Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a goofy film walking a high-wire balance between a bunch of different tones and ideas.
On the one hand, we have the setting and theme of urban decay. The movie is largely shot in dark grungy city sets, with plenty of dialogue about broken morals of today’s youth in a big messy city; much of the intrigue deals with a big mysterious unknown force pulling teens towards depravity and crime. That by itself would be more than enough of a theme to carry a popcorn film like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But even stronger than the moral decay of modernity, TMNT is drowning in kung-fu/ninja mysticism. I suppose, they are in some ways two sides of the same coin: Some teens lean into grime and crime, stealing car stereos and smoking cigarettes; others find self-discipline and spiritual sensitivities by becoming ninjas.
So take those two concepts — a ninja movie in a grungy city — and add the icing on top: A thick layer of cheeky sarcasm thanks to nonstop quipping teenager one-liners. Lots of ’90s stoner “attitude.”
Oh, and, of course, the protagonists are wearing rubber turtle costumes.
For all of the different ideas trying to fit into one movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles usually defers to being an annoying stoner action-comedy. Saturating every scene with totally radical, pizza-eating bros (who just so happened to be ninja turtles) distorts everything with a haze of irony that undercuts the handful of moments where the film needs to be dramatic.
There’s something uncanny and surreal about the way the movie treats its animatronic and latex formed entities as fully fledged characters, especially Raphael and Splinter. The costumes very much get in the way of the emotive potential of the film — the latex suits have about three total facial gestures.
The movie’s big twist — that Shredder feuded with Splinter back when Splinter was just an ordinary rat — is played totally straight to the point that it rises to campy hilarity.
Even with the weird energy (and, to some extent, because of it), TMNT is a pretty compelling piece of entertainment. There’s just the right amount of action, and it’s well-staged and fun. And while 90% of the one-liners are groaners, there is the occasional gem:
“Wise man say: ‘Forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza.’”
It’s also tough to deny that there is a nostalgia appeals to the film. There’s nothing more early-’90s than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Every boy I knew growing up imagined themselves as a ninja. And the idea of human-sized, pizza-eating turtles is intrinsically funny and charming. I’d say the franchise — at least the first in the series — is worth watching for anyone with an appreciation of cheeseball kung-fu blockbusters.