Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a movie about turtles. They have mutated, lived to become teenagers, and are trained in the arts of ninjutsu. Let us return to a more bodacious time, when this combination of traits was last seen in live-action cinema.

1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is among the very highest grossing independent movies ever made. Something about that just sounds quite absurd, right? Not that it was a hit - for those of you not alive in 1990, or too young to remember, the Ninja Turtles franchise was an unbelievably pervasive kiddie cultural juggernaut of a sort that comes along literally once a generation - but that it was an indie production. Nothing about the brand name screams indie, nor does the entirely run-of-the-mill action movie narrative covered by that brand name, nor does the actual onscreen evidence of the money spent making it: the hugely impressive animatronic suits developed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop (it was, in fact, the final project with Creature Shop creations that Henson himself lived to see released) alone seem like they'd be far outside of anything that normally gets referred to as an "indie production". The broad strokes of the design are a bit unpleasant, but that's inherent to the Ninja Turtle concept; and the highly articulated, flexible mouths don't necessarily move in anything like perfect accord with the words the characters are speaking. But as an effect, the range of expressions, maneuverability, and plausibility of the turtles could hardly be improved on if the film was made with all the might of all the studios put together backing them up.

The surprisingly costly and impressive suits are emblematic of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a whole: it resembles a real movie far more than you'd ever think it would, given how it was made, and for what reason. Cashing in on a children's television fad that was even more impressive as a toy line than a cartoon series would suggest not merely a bad film but an absolutely unacceptable and aesthetically offensive one, and TMNT is... I hesitate to say "good". No, no, I can't go on and say something absolutely stupid and silly like that. This is a not-good movie. But it's not good more because of the masters it has to serve than because the filmmakers decided to put their very least amount of effort into making it. Broadly speaking, the film wants to be a strict adaptation of the comic book by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, which was a light parody of the then-new Dark Age of comic books, but it also knows that it owes its existence and its audience to the long-running cartoon that started up in 1987, and adopted a vastly more frivolous, afternoon adventure tone than the comic book ever did. It cannot have been a very pleasant job for writers Bobby Herbeck and Todd W. Langen to hammer the material into a shape that served both ends equally, and in the end it feels like exactly the unwieldy hybrid it is: goofy, kid-pandering characters and jokes crossed with a surprisingly dark view of pre-Giuliani New York and enough "damns" and "hells" to make an easily-offended 1990 parent rush for the fainting couch. It's like a movie that couldn't decided between being G or PG-13, and thus ended up at PG mostly by accident and attrition.

The writing is pretty much helpless; adapted from a couple different comic arcs, the screenplay can never quite manage to keep all its subplots and conflicts heading in the same direction at the same speed, and we thus end up with a movie that has the appearance of a story structure more than the fact of one. The plot concerns April O'Neil (Judith Hoag), a news reporter trying to embarrass the NYC government and police administrators into doing something about the weird rash of crimes lately, which rumor and fear have credited to an East Asian crime syndicated called the Foot Clan. She's close enough to truth that the Foot begins to throw assassins at her. Meanwhile, in the sewers, a toxic spill 15 years ago (depicted in a grainy flashback) created mutants out of a five animals: a wise man-sized rat named Splinter (Kevin Clash providing the voice and leading the puppetry team) has trained four man-sized turtles that he has named Raphael (Josh Pais), Leonardo (David Forman in the suit, Brian Tochi voicing), Michaelangelo (Michelan Sisti in the suit, Robbie Rist voicing) and Donatello (Leif Tilden in the suit, Corey Feldman voicing) to practice ninjutsu. Raphael, the angriest and most impetuous of the turtles, is eager to go out and save the world from violence and cruelty, which is how he ends up rescuing April from the Foot in an empty subway station, making her aware of these odd heroes-in-waiting. The downside is that it also brings them to the attention of the Shredder (James Saito, voiced by David McCharen), leader of the Foot, who has splinter kidnapped. This is about as far as a normal plot synopsis can take us; from here on, the film is broadly in the wheelhouse of " the turtles hunt for Splinter and fight the Foot Clan with April and the hockey-themed vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas)", but it's really not the case at all that it follows this arc with anything like dramatic momentum or even, necessarily, clear-cut scene-by-scene causal relationships.

The good news, then, is that for all its shortcomings as a story, TMNT is actually better as an atmospheric light action film set among the grottiest corners of New York that North Carolina could manage to portray. The names of director Steve Barron and cinematographer John Fenner are not likely to be familiar to you (they certainly weren't to me), though Barron spent a healthy chunk of the '90s helming mildly prestigious TV effects showcases, and Fenner shot the decade's first two theatrical Muppet films; but a lack of fame doesn't mean that they didn't have some measure of talent and artistry to throw around, and it's honestly a little surprising just how handsome parts of TMNT end up looking. And even more surprising (though in light of both men's work on the Henson TV series The Storyteller, it shouldn't be), the framing of shots and the blocking of scenes doesn't ever obviously feel like the movie is slowing down or standing back to accommodate the turtle suits. On the contrary, the camera whips around and past them, adding a real sense of excitement to the action that needs all the excitement it can muster; the fight choreography, alas, isn't quite as able to work around the suits as the cinematography proves to be.

The action is bad and the plot is rough and rocky; not the ingredients for a great action film, and TMNT isn't one. But the unapologetically hokey humor and dialogue and characters have their charms for sheer late-'80s kitsch value, though these charms are often meager (Pais playing Raphael as a full-throated Noo Yawker is a pretty regrettable development; and a little bit of the surfer dude vocabulary goes a long way), and the depiction of kid-friendly squalor is impressive; just dark enough to have some real weight to it, without any seriously damaging violence or bleakness. So let's call it a push: not a good movie, but perfectly harmless and soothing. I have no nostalgia for this one, despite being the perfect age for it (I stopped at the cartoon), but worse films have stayed alive in the cultural consciousness for purely nostalgic reasons, and the top-tier creature effects haven't lost an ounce of their effectiveness after nearly a quarter of a century. It's not really worth seeking out, but at least there's nothing to be embarrassed about for those who choose to do so.

Reviews in this series
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Pressman, 1991)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (Gillard, 1993)