Why 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Is Still Radical 30 Years Later

It's more than childhood nostalgia that makes the comic book movie a favorite decades after its March 30, 1990 release.

Cowabunga! It’s been 30 years since the heroes in half shell kicked their way onto movie screens, propelling Turtlemania to the highest highs. Unlike other fads of the late '80s and early '90s that had their brief time in the sun and are now best recalled by their place in BuzzFeed listicles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has lived well past its "mania." Since their comic book debut in 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s ninjutsu-practicing reptiles, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, have been present for every generation. Across six theatrical films, five TV series, an animated crossover with Batman, a bevy of video games and countless comic book appearances, the TMNT have embedded themselves into popular culture in a way that few, if any, other independent comics creations have. The style in which they’ve been depicted may have changed, and their shade of green has varied over the years, but the TMNT have never found themselves stuck in the sewers for long. And there has been a popular, unifying opinion: Steve Barron’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) is best onscreen translation of the heroes.

It’s more than childhood nostalgia that makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles such a beloved film. I’ll be the first to admit that my affinity for the property was a defining aspect of my childhood, though I was born a couple years too late to experience the peak of Turtlemania. My late arrival, which came right before the ill-received live-action series Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (1997), was something of a blessing for me. To say there was an overstock of TMNT merchandise in 1995 following the middling box office of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993) is putting it mildly. KB Toys was a treasure trove for discounted TMNT merch, and VHS copies of the memorable animated series could be found anywhere from Dollar General to Burlington Coat Factory. Turtles were cheap and easy to come by, which made them too enticing for a kid with a pocket of allowance money to resist. Before I ever saw Barron’s film, I was well acquainted with the TMNT, which added a layer of authenticity to the movie when I finally did see it.

The mid-'90s didn't offer the array of comic book films we have today, and as a kid deemed too young for Tim Burton’s Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the only film outside of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) that gave me a chance to see characters I’d familiarized myself with in cartoons and action figures brought to life. Never one to commit halfway, I saved my allowance, and, with a few extra bucks thrown my way by dad in support of the endeavor, I bought all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies from Suncoast Video. Compared to Superman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was strikingly dark, and I remember thinking at the time that it was what all adult movies must look like. There was a level of horror to the world, at least for someone whose best estimation of horror movies was gathered from VHS box art at Blockbuster. Even revisiting it last weekend for the first time in almost 20 years, I was struck by how grim the film looks. We throw around the words "dark" and "gritty" in response to modern comic book movies all the time now, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a year after Batman (1989), went all in on its production design, and in this case it was New York and not a fictional Gotham City. It’s in an NYC that feels lived in, storied, and more than a little greasy, all of which contributes to the believability of four crime-fighting mutant turtles and their master, Splinter, living in the sewers and eating pizza.

The believability of the world is what made the film work then, and it’s why the it has remained so highly regarded among fans and comic book movie connoisseurs 30 years later. Despite a production that was nothing short of a saga, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feels crafted with care and love, as opposed to the cheap cash-in it could have been.

Director Barron and screenwriters Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck managed to synthesize aspects of the popular cartoon series, including the Turtles’ catchphrases, love of pizza, and colored bandanas, along with the darker and more mature elements of Laird and Eastman’s comics, which I would not read until over a decade later. The film’s tagline “Hey dude, this is no cartoon” still manages to speak volumes about the intentions of the production. The tone is fun and playful, and the story is straightforward, but from the costumes to the performances, there’s nothing cartoonish about the film. Leonardo (Brian Tochi), Donatello (Corey Feldman), Raphael (Josh Pais), Michelangelo (Robbie Rist) and Splinter (Kevin Clash) aren’t lacking in personality, but their traits are measured in such a way that each character feels authentic, and like so much more than men in suits and wonders of puppetry. What struck me the most during my rewatch is how committed Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas and James Saito are in their respective human roles as April O’Neil, Casey Jones, and Shredder. There’s no winking aspect to their performances, no line or look that suggests they would have been anywhere else than where they were, only a genuine repartee with five dudes dressed up in 70-pound Jim Henson costumes.

There’s a level of thematic maturity in the film, one that’s sorely lacking from all the Ninja Turtles movies that followed, despite their varying degrees of enjoyability. As a property primarily aimed at children, TMNT has always seemed like one of the easiest to dismiss by parents and grandparents who didn’t grow up with it. Yet the continued existence of these characters, and the success of that first film, relies on the idea that they have the capability for depth and emotional resonance. There’s a scene early in the film where Donatello tries to broach the subject of Splinter dying. He says to Michelangelo, “Hey Mikey, did you ever think about what Splinter said tonight? I mean, what it would be like…you know, not having him?” Michelangelo offers no response to the question and instead comments on the late pizza. There is this fear of loss at the heart of the film, even when it’s punctuated by comedy. That fear comes back around later in the film during the retelling of Shredder’s origin story, in which he kills the woman he loves because she did not love him in return. And his Foot Clan, and the teenage recruits that fill his ranks, whiling away their time on his equivalent of Pleasure Island are nothing more than Lost Boys afraid of growing up and the responsibilities placed upon them by their parents and society. It’s heavy stuff for a supposed kids’ film, yet it’s that very heft that has allowed the movie to stick and stay with us into adulthood.

The second act of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which April, Casey, and the Turtles take the injured Raphael to a farmhouse in upstate New York, is such a fascinating departure for a kids’ action film to take. Not only do we get to experience the aesthetic contrast between the serenity of nature and the filth of New York, but we get to see these characters have a transcendental experience, each one processing what they’ve been through and what they will have to face in their own way.

It’s these farmhouse scenes that have stuck with me the most following my rewatch, and not to overinflate the importance of the film, but more than the grit and grime of New York, more than the committed performances, and more than the balance of cartoon and comic book influences, it’s these farmhouse scenes that I think really gave me the impression as a child that this was what films for adults must be like. In the Turtles’ contemplation on brotherhood and what their father means to them, there is an absence of nostalgia, a commitment to be renewed in service of the future rather than for the sake of recapturing the past. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been held in such esteem for so long because it is a story about growing up, about teenagers becoming adults, and the stealthy approach in how that theme is handled is nothing short of radical.