Still Lean, Still Green: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie’ Turns 30
There was something about growing up in the early 90s and seeing the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES logo that set your soul aflame. The sharp red banner. That squishy-green lettering. It drew you in. Made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
From the Saturday morning cartoon to those delicious Turtle Pies (“filled with Vanilla Puddin’ Power”), this was a time when those four wisecracking, crimefighting Ninja Turtles — a satirical oxymoron created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird — were an unstoppable juggernaut. Irresistible to adoring children and inescapable to exhausted parents, the Turtles had made their way onto cereal boxes, video games, action figures, toothpaste, and soon, the movies.
On March 30, 1990, armed with alluring one-sheet that shouted “Hey Dude, This is No Cartoon,” the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were “Lean, Green, and On the (Big) Screen.”
Financed by Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong-based company that produced Game of Death and Police Story, and directed by Steve Barron, the music video legend responsible for A-ha’s “Take On Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an earnest, but quirky and stylistic retelling of the characters’ origins.
The plot follows our “Heroes in the Half Shell” as they first meet hotheaded TV news reporter April O’Neil and vigilante Casey Jones, and battle the criminal organization known as The Foot Clan. After one of the Turtles inadvertently reveals their existence to the Foot, they’re targeted by a series of attacks and their mentor (also father figure), Master Splinter, is captured. The Ninja Turtles and their allies are forced into hiding until they are ready to make a final stand and rescue their surrogate father. This culminates with an exciting rooftop battle in which the Turtles come face-to-face with their brooding arch nemesis, The Shredder.
Part One: The Turtles Come to Life
Perhaps the most publicized aspect of the film’s production was the technology used to bring the Ninja Turtles to life. The characters were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop using a combination of foam latex suits and radio-controlled animatronics. (Henson’s son, Brian, served as chief puppeteer on the film and also headed second unit photography.)
Two types of suits were made: a simple latex suit designed to keep the stunt performers light on their feet, and a bulkier design with motors tucked into the shells and a fully articulated face controlled by a puppeteer off-screen.
Each of the Turtles required multiple performers: an actor who focused on the dramatic and comedic performances, a stunt performer who focused on martial arts or a specific kind of stunt (such as skateboarding or falling through a skylight), and finally, a voice actor who recorded the dialogue after filming was complete. (In some instances, the actors performed more than one of these duties.)
The Heroic One
“We had our first battle, Master Splinter! There were many, but we kicked.. we fought well.”
The natural leader of the group, Leonardo is performed by David Forman and voiced by Brian Tochi, best known for his work in both the Revenge of the Nerds and Police Academy series. As the straight-laced and confident Turtle, Tochi lends a youthful yet mature voice that embodies both strength and compassion with just a dash of naivety.
Leonardo is the calm meditative one of the bunch. Because of that, he successfully guides his brothers out of their hopeless slump in the third act. In order to cope with Splinter’s absence as well a recent defeat, Leonardo makes isolated trips out into the woods where he meditates under a tree. During one of these pilgrimages, he reaches Splinter on an astral plane and learns his mentor, whom he feared dead, is in fact alive. Through this knowledge, the characters strengthen their resolve and come out of hiding with powerful determination and a unified goal: it’s time to fight back, it’s time to rescue our father.
Leornado’s strongest trait is his loyal and caring nature. This shines through his relationship with Raphael despite the turmoil. After an argument, Raph storms off and shorty thereafter, gets seriously injured fighting solo in a battle against dozens of foot soldiers. The incident renders him comatose and as a result, Leo feels responsible and watches over his brother, and never once leaves his side until he wakes — which is really quite touching the more you think about it.
Leo’s compassion and selflessness in this moment are the makings of a great leader. His quickness to accept responsibility — despite not being directly at fault — coupled with his unwavering conviction to care for his fallen brother show us that the needs of team outweigh his selfish pride. He genuinely loves his brothers — even Raphael who challenges his resolve — and wants the best for them.
For the record, the resulting scene where Raphael recovers and the two brothers reconcile is pure bliss.
The Loose Cannon
“You guys must be studying the abridged book of ninja fighting!”
Unlike the other Turtles, Raphael is both performed and voiced by the same actor, Josh Pais, who portrays the “cool but rude” Ninja Turtle with a pure-Brooklyn attitude.
Raphael drives the narrative in the early parts of the film. After saving April from a mugging in the opening scene, he accidentally leaves a sai at the scene of the crime. Spotting the melee weapon, April pockets it and Raph is unable to it go. He follows April and ends up rescuing her from another attack. He then takes her to their sewer lair, a decision that has major ramifications on the plot moving forward as he unknowingly reveals the location of their secret hideout.
Raph is hot-tempered and quick to anger. This becomes the subject of much-needed guidance from Master Splinter. In a heartfelt moment, Splinter has a late night heart-to-heart with his son. It is a tender scene, lit by candlelight and utilizing an unusual camera movement that moves around the characters and gets up close n’ personal with the puppeteer-based performances. Splinter warns Raph of the reclusive way he deals with his anger and how he pushes himself away from his brothers.
This becomes the thesis for Raphael’s character arc in the film. His inner rage leads him to battle the Foot alone. He get injured and his brothers suffer defeat as they have no choice but to fight an army, man-down. After recovering, Raphael softens up a bit and learns humility through his mistakes. Raph becomes a team player, joining the fight with his brothers, united as one. This in part contributes to their victory in the end.
Despite his tough bravado, Raph also has a softer, gentler side that can be seen at least twice in the film: as he gets bashful waving “Bye!” to April in an early scene and later on, when he sheds a tear at the sight of Splinter’s astrally-projected apparition. Despite his anger, there is a good guy underneath.
Way, way underneath.
The Wisecracking Observationalist
“Gosh, it is kind of like Moonlighting, isn’t it?”
1990’s characterization of Donatello is unique to this film. Portrayed by Leif Tilden and voiced by Corey Feldman, he is dorky, funny, and more of a goofball than the tech geek we know and love.
In most other iterations (including the film’s two sequels), Donatello is a science nerd with an vast knowledge of chemistry, technology, and even the mechanics of time travel. Here, Donnie is more of an average Joe and the only hint of his usual self comes when he refers to an old moldy pizza as having “penicillin” on it.
Though he doesn’t display the character’s usual interest in science, he is still bright, perceptive and often makes snarky but observational comments on characters and events, such as when he teases Casey for being “claustrophobic” and calls the aforementioned tender scene between Leo and Raph “a Kodak moment.”
The Pizza-Loving Maniac
“Wise man say: forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza.”
Consistent with most other iterations — Mirage be damned! — Michelangelo is the same lovable “party dude” that won our hearts and in part, fed an entire generation’s obsession with pizza. Performed by Michelan Sisti and voiced by Robbie Rist, Mikey is goofy, energetic, and loves deep dish.
Michelangelo no doubt serves as the comedic relief. Rocking the film’s funniest moments, Mikey delivers a handful of memorable one-liners, including: “And I thought insurance salesmen were pushy” as they’re bombarded by foot soldiers, “The only thing safe the woods would be the trees” as he dodges axes, and the iconic battlecry, “God, I love being a Turtle!”
Much like his animated counterpart, most of his mischief involves, you’ve guessed it, pizza! This includes a funny little moment in which he asks a Domino’s delivery driver (also played by Sisti) to slide a deep dish through a sewer grate and a site gag where he salutes the old moldy pizza mentioned above.
The Wise Mentor
“I am proud of you, my sons. Tonight you have learned the final and greatest truth of the Ninja: that ultimate mastering comes not from the body, but from the mind.”
As their wise sensei, Splinter is like a father to the Turtles. He found them in the sewer when they were just babies. Cared for them during their shared mutation. Guided them through adolescence. Knowing he will not be around forever, Splinter has passed along his knowledge and fighting skills so they can grow into strong, wise, and self-reliant adults. But Splinter’s teachings don’t stop with the Turtles. He also serves as the voice of reason and shares his wisdom and stories to a number of characters throughout the film.
Splinter was brought to life using a different method from the foam latex suits used for the Turtles. Instead, the sage-like rodent was created using a life-sized puppet. Manning it was Kevin Clash, who puppeteered the mouth and provided the voice. Any other movements, such as Splinter’s eyes and arms, were controlled mechanically by a separate technician.
The result is convincing, but does have some practical limitations. For example, Splinter can’t walk around like the rest of the characters. This means he is usually filmed sitting in his chair or in a standing position. But as he spends most of the film either simply talking or chained to a fence and only briefly performs combat, this isn’t much of a problem.
Small details in the performance help sell the illusion that Master Splinter is a living creature. This includes setting down his tea, throwing a book at Michelangelo, and his tail wagging while he is sitting in his chair. The most impressive of which comes during his chat with Raphael. In that scene, Splinter is holding a lit match and illuminates a candle. A human actor can perform the task, no problem. But putting the flame in the hands of a puppet and having him move it around in a full body shot? The complications are unfathomable.
Obviously, some tricks were used to achieve this effect. But regardless of how it was done, the hard work paid off and the result is a 4ft tall rat sitting in a chair and having a conversation with a turtle, and absolutely, yes it feels 100% real.
Part Two: Allies and Enemies
The Feisty News Reporter
“Much more than just a series of small, isolated incidents, it is now apparent that an organized criminal element is at work and at the moment, business is good.”
Judith Hoag is the quintessential April O’Neil. Spunky. Determined. Even a little rebellious. When told by her boss (Jay Patterson) to back off on her on-air mic-drops over NYPD’s incompetence in dealing with the recent crimewave, she doesn’t waver. Instead, April puts both her job and life at risk as her candid natures catches heat from the police, her superiors, and the Foot. (Side note: April may be one of the rare few TV news reporters to have her “chops busted” by the high-ranking police chief.)
This relentless ambition comes with a fiery attitude. When cornered by an army Foot Soldiers in the subway, she gets snarky. (“What, am I late on my Sony payments again?”) Likewise, when smacked and told to keep her mouth shut, she pulls out a sai and fights back. April O’Neil is no pushover.
Notable traits are her dorky sense of humor and down to earth nature. Shortly after meeting the Turtles, April invites them over for pizza. What follows is refreshingly laid back. There’s no time crunch. No pressing dilemma. Just five new friends sitting around a table, sharing dorky jokes.
Though small and inconsequential to the plot, this scene is effective for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it gives the audience a short breather. A chance to wind down a little with the characters before things heat up in the next scene. But also, it gives us insight into who these people are when they’re not fighting ninjas. Mikey enjoys Cagney impressions. Donnie loves Pepsi. And April likes to kick back with friends. Moments like these help sell fictional characters as living people. They also tell us April O’Neil and the Ninja Turtles have a life before and after the film.
April also has a plethora of skillsets and hobbies at her disposal. She runs her father’s old antique store and has a talent for drawing. The latter becomes relevant in the third act. After retreating to her family’s old abandoned farmhouse, the characters scatter to their own corners in order to mend. Naturally, some of them find projects to bide their time. Casey and Donnie fix the truck. Mikey trains in the barn. Leo watches over Raph. For April’s hobby, she turns to illustration.
While drawing the Turtles, April becomes the narrator. She chronicles their struggles. Informs us on their emotional progress. Their downfall and their rise back up. In a way, this keeps her role as news reporter relevant even when her job no longer matters to the plot.
These illustrations also become a key item in the narrative as they later signal The Shredder to the Turtles’ return, driving us towards the climactic fight.
The Masked Enforcer
“The class is Pain 101. Your instructor’s Casey Jones!”
As the former hockey player turned vigilante, Elias Koteas is the definitive on-screen Casey Jones. Well-known for his countless supporting roles in films such as The Thin Red Line, Zodiac, and Fallen, Koteas gives Casey a caveman-like persona that is barbaric in a charming way. He’s brutish, far too masculine to admit he’s claustrophobic, and loves to fight. The kind of hockey player who enjoys regulated fisticuffs more than the sport itself.
Casey perks up at the chance to take down enemies and actively seeks fun ways to do so. In one scene, he knocks ‘em down by crashing a dump truck into a fire escape. In another, he sends ‘em flying with a golf club. It is this fist-happy energy that makes Koteas’ presence in the film such a blast to watch.
An urban barbarian, Casey conducts his personality with a lack of sensitivity and a pridefully stubborn bravado. Therefore, he clashes with a number of the characters. This is particularly evident in his relationships with April, with whom he argues with as part of an old married couple schtick, and Raphael, who he brawls with in Central Park. Still, his actions are often honorable. He puts his rivalry with Raphael aside to join the Turtles in their fight against the Foot. He helps free Splinter. He even acts as the voice of reason to a group of misguided teens, led by a young Sam Rockwell.
Casey, it seems, isn’t such a bad guy after all.
The Veiled Nemesis
“You fight well… in the old style. But you’ve caused me enough trouble. Now you face: The Shredder!”
No doubt one of the most iconic villains of all time, The Shredder is a mysterious foe who keeps to the shadows. His mask and alias conceal his true identity: Oroku Saki, performed by James Saito and voiced by David McCharen.
Building to his secretive allure is his stealthy reveal. Barron takes his time in unraveling the masked villain, giving us only a taste in the first act. Our first glimpse comes in the shape of his dark silhouette and it isn’t until the second act that The Shredder is fully revealed. In this grand entrance, The Shredder quite literally emerges from his own shadow.
But Barron is wise not to reveal too much of The Shredder. His face is kept a mystery until the end. This discreetness furthers our interest in the character. Who is he? What does he look like underneath? Is his face all mangled and scarred? The audience can’t wait to find out and anticipates the final unmasking.
The Shredder sees the Turtles as omens from the past. Their fighting style reminds him of a rival he killed in cold-blood: Hamato Yoshi, Splinter’s former master. Avenging Yoshi’s death, Splinter fought back and the resulting battle left both characters permanently scarred. Over the years, Splinter passed on everything he learned from Yoshi to his young pupils, and it shows. In every flip, kick and punch. The Shredder is triggered by this familiarity and leads a crusade against them. Ultimately, this relentless pursuit leads to his undoing.
Although a formidable foe against the Turtles, The Shredder has an achilles heel: he’s overconfident and blinded by anger. Splinter proves this when he challenges him with the past during the climactic rooftop battle. Driven by revenge and a sense of indestructibility, The Shredder charges Splinter — and is quickly defeated. It doesn’t end there. Without giving too much away, The Shredder’s unwillingness to accept failure directly leads to his doom. This theme continues in the sequel when his reckless actions at the face of defeat causes his ultimate death. It would seem the only one can who can truly defeat The Shedder is The Shredder himself.
The Mysterious Henchman
“Never lower your eyes to an enemy!”
Of course, it would be a mistake not to mention The Shredder’s righthand man, Master Tatsu. Played on-screen like a fierce, immovable object by Toshishiro Obata, Tatsu doesn’t say much — his few lines are dubbed by voice actor Michael McConnohie — but his cold lethal stare and swift brutal movements tell you everything: don’t mess with Master Tatsu!
Because of Obata’s minimalist portrayal, Tatsu is equally as intimidating as The Shredder. He is a stone wall, but ruthless and prone to outbursts of anger. In other words, if you piss him off, he’ll smash you.
Obata was one of only two members of the live action cast who returned for The Secret of the Ooze (the other was Raymond Serra as Chief Sterns). Unfortunately, he wasn’t asked back for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, as that film journeyed to ancient Japan and didn’t involve The Foot. However, Obata continued to play small parts for Hollywood, appearing as a Mongol warrior in The Shadow and a “Cryo-Con” in Demolition Man.
Tatsu remains Obata’s most memorable role to date.
Part Three: A Tail and Two Fathers
“You are here because the outside world rejects you. This is your family. I am your father!”
By bringing The Foot Clan to New York, The Shredder has recruited misguided youths to do his bidding. Luring them to join his ranks, he uses an abandoned warehouse as a playhouse for runaway kids. The script compares this setting to Pleasure Island from Pinocchio and the parallels are quote apt. The youths can do anything they want without grown ups telling them what to do. They can smoke. They can drink. They can gamble. The options are endless.
Like Pleasure Island, there’s a catch. The playhouse is actually a backdoor recruitment facility for The Foot. The Shredder manipulates these wayward teens by making them think they are “part of a family.” If they continue to steal for him, they’ll “make their family proud” and in turn, will be rewarded with honor, a sense of belonging, and the opportunity to become full-fledged members of The Foot.
Enter Danny Pennington, played by Michael Turney. The son of April’s boss, Danny serves as our inside man to The Foot. As his relationship with his overbearing father falls apart, Danny seeks a surrogate family to replace him and is drawn to The Shredder’s “family.” At first, Danny can’t see past the illusion. He finds acceptance and freedom at The Shredder’s hideout. Because of this, Danny happily turns to a life of crime to please his newfound family.
Though a minor character, Danny has a major impact on the film’s narrative. In order to prove his loyalty to The Shredder, he snitches on Turtles’ whereabouts. As a result, our heroes are ambushed, Raphael is injured, and April’s home burns down. The resulting guilt weighs heavily over him as he watches from a nearby balcony. Seeing how this decision impacted those around him, he loses the taste for his new home, develops a conscience, and is sent on path to redemption.
As he enters this transformative period of his arc, Danny becomes drawn to Splinter — who is held captive in the warehouse — as a source of guidance. Splinter speaks to Danny with both kindness and concern. Although never stated in the film, Danny could’ve been caught off-guard by Splinter’s interest in his own well-being, as well as his gentle and nurturing tone — traits he may very well wish his own father would adopt.
Danny is a controversial character for Ninja Turtles fans. As a youth caught on the wrong side of the law, he is often criticized for turning the film into an after school special. However, his character arc does offer some interesting parallels of family units and surrogate fathers.
As Danny interacts with Splinter, he is caught between two opposing father figures battling for his soul. In one corner is The Shredder, who wants teens like Danny to need him and to have a false sense of freedom so he can use them for his own criminal agenda. In the other corner is Splinter, whose only agenda here is to get Danny to see the truth about his new “family.” This figurative battle burdens Danny throughout much of the film and is quite literally illustrated when Danny dwells on the words of both men as he toss-n’-turns in bed one night. Ultimately, Splinter’s wisdom coupled with Danny’s newfound conscience leads the boy to joins forces with Casey to rescue his new friend.
Part Four: Urban Locales and Moody Visuals
An important part of selling Henson’s Turtles as living beings is John Fenner’s cinematography. His use of shadows and musty lighting gives the film a sense of visual rawness and keeps the Turtles grounded. As a result, the moody imagery softens the rubbery texture of their foam latex suits. Moisture was also applied to give their “skin” a sweaty, oily look.
Visible grain adds an extra layer of visual style, perhaps best characterized as “urban punk.” This is best showcased in two flashback sequences, filmed in Super 8 with subjects placed against an empty black screen. The footage is then blown up to 35mm, giving these scenes a minimalistic yet hip vibe.
Fenner — who also served on The Muppets Christmas Carol and The Borrowers — uses a considerable amount of natural lighting and the result feels absolutely genuine. This is especially prominent throughout the farmhouse excursion in the third act. One image that comes to mind is an epic shot of all four Turtles standing in a field out in North Carolina, bathed in a rich golden hour sunset, ready to take on the challenges that lie ahead. An image so natural and grand that it is difficult to doubt its legitimacy — these are four living, breathing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Adding to the illusion are the set design and location work. The world in which these characters navigate isn’t glossy. The streets are dirty. The buildings are decrepit. Their sewer lair actually looks like a sewer lair. It’s messy. The furniture is moldy. Junk is piled everywhere. And to tell you the truth, it looks like it smells something fierce.
Comparable to the look of a gritty comic, the set design compliments the characters perfectly, as they embody a world in which crime runs rampant, populated by mutants and ninja thieves — a world very much in need of heroes such as the Turtles to save the day.
A significant portion of the movie was filmed at De Laurentiis studios (now owned by Screen Gems) in Wilmington, NC. This includes a number of its exterior sequences where the city backlot set doubled for the streets of New York. The look is quite grungy. Dirty old brick buildings. Rusty fire escapes. Boarded up windows. As an extra perk, Fenner uses the tried-n’-true method of wetting down the streets prior to filming to give it that shiny reflective appearance, and the look is just sublime.
A select number of scenes were also filmed on location in New York City, including the Hoyt-Shermerhorn subway station in Brooklyn and Central Park, where Raphael watches Critters and battles Casey Jones. The on-location work doesn’t always match the backlot material filmed in North Carolina. But as these moments appear just as grimy as the rest, it is enough to sell the idea that giant turtles live in the sewers of New York.
Admittedly, there is also something about a Ninja Turtle stopping a purse thief on the real streets of New York that is just… really really cool.
Part Five: A Darker Tone and a Sincere Approach
The first Ninja Turtles film is often described as a dark film. And perhaps, yes, it was a tougher, edgier film to an audience of 7-9 year olds more accustomed to “Turtle Tips” and pizza puns than the original Mirage comic book. It can even be downright tragic. Splinter is battered and chained to a fence. Raphael is ambushed, dropped through a skylight, and spends a portion of film comatose. The film is even savage at times. In one scene, a foot soldier is electrocuted to death. In another, one is harshly beaten by his own sensei. We even see Hamato Yoshi and his lover, Tang Shen, murdered in cold blood.
Naturally, with it being a family film and all, the movie wisely dashes past most of its darker moments without looking back. But in a few select instance, it does linger and sometimes that’s more effective than the violence itself. Sure, yes, seeing the foot soldier, a teenager, beaten and kicked around is harsh. But seeing the distress in his friend’s eye as he kneels over his incapacitated body gives the power to the moment. Makes it even harsher. Had they cut this reaction from the film, the audience might not have given it a thought.
But while the film is more often applauded for its darkness, it could also be admired for its sincerity.
In fact, the film has quite the soft heart. It’s touching even. There is a poignancy to the film that reaches its peak during the somber third act. It’s a satisfyingly euphoric moment that sees the Turtles mediate by a campfire. Within the flames, Splinter’s apparition appears and the four brothers break down with tears of joy. Raph immediately grabs Leo’s hand while Donnie tends to Mikey, who can’t stop sobbing. And let me tell you, these blissful reactions rip right into the chest and grab the heart.
The campfire scene isn’t just thing of beauty, it shows us these aren’t just paper-thin cartoon characters. It isn’t just radio-control motors, latex and good lighting that sells the Turtles as living creatures. It’s the way they’re aloud to be human. As a result, we are invested in the their well-being, what happens to them matters, what they feel matters.
That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have TMNT’s signature sense of humor. In fact, the film quite goofy at times. The Turtles do say “Cowabunga.” Splinter does like to make funnies. And no, shell puns are not in short supply.
But it could be argued the way these characters approach humor when challenged by stress is yet another aspect that makes them more human. After all, humor is one of many ways to deal with grief. As the Turtles worry about Splinter in the middle acts, jokes may serve as a defense mechanism. Granted, some turn to humor more than others. Donnie and Mikey are both natural jokesters and thus more prone to one-liners. Leo is more serious but allows some room for playfulness. Raphael is uptight throughout, but loosens up after he discovers Splinter is still alive. Now it could be argued the Turtles are just acting out their predefined character traits, and that would be a valid argument. But the approach itself feels more natural in this case — and the moments when characters like Mikey don’t make jokes are pretty telling.
Something that would’ve illustrated this further was a minor, but enlightening subplot removed from the farmhouse sequence. In this deleted bit, recent events hit Mikey pretty hard. He withdraws from the others and isolates himself in the barn where he trains nonstop.
Remnants of this thread remains in the film: Mikey attacks a punching bag, Donnie “latches on” to Casey to fill the void left by his now reclusive best friend, and keen eyes will spot Mikey’s distinct shape as he shouts “Splinter!” on top of the barn (even though you hear Raph’s voice — this was changed after it was decided to jettison Mikey’s subplot). You may also notice Mikey only makes one joke during this portion in the movie, a gag involving Turtle Wax. However, the joke is muted and Mikey delivers it without his trademark excitement.
As a result, knowing this adds a richness to our lovable “party dude” and makes small moments such as him shedding those happy tears, all the more powerful.
Part Six: A Meaningful Score
A great film score can deepen our experience with a film. It adds pathos, soul, joy and laughter. By giving us insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling, it strengthens not only our understanding of the story, but also our bond with the characters. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is no exception
Composed by John Du Prez (UHF, A Fish Called Wanda), it is as perfect of a score you could get with Ninja Turtles. It has heart, edge, and a personality that hasn’t been matched since. Its success lies in the composer’s mindfulness in approaching both the story’s needs and its characters’ unique individual personalities. Mixing guitar riffs, percussive drums and synthesizers, the score is as softhearted as Leonardo, as hard-boiled as Raphael, and as playful as Michelangelo and Donatello.
Du Prez successfully weaves together these various tones with an elegance that is better that you would expect from a Ninja Turtles adaption. As a result, the score perfectly embodies what it’s like viewing the film as a whole: it is sometimes dark, sometimes fun, and sometimes sincere — but always entertaining.
Like the story, the bulk of the score is surprisingly gloomy and foreboding. Du Prez matches the darker nature of the film with equally foreboding themes, including: menacing cues warning us of the imminent danger The Shredder and his Foot Clan serve, an intense action beat signaling imminent peril, and a subdued three-note motif representing the grief that follows.
Naturally, Du Prez demonstrates a good sense of when to approach the material with such earnestness and respect — and when to cut loose and just have a good time.
Adding this much needed levity is the Ninja Turtles theme. With its catchy melody, jubilant drumbeats and gnarly riffs, their theme is energetic, fun and easy to hum. Its cowabunga-worthy energy is matched by a handful of playful themes, including a pair of sprightly and high-spirited battle cues, a Dick Dale-inspired surfer track, and a brief use of Tommy Walker’s “Charge!” fanfare — best known for its use at baseball games.
But it’s Du Prez’s empathy towards the Turtles that adds to the film’s richness. This is best evident in the way the composer approaches their relationship with Splinter. The spiritual cue during his tender heart-to-heart with Raph. The blissful strings when his spirit appears before his sons in the meaningful campfire scene. And the rising swells signaling the heartfelt reunion in the end. These sincere themes stir the soul and their genuine quality adds legitimacy to an otherwise unbelievable story.
That Du Prez treats the Turtles as human being helps us treat the Turtles as human beings. Their plight is our plight. Their victories are our victories. Like all other aspects of the production, had the composer been above the material, had he veered too far into cynicism and camp, the film might not have been as good as it was. But thankfully, Du Prez embraced the humanity — even though it is a story about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The reason this film works as well as it does is a testament to everyone in the creative team: Barron. Fenner. Henson. Du Prez. Screenwriters Bobby Herbeck and Todd W. Langen. The various actors, puppeteers and stunt performers. Had they treated it as a farce, the film would’ve been a farce. Had they not put their soul into it, the characters then would have no soul. And the film might not be as beloved as it is now.
Although it opened to condescending reviews — Roger Ebert called the production design “a low-rent vision of Batman” and Leonard Maltin said it was “badly written, flatly-directed, and murky-looking” — the film was a box office success. With a reported budget over $13 million, it made almost double that in its opening weekend alone. During its theatrical run, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles quickly became the highest grossing independent movie of all time — a monicker it held until it was finally dethroned by The Blair Witch Project in 1999.
There has never been another Ninja Turtles film like it. Subsequent entries took after the popular Fred Wolf series, softening the tone and cranking up the humor. Since then, technology has advanced. In recent years, the characters have been given a CG makeover. The Turtles can kick higher, punch harder, and Splinter can do a lot more than light a candle, that’s for sure.
But still, those “new, improved” Turtles lacked something important: a soul, and Steve Barron’s Turtles had it in spades.
Sure, the shells bend, their mouths do weird things, and sometimes you catch a glimpse of the actor inside. But they felt alive. These Turtles think, feel, and react like real people do. And for those 93 minutes, as brief of a time as it is, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are as real as you and I.