I say this as someone who grew up with a VHS copy of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie that warped from how often it was watched: It’s not a great movie. It’s funny and corny and a little shabby looking. It’s held up in some ways and looks supremely early ’90s in others. It’s just one incarnation of characters that, since their creation in the mid-’80s, have existed in toy, comic book, cartoon, and movie form.
But compared to the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which opens in theaters this Friday, Aug. 8, it looks like a stone-cold masterpiece. The 2014 reboot, which is directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans), isn’t spectacularly awful in a sense that might be fun, just bad in ways that say a lot about blockbusters today.
In 1990, the Turtles were played by actors wearing foam and latex suits crafted by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, their faces operated by computers controlled by off-screen puppeteers. They representing the cutting edge of effects technology at the time, but they still also looked nothing like actual human-sized mutated turtles. They were cartoons brought to life, highly advanced Muppets.
The redesigned CGI Turtles in the 2014 version do look like real-life 6-foot-tall mutants. And massive, muscle-bound turtle-men? They’re pretty off-putting. Raphael in particular, as the bulkiest of the four, looks scary, and the camera pans up his hulking body in their first full shot in order to emphasize this. They still make background quips and eat pizza, but they’re total nightmare fuel when they’re not in motion, with their noseless, nostril-first faces and ‘roided-out bodies. This franchise is literally about giant turtles who do martial arts. It’s a goofy concept. Giving the Turtles a gritty makeover seems to miss the appeal of the characters in a fundamental way.
The 1990 movie took place in a grimier, pre-Giuliani era New York City where there was more crime on the street for the Turtles to be trained to combat. The Foot Clan was represented as a kind of Japanese-themed street gang that recruited would-be juvenile delinquents to hang out in their graffiti/skateboard/cigarette den, learn martial arts, and steal things. Their leader Shredder’s (James Saito) end game seems to be only to build an army of trained soldiers to make illicit money off of.
Shredder’s in the new movie too, played by Tohoru Masamune, but he’s feels like a secondary villain, helping out evil scientist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) in a completely nonsensical plan to murder huge swaths of the city with poison gas in order to then sell them the antidote. Sacks notes this will make him rich, though he already seems really rich, as the movie loves helicopter shots over his swank-looking estate. This “must save the city!” plan could have been borrowed from any of the superhero stories that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first created the Turtles in order to make fun of — and neither the 2014 Turtles nor Sacks nor this new robo-samurai Shredder measure up to the recent superhero fare they’re trying to fit in with.
In the 1990 version, Judith Hoag’s April O’Neil was a successful, hard-hitting TV news reporter who gave the chief of police such a hard time about the city’s rising crime rate that he blackmailed her boss into firing her, and when she developed a budding romance with Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), it was defined by flirty bickering. The 2014 version, played by Megan Fox, is there to be leered at, though the movie tries to wink at this fact — while she has ambitions of being a real reporter, the folks at her job only want to send her on fluff assignments like trying out a trampoline exercise class, but the movie, in making this joke, also puts Fox on a trampoline. Later, Will Arnett (playing amorous cameraman Vernon Fenwick) gawks at her ass, and… well, there’s no other subtext.
1990 April also got entangled with the Turtles because her investigative work was deemed too dangerous — Foot soldiers were sent to silence her. 2014 April has a Amazing Spider-Man-style backstory about when she was a child and her father worked with Sacks, tying her into the Turtles and Splinter’s origin story. It’s unnecessary, and it also means that this version of April isn’t important because of her work so much as because of who her dad was.
There are plenty of objections you can make to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise’s use of and exotification of Japanese culture as a whole, but at least in the 1990 version, Splinter’s actually from Japan, the former pet of a martial arts master named Hamato Yoshi, who is murdered by his rival, Shredder.
The 2014 version of Splinter is a rescued lab rat who learns ninjutsu from a book he picks up in the sewer, first teaching himself, then tutoring the Turtles. Why this leads to him, as a grown mutant, wearing robes, sporting rat facial hair out of an old martial arts movie, and speaking with a vague accent (he’s voiced by Tony Shalhoub!) can probably be traced back to producer Michael Bay’s established history with shameless racial stereotypes. No one expects a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story to do a deep dive into authentic shinobi history and values, but to have a major character come across as indulging in a rodent equivalent of yellowface is distasteful even with the bar set incredibly low.
The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles takes place in, as much as it’s possible to tell, the space of a few days, running at a breakneck pace from the unveiling of the Turtles to the emergence of Shredder and Sacks’ evil plot to gas New York. Its action sequences are flashy, occasionally speed-ramped, and interchangeable — the best of them, a fight involving multiple vehicles careening down a snowy downhill slope, is gorgeously choreographed and stakes-free, and the characters feel like they could be subbed out for others in any recent blockbuster. Digital effects mean that the new Turtles are incredibly athletic, flipping cars and vaulting down the slope wielding their weapons (but never spilling visible blood — this is for the kiddies!). But for characters who were previously established as wisecracking goofballs, the movie spends almost no time letting the audience get to know the Turtles — one’s a nerd, one’s a skateboarder, one’s the leader, and one’s grumpy.
The 1990 movie actually spends an interlude with the Turtles out on a farm regrouping, recovering, and training, learning to work together as a team. For a film based on such an intentionally silly franchise, it actually invests time in the characters and their growth. The 2014 film seems a little embarrassed by the Turtles and their established personalities — when Raphael (voiced by Alan Ritchson) has a big, emotional speech at a climactic moment, it’s hard to remember what he was so surly about in the first place. He’s just the guy with the red bandana, which shows how much the series gets shortchanged. There have been plenty of movies about dudes with weapons fighting bad guys. There’s only one franchise involving snarky mutant reptiles joking about pizza.