focused energy the four as a whole desperately need.
As for when the Turtles get to kick some Foot, the fight scenes are pretty extraordinary considering that the film had to be shot at a slower speed to compensate for the cumbersomeness of the costumes. Given they’re interacting with non-costumed actors during these combat scenes, the effect is utterly seamless. The violence itself? Well it’s pretty visceral and when deployed by the Foot, quite threatening, but for the most part it’s all delivered in a cartoonish way. There’s no blood (unless you count Splinter’s facial wounds as he’s imprisoned) and nobody dies until the very end. I can see why maybe censors were worried about the weapon fetishism though ― us kids really did want one or more of the Turtles’ weapons back then. One moment completely eradicated by the BBFC, the ‘fellow chucker’ scene where Michelangelo and a Foot soldier trade off nunchaku moves, was something I would have thought supremely cool as a kid. Which I guess is the reason they cut it. Of course, we weren’t stupid ― I wasn’t looking to actually acquire a goddamn set of sai or a katana. I mean, those things could kill. I didn’t want them anymore than I wanted a gun.
Regarding the depiction of a criminal element, well that was quite fascinating to me as a child ― young Danny for example isn’t stealing because he needs this stuff, it’s the pure and simple act of rebellion that’s the reason. That and of course, he’s alienated from his well-meaning dad, who is also April’s boss. The warehouse where all the kids hang out did seem like a really exciting, dangerous place to go to back then, with adolescents lured into a world where ‘anything you want to do, do it’ (spoken by Sam Rockwell in his film debut, by the way!), where you can smoke cigars, eat and drink trash, play arcades, skateboard and, if you’re into this world seriously, train to be a fully-fledged member of the Foot, who are not, as April reassures us ‘a funky club for podiatrists’. It was a bit like being one of The Lost Boys (which I would have seen for the first time not long after seeing this at the cinema), except the cave is a warehouse.
The ninja element is the real focus of this operation, with teens fighting each other and learning the brutal truths of being a bad-ass (‘never lower your eyes to an enemy’ says deputy villain Tatsu to a kid he kicks in the face ― obviously he’s watched The Man with the Golden Gun too). Yet there’s also a serious respect for the ninja ways (‘money cannot buy the honour you have earned tonight’, Shredder says to a new recruit), and talk of effort, loyalty, discipline. It’s a clever move ― luring in the kids who are ‘here because the outside world rejects you’ with sin and vice, before training them to become his warriors.
Michaelangelo: God, I LOVE *BEING A TURTLE*!
Shredder is a pretty awesome presence. Making his animated equivalent look tiny in comparison, he gets not one, but two fantastic introductions. The first is who the pretty damned ominous moment when he throws a knife into one of the television screens that April is on and then demands to his followers that she be ‘silenced’. The second is when the good times in the warehouse are immediately brought to an end when he arrives on the scene to initiate some new recruits, walking into the scene with his enormous shadow heralding his presence and his gleaming, shiny, bladed armour being gradually revealed by the removal of his cloak. Of course, with that mask of his, he resembles a ninja Darth Vader (who of course, was in turn influenced by samurai iconography when George Lucas created him), and he even says to all of the kids ‘I am your father’. There’s also a lot of ‘mind over body’ mysticism later on as Splinter arrives as a campfire vision to the guys when they meditate. I’m surprised he didn’t mention some variation of the Force. In all seriousness though, this sincerity really adds to the surprising dramatic punch the film has ― the stakes feel real, even when the Turtles are trading quips in the midst of all this carnage.
Visually the film is brilliantly murky; totally convincing from start to finish. Unlike the focus-group dominated friendliness of the sequels, there’s a real sense that this film, like a proper indie, is on the fringe of things, which is odd considering this film is tied in with a hugely successful property, but that’s part of its thrill. John Du Prez offers up a terrific, rousing score which ranges from thrillingly ominous (the opening ‘Crime Wave’ theme) to gleefully comic (the fight in April’s apartment), and the pop songs are all very enjoyable too. In other words, for a nine-year old like me at the time, it was just about everything I wanted in a film.
It could be argued that, once the movie had been released, Turtlemania was at saturation point ― after this the toy line, with its endless remodels and repackaging of the turtles, would reach almost comical levels of excess. Those toys would end up defining the direction of the film series – after being considered way too dark and violent, the swiftly produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was pure, goofy Happy Meal brightness, with absolutely none of the darkness or drama of the first film. As the fans grew up, the series became more childish, and I was starting to switch off. By the time of the third film, with the Turtles being sent back in time to feudal Japan, things were on the slide, as was always the way with phenomenons. The toys stopped selling, the viewing figures were decreasing, and soon the Turtles were just another old thing. But amazingly, they would come back, again and again ― some ideas are just too brilliantly crazy to limit their appeal to one generation. Nowadays, my love for the film is inextricably tied in with my nostalgia, but even with my critical headband on, there’s still a hell of a lot to admire and appreciate about the half-shelled heroes’ first adventure. It’s still totally bossa nova. I mean, er…Chevy Nova? No? Okay: excellent!