Heroes in a Half Shell
A comparison of two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies
So I've already given my unpopular opinion on Godzilla and the Transformers (Godzilla 1998 was better than Godzilla 2014? Blasphemy!) and I figured I'd go a safer route today. Comparing the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie to the classic one from 1990 should be a no-brainer, right? Nothing can compare to that. It brought our childhood heroes to life in a darker tale that mirrored its comic book origins while keeping just faithful enough to the classic cartoon that got us hooked. The Turtles looked exactly as our young minds would have wanted them to look, and the Shredder made for a chilling adversary. There is no way that the recent Michael Bay film—with its giving Donatello stereotypical taped up nerd glasses, creating a “robot samurai” Shredder, and casting Megan Fox in the lead role—can ever come close to matching that cinematic masterpiece. Bay, the guy who originally wanted to make the Turtles aliens, just doesn't have it in him to do that film and the franchise as a whole justice, right?
Well, let's just say that this article is called My Unpopular Opinion for a reason.
I'm not going to say that the new movie makes the classic one look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III or something, but I will say that Michael Bay produced (but not directed) a surprisingly good film. The characters were solid, the action was fast-paced, and the story was well told. This is probably the best Ninja Turtles movie since, well, the original. But does it hold up to the original? Or does the first film still reign supreme? Just like I did with Mr. Freeze's origin in two different Batman stories, let's compare Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990 with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990
The movie that first brought T-U-R-T-L-E power to the life. Released in 1990, it was a very different beast than the cartoon that had skyrocketed the franchise to popularity at the time. Gone were colorful characters like Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady. Gone were the turtle vehicles and the science fiction elements. Instead we had a gritty crime story about runaway teens falling in with the wrong crowd, sparking a rivalry between what were essentially two ninja clans.
The reason for this was that the movie wasn't based off the 1987 cartoon, but rather the original 1984 Mirage Studios comic series. The comic book—and the original incarnation of the Ninja Turtles—was written by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a satire about how over-the-top dark and violent comic books had become. Based loosely on Daredevil comics at the time (the Turtles and Daredevil have the same origin story, the Foot Clan is based off Daredevil's Hand, and Splinter is based off of a character named Stick), the TMNT comics were bloody and gruesome. And if one reads Mirage's Volume 1 straight through, they will quickly recognize the events of the film. Guess which was based off of which.
If you didn't guess, the events of the film were based off the events of the comic.
For the five or so people out there that haven't seen this movie, we start with a mysterious crime spree going on in New York City. Since it's 1990, the only thing mysterious about a crime spree in the Big Apple is that huge crimes are being committed in impossibly short amounts of time. A truck driver turns his back for a minute to sign a form and his entire cargo is missing. Channel 3 (not Channel 6!?) News reporter April O'Neil is the only one willing to ask the hard questions to get to the bottom of what's going on, and she asks the wrong questions on air that draw the attention of the criminals, a secret ninja clan called the Foot. When they go to silence her, she is saved by Raphael, who takes her to the Turtles' sewer lair where she meets the rest of the Turtles and their sensei, Splinter. She learns of the mutants' origins and befriends them, while a Foot ninja learns of their existence and tells the Foot Clan leader, Shredder.
The Foot are actually comprised of runaway teens in this film. Feeling outcast by society, they meet at a secret warehouse where Shredder allows them to indulge in all sorts of vices, such as smoking, drinking, gambling, and fighting. Those who excel in crime eventually learn ninjitsu and become Foot soldiers. While the Turtles are visiting April, the Foot attack their home and kidnap Splinter as punishment for protecting the reporter, and later the Foot brutally beat Raphael to a pulp before setting April's apartment on fire. The group is saved by Casey Jones, who was there because he had a score to settle with Raphael.
I'm pretty sure this is Casey Jones.
With the Foot believing them to be dead, the group exile themselves to Northampton, resigned to live out the rest of their days on a farm. But Splinter's fate hangs over all their heads, and after some soul-searching (and some bizarre spirit channeling thing where they talk to Splinter's soul or something), the Turtles decide it's time to return to New York to rescue their master and wage war on the Foot. What ensues is the climatic battle as Casey rescues Splinter and convinces the runaway teens that they are headed down the wrong path, while the Turtles take on the entire Foot Clan army. A final battle with Shredder ensues, with Shredder on the winning end of it. But Splinter saves the day in the nick of time, defeating the Shredder with ease and sending him off a building and into the back of a garbage truck.
Where to start with this? A classic that still looks great even 24 years later (yes, it's been that long). The turtle costumes were made by Jim Henson's company and it sure shows. The costumes were detailed and intricate enough to feel real (I would be lying if I said that they looked real), yet the actors were able to perform the complicated martial arts maneuvers needed for the fight scenes. Speaking of which, the fight scenes were excellent. They never got too over the top, but weren't exactly boring either. The smaller scale ones felt quite visceral at times (such as Raph saving April on the subway platform), while the final battle that went from the sewers to a rooftop had a grand, climatic feel to it. The battle to escape the Foot Clan as they burn down April's apartment and business is a very tense scene to watch for all the right reasons. You truly feel the sense of loss from a group who has lost everything without the movie you telling how to feel or what is coming next.
The story was well told and well paced. The theme of family, specifically of father-son relationships, is ever-present in this film. The relationship between original characters Charles (April's boss, who is blackmailed by the NYPD Chief to fire her) and his son Danny (one of the runaway teens who joins the Foot because it's the only place he feels accepted) is always teetering on a thin line. While they aren't the focus of the movie's story, their broader conflict is. The relationship between the otherwise normal father and son is on the verge of falling apart, and we are left to see which extreme their relationship will fall towards; a loving and positive one (as represented by the Turtles and Splinter) or an abusive and damaging one (shown by Shredder and the teens).
The characters for the most part are done quite well. Unlike her previous incarnations in the original comic book and original cartoon (useless sack of potatoes and perpetual damsel in distress, respectively), this April is strong and not afraid to put herself in harm's way to help others. While not a fighter, she isn't afraid to defend herself nor is she afraid to stand up to her boss and the chief of police in order to find out everything she can about a dangerous crime organization. Casey Jones is sort of just there playing the role of the badass, but he's so ingrained in the fabric of the TMNT mythology that you really can't have the story without him (even his initial meeting with Raphael is taken right from the comics). Splinter's role as the wise sensei was executed perfectly here. And Shredder is definitely a great villain. While the pajama-looking uniform could be a bit cheesy, I've never seen a movie villain with so many spikes coming out of him. But beyond the aesthetics, his use of homeless teenagers to fill the ranks of his ninja army propels him to a level of evil that most villains never achieve, made all the more unsettling by playing the kids' insecurities, desires, and need for acceptance to his own advantage (something that real life cult leaders actually do). And look at his face when he tells the Turtles “Ah, that rat. So it has a name. It had a name”. You can see him smiling under his mask as he says it. Now that's messed up.
And then there are the Turtles themselves. My opinion on their personalities in this film is rather mixed. While they got Raphael's brooding nature mostly right, the Turtles all seem to be Michelangelo clones most of the time. While that is sort of how the cartoon often portrayed them, I always thought it was a disservice to the group to have all four of them shouting outdated 90's slang terms as catchphrases. Should Leonardo really be sprouting quips and one-liners and goofing off during a fight?
There's another problem with the Turtles, but this one stems mostly from the plot rather than the characters. Look back at my summary. Notice how, throughout the entire plot summary, I only named one of the Turtles? That was always a bit of a problem that the movies had; one or two turtles got more focus than the rest of the team. Raphael was pretty clearly the main character of this film (even the movie's theme song, “Turtle Power”, erroneously names Raph as the leader when everyone knows it's Leo). The scene where he's ambushed by the Foot and his body is thrown into April's shop? In the original comics, it's Leo who fights and is ultimately defeated by the Foot (the change is especially jarring once you consider that not only is that comic one of the most iconic and famous scenes of the entire Ninja Turtles franchise, but it's been replicated faithfully by most subsequent versions of the story). Admittedly, this isn't the only film to suffer from that issue (Secret of the Ooze also focused more on Raph than anyone else, while 2007's TMNT focused on the relationship between Leo and Raph. I like to think a magic scepter erased Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III from history, so I won't comment on that), but it's frustrating to see Michelangelo and Donatello always playing second string to their brothers, especially when Don is my favorite Turtle. Speaking of which, Donatello is just awful in this movie. His voice is just grating and he's not at all a nerd. Where are his tech skills? On a team of Michelangelo clones, he goes the extra mile not to stand out.
But outside of those gripes, the 1990 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remains a solid film even today. A story of a few heroes standing up to the New York crime waves was something I think real life New Yorkers needed, given the climate at the time. And basing the story and atmosphere on the original Mirage comic series while injecting just enough elements from the cartoon to keep things familiar to the mainstream audiences meant that this was a film that could appeal to older and younger audiences alike.
Also, this movie started the rather strange trend of rap songs about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dominating the charts. Seriously, Partners in Kryme actually does quite a good job, even if they don't know who the leader of the group is. I was thrilled when the song came back in the game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014
"But we can have ADULT conversations."
First off, there are no aliens in this film. Also, William Fichtner plays Eric Sacks who, despite having a name that sounds like “Oroku Saki”, is not the Shredder. We should thank the Internet for making sure Michael Bay kept the film relatively true to the origins (did you know he originally wanted the villain to be “Colonel Shradder”, an alien that can shoot spikes from his body?).
I don't want to know what goes on inside this man's head. I think he had a traumatic past involving aliens, boobs, explosions, and the military.
Our story starts with Channel 6 News reporter April O'Neil trying to get the inside scoop on a paramilitary terrorist group called the Foot. The Foot have been stealing industrial chemicals and nobody knows why. Unfortunately, she's doing this off the clock, as she's really a lifestyle reporter whose job is to report on the latest diet fads, fashion trends, and the like. Investigating the docks, April sees the Foot unloading the stolen chemicals, but they are taken out by a mysterious vigilante who is never seen, but leaves behind a mysterious symbol that she's seen before. Any attempts to convince her boss (Whoopi Goldberg) to pursue the lead are futile, and she's on her own in getting the story. We also meet Eric Sacks,who worked with April's father on a cell-regenerating mutagen that could repel any bio-terrorist attack, something that would be a hot commodity in a post-9/11 world. Unfortunately, the lab, the test subjects, the mutagen, the notes on how to create the mutagen, and April's father are destroyed in a fire that consumed their lab. While he publicly professes his desire to help the city bring down the Foot, it turns out he's secretly their second-in-command (come on, you knew he was Foot. You just thought he was the Shredder).
The Foot hold hostages (including April) in the New York City subway in order draw out the vigilante. Their efforts work too well, as the lights go out and the Foot are quickly dispatched in the darkness. But April catches a brief glimpse, following the Foot's enemy to a rooftop where she learns that there are four vigilantes, and they're all giant talking turtles. Upon learning their names, April puts two and two together, realizing that the Turtles are actually her childhood pets that were used in the mutagen experiments when she was a little girl. The Turtles bring her to their sewer lair where she meets Splinter, who explains to the Turtles that it was April that saved them all from the fire that destroyed the lab, and explains to April how he raised the Turtles and taught them martial arts.
Unfortunately, April already went to Sacks to tell him about the Turtles, trusting him and believing in his vision of a cure-all mutagen. Sacks alerts his boss, the Shredder, to the existence of the Turtles (whose blood is the last remaining source of the mutagen), and gives him a giant robotic suit of armor. April is tracked to the sewer lair, and an army of Foot soldiers, led by the Shredder, battles the Turtles and Splinter. Splinter is badly injured and Leo, Mike, and Don are captured (Raph is believed to have been killed). Raph and April follow the Foot to Sacks' estate, where the other Turtles are having their blood drained so that the mutagen can be extracted. We also learn the truth about Sacks' plan; he and the Foot plan to release a deadly chemical toxin that will kill millions of people in New York. While the Foot will take the blame, Sacks' company will develop and sell the mutagen to the United States Government, raking in billions and gaining unprecedented power in the global community. The Turtles are freed and the team heads to Sacks' corporate headquarters to foil the Foot's plans.
April confronts Sacks and learns that he was the one who killed her father after the latter found out the truth about his plans. April manages to steal the mutagen while the Turtles stop Shredder from releasing the toxin. Splinter is healed with the mutagen and everybody lives happily ever after.
This film ended up being a lot better than anyone thought (well, other reviewers might argue otherwise, but this article is called My UNpopular Opinion). I enjoyed it immensely from start to finish. The Turtles and Splinter were done by imprinting CG images over actors using motion capture, which gets a far better result than simply having actors talk to themselves and inserting the CG characters later, like in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The mixture of live action, motion capture, and pure CG allowed the film to take the action to the “next level” so to speak without making it look too much like a video game.
Speaking of the action, I must give Bay credit. Perhaps it was me, but it seemed this movie was rather light on the explosions. When Bay is in the director's chair, it seems like a movie protagonist can't eat breakfast without jumping out of an exploding skyscraper. But this movie, produced by Bay and directed by Jonathan Liebesman, seemed a little bit more subtle. Oh don't get me wrong, one battle ended with a car chase down a snowy mountain that caused a massive avalanche due to all the missiles being fired, but outside of that? Not the nonstop series of fireballs that Michael Bay is known for. I assume that this is because, unlike the Transformers series where both the heroes and villains have an entire military arsenal built right into their bodies, our heroes in this film fight using stealthy ninja tactics and weapons from Feudal Japan. Even Shredder's armor fires blades rather than napalm. There are only so many explosions you can create from a bo staff and a pair of nunchucks.
But action isn't only about explosions, it's about the fight scenes themselves. And wow does this film deliver. It's faced paced martial arts from beginning to end. The fight between Splinter and Shredder is one of the best I've seen. Splinter, for the first time that I've ever seen, is rat-like in his fighting style. He scurries around and uses his tail in combat to get the upper hand on his opponent. The Turtles final fight with Shredder is also done quite well, again taking their previous final fight from the 1990 film to the next level. Characters move and fight the way you would think people who spent their whole lives learning martial arts would.
Speaking of martial arts and ninjitsu, one thing that separates both these films from the Turtles' more comedic incarnations is the competency of the Turtles. Both films have the Turtles defeat groups of enemies in seconds without ever being seen. The 1990 version had the Turtles disappear when April's boss comes to visit, seemingly vanishing into thin air when April turns around for literally three seconds (compare that to their relative incompetence in the second film, where a pizza delivery boy visits April and the Turtles choose hiding spots a child would think are obvious). Of course, the 2014 version's subway rescue scene is ruined by four ninjas who can't help but scream one-liners at each other while taking out their opponents. Splinter taught them the “Art of Invisibility” well, but he seemed to have forgotten to teach them the “Art of Shutting Up So That Your Opponents Don't Hear You”.
I've already spoken about how other Ninja Turtles movies put the spotlight on Raphael (and sometimes Leonardo). Here the focus is on Raph more than his brothers, but it's not too over the top. Unfortunately, that's because this movie stars April as the protagonist. It seems to be a common Michael Bay cliché; have us follow human characters around and introduce the titular non-human characters halfway through the film. Though Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is nowhere near as bad as the original Transformers in this regard, partly because the Turtles were introduced much earlier than the Autobots were, and partly because April O'Neil is an established and central character to the TMNT mythos (who the hell is Mikaela Banes supposed to be again?). I will admit, I actually liked the change of focus. It gives us great buildup to the reveal of the Turtles, and it's not like the Turtles are marginalized in their own movie the way the Autobots were in Transformers. Even April delivering the final blow to the Shredder was something I thought was cool, and it's something I should have been nerd-raging over!
I actually liked the personalities of the Turtles in this film more than the 1990 version. Rather than three Michelangelo clones and a perpetually angry Raphael, this one give each one their famous personalities. Leo is the leader who tries to keep the peace and butts heads with Raph, who is always angry and frustrated with Leo's orders. Mike is the comic relief of the group, diving headfirst into the relevant pop culture of the day, while Don has spent his whole life studying computer technology and thus is equipped with an array of gadgets such as tracking devices and retinal scanners. But at the same time, there's just enough goofiness in them to convince me that they actually are teenagers, something I forget watching most other versions of the franchise (the 2012 series is probably the best in conveying the fact that they are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The elevator scene right before the final battle sums up these Turtles in a nutshell, or perhaps a turtle shell? No? A nutshell? Sorry.
Let's talk about April as well. I actually didn't mind the casting of Megan Fox in the role, and I honestly thought she did a pretty serviceable job. I like the idea of a younger April (as in the current IDW comic and the 2012 cartoon); seeing a mid-twenties April struggle with a soul-sucking job while pursuing her passion in her spare time was definitely something I think Millennials can relate to. Yet this April was just as strong and smart as her 1990 counterpart, possibly even more so. She was able to figure out the origin of the Turtles from just a couple of seemingly unrelated clues, piecing almost everything together rather than having the usual sit down with Splinter like in other incarnations of the franchise (she does have that, yes, but it's more of Splinter explaining to the Turtles who April is rather than explaining to April who the Turtles are). She also has no problem confronting the Shredder on her own, facing down a gun-toting Sacks, or leading a three-person assault on a fortified mountain estate. Even when hanging from a skyscraper tower, she has the Turtles swing her over so she can deliver the final blow to the Shredder. Certainly a 180 from the April O'Neil of the 1987 series, who was seemingly kidnapped at least once a day.
Thought even that's more of an impact than Megan Fox left in Transformers...............except for this scene.
Splinter was awesome. He was a much harsher taskmaster than the other incarnations of him. “Ten flips now” has apparently morphed into a true test of endurance as he harshly punishes the Turtles for disobeying his order never to go to the surface (and taunts Michelangelo with the “culinary impossibility” of a 99 cheese pizza). And Shredder? Well, this and the Ch'Rell Shredder from the 2003 series are tied for second place in the contest for the most awesome, badass, and threatening version of the character (the most awesome incarnation of the Shredder is in the current IDW comics, as he has already conquered the afterlife, and will do it again once he wipes humanity off the face of the earth as he has already been foretold to do). Like the original Mirage comics, we see very little of the Shredder and know even less about him. But boy, does every moment he's onscreen leave a big impact.
The film was far from perfect. They completely wasted Karai's character, we have no animosity between Splinter and the Foot that defined every single other version of the TMNT (the names “Hamato Yoshi” and “Oroku Saki” are never even uttered), and the subplot of April being fired is never addressed. Nor is the fact that she tries to convince her boss that there are four talking turtles running around fighting crime by showing her a crazy mess of symbols and photos, but never once shows her the actual photo of the Turtles she took. No wonder April was stuck in the role of lifestyle reporter. I would list the fact that Splinter taught himself martial arts by reading a training manual on how to be a ninja as one of the negative parts of the film, but the 1990 version had him, as a normal pet rat, learn ninjitsu from his owner by mimicking his movements. At least the 2014 version let him get mutated first (though I won't fault the 1990 version either, as that is accurate to the original comics).
But this film was almost as good as the 1990 classic, if not just as good. They found a good middle point between the goofy personalities of the Turtles from the cartoon and various other media, and the more established personalities from the comics and the 2003 series. The plot is engaging and leaves you wondering what's going to happen next, and the action feels big and grand without being the series of nonsensical explosions that are the trademark of a Michael Bay movie.
Final thoughts? Well, I could really go for a pizza right now.
Other than that, I would say give both these movies a shot. You will be thoroughly entertained either way. And when you are done with both films, go watch the 2012 series if you are in need of a laugh or read the IDW series if you are looking for a long-term suspense story.
Until next, well it's time for that famous Turtle catchphrase..........
What, did you expect me to say “Cowabunga”?