As Michael Bay's new 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' movie is due out later this year, I thought I'd take some time and re-watch the 1990 live action adaptation. That way, it's fresh in my mind when I end up hating the new version. I'll need the geek ammunition for my inevitable rant.
I'm glad to say that the film still holds up, even after a decade and a half.
First things first, this movie came out almost 24 years ago, long before the VFX revolution. The effects in this film are mostly limited to makeup and costume, and a whole lot of damned good stunt work. As such, it does require a bit more suspension of disbelief in order to buy into the premise of the movie: four anthropomorphic turtles, trained in ninjitsu by a mutant rat, living in the sewers of New York City and fighting against a secret underground organization of teenage thieves led by a Japanese ninja master.
If you can get past that, you'll be fine.
It helps that the film is played for laughs, like the cartoon adaptation that preceded it, with blatant one-liners and corny jokes. The four turtles (Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo - named for four Renaissance masters) are wisecracking, pizza-guzzling, skateboarding teenagers going through puberty and Splinter (the rat) is their wise and loving adoptive father. The film borrows a lot from the original Eastman/Laird comics, compiling elements from five or six different arcs into one cohesive plot line. It also borrows heavily on the humor of the cartoon, but gives viewers something that's works. It's a lot like the current Nickelodeon TV show.
There's also a chance that the filmmakers might go for the 'bombs and boobs' route (which is, now that I think of it, the likelier scenario - it is Michael Bay after all). They've hired Megan Fox to play April O'Neil in the upcoming remake and after watching her play in 'Transformers', I'm not sure she'll be able to do as good a job as Judith Hoag did. Fox does look like a woman that the pubescent Turtles could have a crush on, but she doesn't really look or act like a journalist like Hoag did. They could play it like they have in the new cartoon series, where April O'Neil is just a teenager, but that basically demotes her to damsel in distress. That's in keeping with female roles in Michael Bay movies, but I always felt that the Turtles needed April far more than she ever needed them.
Also likely is a huge dependence on computer effects in the new film. One of the most charming parts of the first live action movie was that the Turtles were actual on set, physically there for both the actors and the camera. Though Bay is a master of filming demolitions, his movies seem to rely heavily on computer generated images, which while looking highly detailed, don't have the same presence on film.
The 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles featured Henson Creature shop suits that were worn by actual martial artists, who then wore a helmet with animatronic gadgetry. The faces were then controlled by off-camera puppeteers. The lip synch didn't always match, but the voice work was great and the stunt performers were so good at their job that you couldn't take your eyes off the screen. The scene were Mikey (Michaelangelo) faces off with a Foot Clan ninja in a nunchucku challenge is so much better for being done for real. And a whole lot funnier.
Plus the fight scenes in this movie! Wow! They aren't as spectacular as something out of Hong Kong, but they really don't need to be. Just looking at the Turtle actors doing back flips and round house kicks in those heavy suits is amazing! And when you see one of them do something that's so in keeping with their character? Like when Raph's being a complete asshole, or Mikey's goofing off?
That's just gnarly, dude.
I almost feel sad about the news that they will no longer be doing a Turtles in space movie. Despite Bay's Alien Turtles comment from a while back, I would have been thrilled if we saw more of the Turtles' rogues gallery on screen, including those from other worlds/dimensions. Shredder's awesome, but after so many adaptations, I'd love to see one that isn't a retelling of an origin. Between the comics, cartoons, and movies, I'm sure that there are a lot of people who know the story and those that don't can be told through a quick recap. I'd rather see some new content and Krang and the Triceratons would have been welcome.
I think that if Bay and his team can get that right, I mean REALLY sell it and not resort to the babes and boom formula, then we'll be looking forward to TMNT becoming the new hot nerd property this year.
And it better have a catchy theme song. "T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!"