Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (1990)

teenage mutant ninja turtles

“A Jose Conseco bat? Tell me you didn’t pay money for this.”

The Scoop: 1990 PG, directed by Steve Barron and starring Elias Koteas, Cory Feldman and James Saito.

Tagline: “Hey dude, this ain’t no cartoon”

Summary Capsule: Funky martial arts turtles team up with a cute reporter and a weird hockey player to battle the foul foot of evil in NYC.

Justin’s rating: Just say NO to drugs… unless they mutate you into super-ninjas!

Justin’s review: When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out in theaters, me and my friends’ collective thoughts on it were, “Whew, I’m glad that didn’t bite.” Actually, it ended up being a very positive and (I’m sure) enriching experience, as much as anyone can have watching a movie about oversized reptiles and rodents using ninjitsu to solve their problems.

TMNT was probably the last kiddie phase I went through before the transition into my awkward, Star Trek-saturated teen years. While we never collected the action figures, there was just something so funky and eclectic about the cartoon and comic books that cried out to us in the still of the night. TMNT came at the tail-end of a decade’s worth of bizarre toy marketing to kids, to the point where we didn’t bat an eye when the TV combined “ninjas,” “mutated turtles,” “a talking brain,” and “pizza” into a smash hit.

Derived from a much more serious (if that is possible considering the mutant turtle context) series of comic books, I loved the late ’80s incarnation simply because of its weirdness and a philosophy that said, “Hey, kids. Sometimes it’s OKAY to play with knives and other sharp things!”

As with any movie based on an established franchise with millions of loyal fans, TMNT: The Movie was a substantial risk. They could’ve gone the safe route with just expanding the Saturday morning cartoon into two hours, but instead we got an independent film utilizing live acting, animatronics, and lots of stunt guys in chunky foam latex suits. Plus, with an increase in violence, swearing and a darker tone, TMNT received a PG rating and got a bit edgy for its young teen base.

Strangely enough, the movie was a smash hit, and not just in the box office. It combined elements from the cartoon with a new style, retelling the origin story of the four Turtles and their opposition to the evil Shredder. It used a lot of catch-phrases that only kids liked (okay, early episodes of The Simpsons aside, do you even hear the word “cowabunga” used any more?) coupled with surprisingly sophisticated humor that crossed generation gaps to delight most ages. However, I’m pretty sure that the 65+ crowd was probably lost on this flick, unless the Turtles started doing vaudeville.

Actually, at the time (1990) that TMNT came out, I went to a weekly Taekwondo class. I was surprised, but happily so, to learn that my 40-year old instructor saw and loved the flick too. So there ya go.

Don’t let the kiddy connotations push you away; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was, is, and is to come a terrific flick. The best of the film series, it’s got a little something-something for all tastes. When rewatching TMNT lately, I found myself seeing it through two perspectives: my memories of watching it as a 14-year-old, and my analysis as an adult and movie reviewer. It’s interesting how much good is still in here (versus my disappointing re-foray into The Neverending Story), as the jokes still make me laugh and the action is stupendously well-done for the limitations of doing martial arts in big, bulky costumes.

TMNT is the story of TV reporter April O’Neill (Judith Hoag) who discovers four mutated turtles (Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo and Rafael) and their ninja master rat Splinter residing in the sewers under NYC. Living in secret, the turtles have become masters of martial arts (because they weren’t different enough before), wear color-coded masks (Because that disguises them! Somehow!), and obsess about pizza all day long.

A “crime wave” is sweeping the city, but it’s a dubious wave of criminal activity that’s about as threatening as a group of moderately aggressive telemarketers. Led by The Shredder, a guy with some serious clothing issues, this gang recruits mostly pre-teen kids to steal cheap TVs and hang out in a warehouse skateboarding and playing roulette (huh?). Despite not involving any drugs, murder, assaults, Mafia connections, or pretty much any crime above the “mild misdemeanor” level, the city is held in the grips of fear, as indicated by really lame newspaper headings. Actual example: “It’s Worse!”

The turtles end up crossing paths with this gang (known as The Foot, but looking like houseflies in their outfits), who kidnap Splinter and force the siblings to go on the run. Fortunately, with the help of April and a Jason-wannabe by the name of Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), they become the fighting unit to end all strange fighting units, and come back to kick some shell.

The best thing about TMNT is the humor, which not only shines through creative dialogue (Casey and Donatello insulting each other alphabetically, or the turtles shouting fighting advice to a cartoon on TV), but also in each of the fights. I’m of the opinion that most hand-to-hand combat on screen is dull after about two seconds of back and forth slappings, and having the turtles crack a stream of jokes in the middle of it all gives astonishing energy to my interest level. It’s just great, because you can literally feel the frustration of the enemy ninjas wanting to be taken seriously as a threat, while the turtles toy with them and insult them nonstop.

As my dog is lying here looking at me with soulful eyes that seem to be saying, “My bladder is full, please please please take me outside soon!”, I’ll close quickly with this. You can never be too old to see a giant masked turtle beat up a guy with cymbals, and that’s a fact, Jack.

Hi, two tickets for the sensible, adult movie, please. We’re here to see the sensible, adult movie, for sensible adults.


  • Hey, “Sid”, you’re not winning any tough guy awards with those clothes and that 11-year old face, you know
  • Don’t you think that as a ninja, you might NOT want to wear a full costume with armor in broad daylight while you’re committing crimes?
  • Yeah, that crappy TV will bring you about five bucks on the market. Good choice.
  • Burger King and Domino Pizza product placement
  • The ninjitsu dance – heh, dancing turtles!
  • Ralph goes to see Critters
  • How much do I absolutely love Casey Jones? Who has a cricket bat in NYC anyway?
  • The screaming scene between April and the turtles is classic
  • The stop-motion rat and turtles in the flashback
  • The gang hide-out: kids smoking stogies, pool, video games, skateboarding ramps… yup, even James Bond couldn’t infiltrate this place
  • The gesture Gigantor makes when he says “Go… play…”
  • The Foot soldiers look like flies
  • Clever cuts between the rooftop fight and the apartment scene below
  • Casey’s entrance to the fight just couldn’t be sweeter
  • Danny, you’re such a tool
  • hehe… “Broadzilla”
  • Moonlighting reference
  • Alphabetical insulting
  • I like how the Shredder just waits for them to attack, while they’re in their huddle
  • All three newswomen seen or mentioned in the film have the name of a month in spring: April, May, and June.
  • Toward the end of the movie, one of the street punks says to the police chief “Check out East Warehouse on Lairdman Island.” The creators of the Ninja Turtles were Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
  • In the Foot Warehouse, the boxes in the foreground near the skate half-pipe read Mirage, which was the comic book company that published the first Ninja Turtle comic books.
  • This was the highest-grossing independent film of all time (by 1990), having made over $133 million in domestic box office.
  • I used to *love* the opening theme song, with the zesty steel drums. It’s still not bad, if a bit early nineties, and definitely not as bad as some of the other (much more dated) songs that grace the actual album.
  • Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created TMNT as a home-produced comic book in 1984 for $1,200. After dozens of sketches, they settled on a design for the turtles, naming each of them after a Renaissance artist (however, Mikey was misspelled as “Michaelangelo” for a while). The first issue was entirely in black and white, of which they produced 3,000 issues. Second and third re-printings sold out over 15,000 and 35,000 issues respectively. This original run of the comic books are noted for their graphic violence (yeah, the turtles definitely kill and slash here) and darker — yet still humorous — tones.
  • Leif Tilden, the performer inside the Donatello costume, also plays the Foot Messenger that meets April in the subway station.
  • Josh Pais, who plays Raphael, also plays a passenger in the back of a taxicab who says, “What the heck was that?” right after Raphael hops on the cab’s hood.
  • Michelan Sisti, the performer inside the Michaelangelo costume, also plays the pizza delivery man who delivers the pizza to the Turtles’ sewer at the beginning.
  • David Foreman, the performer inside the Leonardo costume, also plays a gang member in the warehouse when Casey Jones defeats Tatsu.

Groovy Dialogue

Casey Jones: Lead the way, toots.
April: “Toots”?
Casey Jones: Babe? Sweetcakes? Ah, Princess? You wanna throw me a clue here? I’m drowning.

Donatello: I guess they’re not lumberjacks!
Michaelangelo: No joke! The only thing safe in the forest would be the trees!

Casey Jones: [About April’s farmhouse] Didn’t they use this place in The Grapes of Wrath?

April: And he knows my name… perfect! Why don’t I ever dream of Harrison Ford?

Casey Jones: This is great. First it was the farm that time forgot and now this. Why don’t I ever fall in with people who own condos? Probably hard to get good maid service in a sewer. Maybe you guys should try Roto Rooter, huh?

[Raphael has brought an unconscious April O’Neill into the sewer]
Donatello: Why?
Raphael: Why? Why, Oh I don’t know, ’cause I wanted to redecorate. You know, ‘couple of throw pillows, a TV news reporter, what do ya think?

Leonardo: [about Shredder] Can anyone tell me who or what this is?
Michaelangelo: Don’t know, but I guess it never has to look for a can opener.

Michaelangelo: [Watching a “Tortoise and the Hare” cartoon on TV] You believe this guy? Come on, Ninja kick the damn rabbit! Do something!

Raphael: A Jose Canseco bat? Tell me you didn’t pay money for this.

Donatello: It’s a Kodak moment.

Donatello: You’re a claustrophobic.
Casey Jones: You want a fist in the mouth? I’ve never even looked at another guy!

April: And then there’s Casey Jones, a nine-year-old trapped in a man’s body. He might almost be cute if it weren’t for that pigheadedness.

Michaelangelo: Hey Donny, looks like this one is suffering from shell shock.
Donatello: Too derivative.
Michaelangelo: Well, I guess we can really shell it out.
Donatello: Too cliché.
Michaelangelo: Well, it was a shell of a good hit!
Donatello: I like it! Step up!

Passenger in Cab: What the heck was that?
Cab Driver: Looked like sort of a big turtle in a trench coat. You’re going to La Guardia right?

Michaelangelo: God, I love being a turtle!

Raphael: Cricket? Nobody understands cricket! You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket!

Danny: Don’t shoot!
Raphael: [with a sai] I don’t think it’s loaded, Kid.

Casey Jones: Hi? I look like I just called Mike Tyson a sissy and all you can say is “Hi”?

Casey Jones: You guys mind telling me what you’re doing to my little green pal over there? [Sees April] Oh, who is the babe?
Leonardo: Who the heck is that?
Michaelangelo: Wayne Gretski on steroids?

Michaelangelo: Yes, Dudes and Dudettes, major league butt-kicking is back in town!

Donatello: [April and Casey fight then go into different rooms, slamming the doors after them] Gosh, it’s kind of like Moonlighting. Isn’t it?

April: There’s neighbors about four miles away. I need to get to a phone and call my boss.
Casey Jones: You mean Charles? He left a message on your machine just before we got out… Well, hey, you just saved yourself an eight mile round tripper. Um… You were fired.
April: I…I just saved myself? What did you do, take classes in insensitivity?

If  you enjoyed this movie, try:

  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze
  • TMNT
  • Attack of the Killer Tomatoes


  1. Personally I find telemarketers to be quite threatening.

    According to an article in Smithsonian magiazine back in the Nineties (unfortunately their online archive doesn’t go back that far, so no link), the reason for the turtle names is because one of the creators (Eastman IIRC) went up to his bookshelf, closed his eyes, and grabbed a book at random. As it happened, it was one on Renaissance art. Think of what their names could have been if he had grabbed a different book. The mind boggles.

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