It’s surprising that for a movie about anthropomorphic talking turtles that director Steve Barron takes the premise with as much seriousness as possible. Director Barron just seems to get the appeal of the Ninja Turtles, walking the line between the mainstream versions and the original Eastman and Laird R rated comic book. The turtles here have a hard edge, but are entertaining sympathetic heroes, and they’re the center of what is still a damn good action film about family, revenge, unity.
In New York City, crime is at an all time high and no one is off limits to a relentless band of thieves and muggers that roam the streets and subways. They’re numerous and outnumber the police, and no one is really sure who is leading their operations. April O’Neill (Judith Hoag) is a TV reporter who’s bold enough to confront the issue that the press and police have deemed taboo, and she begins to pay for it. After being attacked outside her job, she’s helped by mysterious assailants, all of whom subdue the criminals. Leaving behind a weapon, April is left looking for the owner of the sai. Despite the attack, April continues her investigation prompting another attempt on her life in a subway, and she’s once again saved by her heroes. All of whom happen to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose powerful foe the Shredder is intent on dominating New York.
Director Barron paces the film very well, lending some ambiguity to the ninja turtles, all the while giving the fans everything they want, right down to Casey Jones. Jones thankfully becomes an integral part of the narrative, crossing paths with Raphael when both men attempt to thwart purse snatchers, and eventually forms an alliance with the foursome when they meet their common enemy the Foot Clan. Elias Koteas is a worthy casting choice for the hockey masked vigilante, giving him a charisma and energy that’s loyal to the original fan favorite character. Director Barron and the screenwriters give the turtles a lot of depth, focusing on their dynamic and friction, and creating conflict among their ranks that becomes an entry way for Shredder to destroy their lives. Oldest brother Leonardo has to figure out how to lead his group, while troublesome rebel Raphael, whose own self seriousness becomes a problem when he has to obey his father and mentor Splinter (an anthropomorphic giant rat who trained the turtles all of their lives).
Barron and co. don’t skimp on the action set pieces either, offering up a lot of well choreographed and excellent fight sequences that aren’t just exciting, but important to the progression of the turtles’ ultimate confrontation with Shredder and the Foot Clan. The puppetry from the Jim Henson Company still holds up well, giving the turtles enough human detail without sacrificing their visage as turtles. The practical effects still give the turtles a very unique appearance, and they’re still the strongest cinematic representations of the characters. The effects mix with the choreography seamlessly, and Barron really embraces the action element of the concept, staging excellent battles, including Raphael’s ambush by the foot clan on April’s apartment roof, and the turtles’ showdown with Shredder. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is an excellent adaptation, and a raucous, brutally entertaining action fantasy that embraces the source material lending it valid complexity, and depth. It’s still a favorite almost twenty five years later.