Back in the day before multiplexes took over the market, most cities had the theaters with only one or two screens. And in my town, this was the only theater that was playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So my mom waited for 90 minutes in the ticket buyers line and then 90 minutes in the ticket holders line so that my little sister and I could see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
And it was totally worth the wait.
Based on the popular comic book and the even more popular TV show, TMNT is about 4 turtles who are mutated into humanoid form and are trained by their ninja master rat/surrogate father Splinter.
I don't think anyone would call this movie high cinema, but sometimes a movie aims to hit a certain target and it does it incredibly well.
Without a doubt the film is directed at pre-teen kids. One of the reasons the concept of the TMNT works so well is that they are the embodiment of what teenagers are in the mind of a child. Teens, from the pre-teen view, are empowered, rebellious, and incredibly cool. Young children often feel like they have no power over their life or their environment. But they could imagine what they would do if given the choice: they would learn ninjitsu, they would skateboard, and they would eat pizza all day long! And that is what kids see in the Turtles.
On top of that, the design of the turtles is fantastic. The updated version of the TMNT in recent years is fine, but while their hulking frames make look formidable, it also makes them less approachable. The work Jim Henson did on the turtles in 1990 is wonderfully magical. There is a fantasy quality along with a tangibility that rivals his work in The Dark Crystal. If you can get into the mindset of a child, the turtles are as solidly real as anything else in this movie universe. In subsequent sequels, somehow this technique was degraded. But in this first installment it's top notch.
As a super hero movie, they did not skimp on the fight choreography. The battles between the turtles and the evil foot clan is fast-paced and fun. There is a silliness to their fights ("A fellow 'chucker, eh?"), but they still maintain a sense of peril. What child didn't feel for Raphael as the Foot Clan threw him through the skylight? And what child didn't cheer as Michelangelo tucked his head into his shell to avoid the axe and shout "I love being a TURTLE!"
The human actors are serviceable. Judith Hoag does a very likeable and believable April O'Neil (much better than the perpetually vacant Megan Fox). And Elias Koteas is strangely cool as Casey Jones.
But one of the most important factors that makes this movie work is the sense of family. What the Fantastic Four films never quite captured, but desperately needed, is the primal truths about family. The turtles are brothers who develop different personalities that push each other away while binding each other in love. Leonardo is like the typical eldest child who tries to act as a second parent. Raphael is the one who chafes at that authority and acts out accordingly. Michelangelo is the clown who tries to calm everyone with a laugh. And Donatello is the worrier who focuses on his learning. Anyone who grew up with several brothers and sisters can relate to this. One of my favorite moments is when Leonardo and Raphael are arguing and Michelangelo and Donatello silently walk between them into the kitchen and away from the discomfort. This is a moment familiar to anyone who has exited an uncomfortable family fight.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does not try to be more than it is: a fun kids' movie that is meant to delight the pre-teen mind. And on that level, it succeeds.