Saturday, May 3, 2014

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Retrospective

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The First Turtles movie came out in 1990 during the run of the much beloved animated series that debuted in 1987 and continued until 1996. With a cartoon MUCH beloved by it's fan it was ONLY logical that a feature film would find it's self in production one day. Back then these things were looked on with MUCH anticipation, nowadays they're looked upon with scorn and pity for it's fan base.  The film was directed by Steve Barron in one of his first feature film directing gigs and this film also features the first gigs of MANY names we know in the film industry, specifically Sally Menke, who, 2 years after became Quentin Tarantino's primary editor on ALL of his films.

As far as the producing side of things, there are 2 names I wanna high light, Raymond Chow & David Chan. Raymond Chow was once a production chief for The Legendary Shaw Brothers Studios from the late 1950's to mid 70's. Chow has had the pleasure to work with pioneers of the Kung-Fu genre, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. David Chan was also served as producer of one of Jackie Chan's earlier films "The Protector", in 1985. So already The first Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle movie is off to a good start with people who understand Kung-Fu and Martial arts films working on it. But simply having the technical aspect down doesn't make your movie a slam dunk.

The strength of the film is found in the writing which comes from Bobby Herbeck & Todd W. Langen. Herbeck served as a writer for such TV shows as "Differen't Strokes", "The Jeffersons" and "Small Wonder", while Herbeck got the primary credit for the story, I consider Todd W. Langen to be the primary source of the development for the characters. Langen served as a writer for one of TV's most famous coming of age shows "The Wonder Years". So with strong Kung-Fu producers and writers who are used to writing developing characters and comedic elements WITHOUT hindering the story, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Movie was underway and I have to say that this movie by ALL accounts is a cinematic masterpiece.

The film manages to switch pretty flawlessly between protagonists, our first is April O'Neil. April is a great character because right away we get the idea that she's ambitious, fearless and good at her job. The opening issue in the is pretty clear as crime is at an all time high, everything from petty crime to grand larceny. April manages to connect the dots to an ancient Japanese sub-culture known as "The Foot Clan". I'll touch on this later. The second protagonist of the film is undeniably Raphael. Raphael is the secondary protagonist because it's through his character that April is introduced further into the world of the turtles and further into the story of the Foot Clan. Not to mention it's Raphael's conflict that pushes the story forward.

In the beginning of the film Raphael loses his sai and he's incredibly frustrated that Splinter tells him the sai is gone. However, it's not the sai that Raphael wants to get back but rather what the sai represents. Raphael is known for his temper but his temper stems from the fact that Raphael understand THEY ARE ALL THEY HAVE! Once his brothers die, there will BE NO MORE TURTLES! Raphael has a fear of attachment and therefore his rough exterior is to keep himself distant from the realization that he's afraid to lose his brothers. THAT'S what the sai represents. So Raphael's zeal to get his sai back is really a way to maintain control over something he can keep. Notice, when Splinter is gone Raphael is so consumed with rage that he screams.

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This is made even more clear when Splinter tells the turtles that a day will come when he is no longer around and they will have to fend for themselves without his guidance. Notice, during Splinter's entire speech Raphael is standing UNTIL Splinter says "I will be gone." then Raphael falls to one knee and pays close attention. Also after Raphael's scuffle with Casey Jones, Splinter and have Raphael have a talk that ends with Raphael in tears. The discussion Splinter has with Raphael is the realization that Raphael is angry because he feels alone, why? Because HE UNDERSTANDS HE WILL BE ALONE! There is NO female turtle among them (a cardinal sin "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Next Mutation" broke) therefore they cannot reproduce, Raphael understands this COMPLETELY! Raphael already feels disconnected from his brothers and disconnected from life, hence the reason why Raphael ventures out into the world and why Raphael brought April O'Neil with him. Raphael LONGS to feel connected (this will be a point I'll bring up in the 3rd Turtles film).

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The last protagonist is Danny, but he's more of a sub-protagonist and more reflective of the theme of this movie, so I won't touch on him right now. That being said, Danny is the mode in which we meet the film's antagonist, Oroku Saki a.k.a The Shredder. In the cartoons, Shredder was an evil Japanese scientific genius hell bent on world domination, in the films, Shredder is more or less a Yakuza boss with a flare for theatrics. However, this incarnation of The Shredder is actually quite scary and he carries himself as a warlord rather than an underworld crime boss. His first appearance is 33 minutes in the movie and is heralded in with the sound of a gong and teenagers rushing to the sound of it. This is effective because it shows that The Shredder commands respect and he is someone to be feared, watch:

He has a BOOMING voice and a larger than life appearance, not to mention being practically surrounded by blades automatically makes him a guy you DON'T wanna screw with. He is everything a movie antagonist NEEDS to be. Not to mention when he's confronted with the Turtles and a talking a rat, he doesn't freak out or anything, he disregards them as "freaks" and continues on with his plans.

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The Shredder is also shown to be intelligent as he is able to assess the turtle's fighting skills from second-hand sources and pretty much owns the four of them in combat with minimal effort. Not to mention that when The Turtles are finally confronted with The Shredder, they immediately know who he is and how badly they're f*cked. This is also a testament to the story-telling power of the movie as the film didn't feel the need to rehash the story between Splinter and Shredder. We get part of the story when Splinter tells it to April and the rest we get when Splinter tells the story to Danny. Notice, both of these characters are unfamiliar with the world of the Turtles and therefore their inquiry to the turtles origins are told to them as if they are told to us. The turtles are not present for The Oroku Saki story because the film is aware that they've heard this before.

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Shifting gears again, the film's story comes together circumstantially, the Turtles manage to save April O'Neil who is investigating The Foot Clan and the leader of The Foot Clan just so happens to be Oroku Saki, however The Turtles were merely doing their job as do good vigilantes and were unaware that their efforts would lead to something much bigger. At the heart of it all, it's actually an organized crime film with The Turtles taking on the role of The FBI shutting down one of the largest crime organization in New York, with Shredder playing the role of mob boss. The film is down-to-earth enough to be realistic and comical without being stupid or going out of it's way to be silly, all of the humor in this film is organic and average fare for early 90's teenagers. The Turtles themselves aren't angst ridden and we can see strong personalities in each of them.

Donatello and Michelangelo are the most compatible and level-heads of the team, while Donatello is more of an observer in a "Deal with problems as they come" Mode, Michelangelo is more of living in the moment, this is made evident at the beginning of the film when Donatello attempts to ask Michelangelo about his thoughts regarding Splinter no longer being there with them. Michelangelo doesn't even address Donatello's question (NOT because Michelangelo is in denial) because in his mind "Splinter is here now and that's all that matters.".

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Leonardo takes over as the central protagonist midway through the film after his spat with Raphael. Leonardo's conflict is that he blames himself for Raphael's beating as he allowed him to leave alone. Leonardo is the defacto leader of the group as he is the MOST devoted to Splinter. Leonardo is the one to take control of the group and and gets them back on task BUT notice, once Raphael is knocked out, Leonardo maintains a constant vigil on him.

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Leonardo and Raphael both share an understanding that they are all they have, however Leonardo chooses to embrace while Raphael chooses to push away. Because of this, Raphael often mocks Leo because of his own inability to cope with the truth that they're ultimately alone. However when Raphael is taken out of the picture, Leonardo has to cope with not only potentially losing his father but failing his brother. Leonardo and Raphael blame themselves for Splinter's kidnapping, Leonardo for not leaving soon enough and Raphael for (inadvertently) leading The Foot Clan to their hide-out. Leonardo needs Raphael to keep him focused and Raphael needs Leonardo to be there for him and remind him that he is NOT alone. The great irony here is that both Leonardo and Raphael are afraid of losing each other but have VERY different ways of dealing with that fear, another irony is that it is Leo who completely shuts down when Raphael is taken out.

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The theme of this movie is undeniably Family or more specifically Fathers & Sons, both good and evil. Shredder refers to himself as "Father" when making his speech to The Foot Clan and Casey Jones at the end of the film questions The Foot Clan's concept of family. Shredder ultimately created a teenager's paradise in his lair by providing them games, toys and all forms of recreation while at the same time imposing discipline and clear form of hierarchy. Notice, at the sound of the gong EVERYONE (without question or hesitation) stops what they're doing and RUSHES to see Shredder. The film's sub-protagonist Danny is reflective of the film's theme as his central story is focused on the contentious relationship he has with his father.

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Danny is under the impression that his father cares nothing for him and therefore Danny looks to a "family" in The Foot Clan, however as Splinter points out "All fathers care for their sons.". Splinter cares deeply for his sons and through Splinter's love and belief in his children, Danny is able to see the error of his ways. Essentially, Splinter takes on Danny as a surrogate son and schools him on what a family is supposed to look like. The Turtles are a broken family and are seeking to rebuild themselves without the guidance of their father, but they all manage to come together and use Splinter's teachings to guide them. April and Casey are also inducted into the Turtle family with April becoming that target of The Foot Clan and Casey helping the Turtles escape and coming to Raphael's aide when he didn't need to.

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This is the apex of what a cartoon to live action movie should be in terms of execution, realism and mature story-telling WITHOUT being "dark", "gritty" or "angst-ridden". The sense of urgency is present without it being a world ending issue and the character conflicts are present, accounted for and resolved perfectly. This movie is PERFECT in every sense of the word and there are very few like this. With all this going for it on it's first outing, it was clear that then 2nd movie was going to be just as awesome...unfortunately, that's not what happened, but we'll get to that when we get to it. Until then...

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