Before the internet, geeks like me read the Comics Buyer’s Guide Magazine — I devoured every tabloid-sized issue — and learned what new books were worth reading. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, created originally as a joke sketch of a turtle with nunchucks by Kevin Eastman and named “teenage mutant” by Peter Laird, was a black and white comic packed with violence that hit the cultural zeitgeist of the late 80s. It hit all the trends of comics, like the teenage angst of X-Men and Teen Titans along with the ninjas of Daredevil. In fact, the same canister of radioactive material that gave Matt Murdock his radar sense is what turned four baby turtles into Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.
Who knew that a few years later, they’d be the biggest cartoon and toy around?
In 1990, the movie came out and yes, it has a lot of the kid elements of the cartoon like the love of pizza, April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) being a reporter and how Michaelangelo behaves like a surfer dude. But so much of the film comes directly from the first issue of the comic. And it has martial arts in its soul, as it was produced by Golden Harvest.
Every major studio turned down distributing it, including Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, MGM/UA, Orion Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. before New Line took a chance. It paid off, as its $32 million was the second highest opening weekend at the time — behind Batman — and ended up being the ninth biggest movie of 1990.
The complicated turtle costumes took 18 weeks each to be created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Henson said that the creatures were the most advanced that he had ever worked on. But they work — you really start to believe in the characters more than you do in the later CGI efforts.
The film begins with the four Turtles — Leonardo (Brian Tochi, Revenge of the Nerds, Police Academy 3 and 4), Raphael (Josh Pais), Donatello (pop culture force Corey Feldman) and Michelangelo (Robbie Rist, Cousin Oliver) — working for the sewers and the shadows to protect New York City — but actually North Carolina — and saving the life of April.
Leo is closest to their sensei Splinter (former Elmo Kevin Clash), Don is the inventor, Mike is the partier and Raph is filled with rage, which finds him battling street vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas).
Above I just listed the voices, but it took so many talents to bring the characters to life.
Inside the Leonardo suit was David Forman, an Olympic tumbler and stuntman, with Martin P. Robinson controlling the face. He is also Mr. Snuffleupagus and designed, built and played Audrey II for Little Shop of Horrors. Leif Tilden was Donatello; he also performed several characters on Henson’s Dinosaurs show. He was supplemented by Ernie Reyes Jr. for martial arts scenes, skateboarder Reggie Barnes for skate scenes and facial movements by David Rudman. Michaelangelo was Broadway performer Michelan Sisti with facial movements by Mak Wilson. Raphael was the only Turtle performed by his voice actor, Josh Pais, with David Greenaway doing the facial animation and Kenn Troum did the fighting scenes. Splinter was puppeteered by Clash, who also did his voice, with Rickey Boyd did the face animation and movement was assisted by Robert Tygner.
The Turtles are in battle against a ninja clan known as The Foot — Daredevil fought The Hand — which is led by Oroku Saki, known as the Shredder (James Saito), the man who killed Splinter’s master Tatsu. Yes, the “radical rat” used to watch his master do karate and picked it up. When he found the four mutated baby turtles in the sewer, he saved them and taught them how to become ninja.
The Foot Clan has some major actors in its employ. Look for Sam Rockwell as an unmasked member and Skeet Ulrich and Scott Wolf under hoods.
In the UK and Germany, this movie was known as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and the violence is toned down. Also, Mike’s nunchaku aren’t shown, as that weapon always gets censored. The German version goes even further to add cartoon sound effects to all of the fight scenes.
This was directed by Steve Barron (who also made Electric Dreams, Coneheads and the music videos for “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Take On Me” by a-ha and “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League) and written by Bobby Herbeck, who had the original idea of making the movie, and Todd W. Langen, who did a Page One rewrite of the original script.
Sally Menke, who edited all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies until her death in 2010, was the original editor of this film, removed by Golden Harvest who didn’t like her work. Weird, huh?
Trust me, I was a big fan. I bought every single Playmates toy, had all the comics and watched every episode of the show, but my heart was in the original black and white comics. That’s why I love the first film, because while made kid-friendly, it still has so much of that look and feel.
Bonus: Here is some artwork I did based on this movie.