“Shellabrate” – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Turns 30

30 Years After the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie


So, no secret to anybody that follows me I am a huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. You could say I am a certified shell head! From comic books, cartoons, toys, movies you name it I love all things TMNT (mostly). I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is the 30th anniversary of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie theatrical release on March 30, 1990. 30 years ago we were blessed with in my opinion, still the best comic book adaptation to the big screen to date. Let us get into what made this movie so epic and why it still holds up 30 years later, hold onto your shell’s it is going to get radical!

First let’s remind ourselves of the awesomeness



Some quick backstory on me, I don’t remember if I saw the original TMNT in theaters or not? Seeing that I had only recently turned three years old when it was released. But I might have my parents would have to answer that. Now I know for sure I saw Secret of the Ooze the sequel because my brother and I danced in the theater aisle and did ninja moves. But I know for sure I had a worn-out VHS tape of the original movie, I vividly remember watching it.

I remember even as a kid thinking these are not my cartoon Turtles. The Jim Henson costumes were incredibly realistic. Plus the movie was dark and the Turtles a bit more serious. My favorite Turtle Raphael even cursed! Oh my, what was happening? But I still loved every bit of it. It would be much later in my life until I would fully appreciate what this movie did from adapting the original comic book and combining it with the cartoon. At this time Brent just loved seeing his Turtles in action, cowabunga!

Comic Book or Cartoon?

There is some deep history that I am not going to get into, but if you want some more in-depth detail I suggest you pick up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History for a more in-depth look into the franchise and everything that went on with this movie. So a quick abridged version. Since you are reading a comic book website you probably know Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a joke between Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. That joke turned into a self-published indie comic in 1984. So popular a toy company picked it up and made a cartoon out of it.

The cartoon was drastically different from the black and white comic book. The turtles where not as violent or belligerent. They were given color-coded bandannas to differentiate them more, “surfer talk” made them hip, pizza-loving and skateboarding fun were added. The turtles still had their signature weapons but their ninja fighting was severely turned down for some child-friendly exploits. Then boom the cartoon launched and the rest is history Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a household name after 1987. 

After such success for three years, a movie about 4 radical turtles and their Rat master/father was a no brainer. But surely they would make it animated and kid-friendly, right? No way they would adapt the original comic book and make it live-action. Especially in 1990. No way would work, or would it?

Big Screen

David Forman, Josh Pais, and Leif Tilden in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
David Forman, Josh Pais, and Leif Tilden in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

I think one of the most shocking things about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is that those costumes still hold up. Jim Henson was a master of his craft and you can see it all across this movie. The fact that the faces and mouths looked so real. The movement in them is just crazy. The actors inside could actually move as well is incredible and it transfers so surprisingly well onto the screen. I mean it legitimately feels like you are watching a Mutant Turtle on screen. It fully transports you into this world and makes you believe. I have always been a fan of practical effects in movies and this is some of the best. Not to poor onto the most recent movies, but the CGI can’t hold a candle to the original movie costumes.

The other shocking aspect is how well the movie blends the two versions of the Turtles. It wouldn’t be until later in life that I would read the original comic and come back to this movie to appreciate the adaptation of it. First, it adapts the first storyline perfectly from the original comic book. It is dark and edgy surprisingly violent and it wasn’t afraid to add attitude. Raphael got beaten up pretty badly and we spend a lot of time nursing him back to health. Plus that whole scene in April’s apartment/her parent’s Antique store burning down is incredibly vivid/brutal.

Think About the Children

As a kid watching it kind of “gut checked” you. Like wow, my heroes are in danger and they are getting hurt. Like, this is not supposed to happen.

I am sure many kids and parents were surprised to see such brash, aggressive Turtles on the big screen. You know people were shocked because parents petitioned the second movie to not be so violent. It is why you don’t see the Turtles use their weapons hardly at all in the Secret of the Ooze.

Sign of the Times

It also was not afraid to be melodramatic and sad. The Turtles get their shells handed to them by The Foot. Which in retrospect is great because it shows the Foot Clan as formidable. They retreat to April’s farm in Northampton where we see the Turtles, literally bleeding and bruised collecting themselves. They mourn Splinter and go through a bought of depression. It is all pretty heavy stuff especially to people and kids who only knew the bodacious cartoon turtles. The Northhampton set is always one of my favorites because it slows the movie down lets us get to know all the characters, even the gruff Casey Jones.

The movie also bleeds the 90’s and the crime-ridden New York era. TMNT was written in the 1980s when New York was not the New York of today. Just go ahead and look at old pictures you will be shocked. TMNT shows that New York, crime-ridden and a scary place.

It is also a nostalgic look into the late 80’s early 90’s. From the music to the clothes everything has this wonderful look to it. Just watch that scene when Danny comes to the Foot Clan hangout for the first time. That is essential late 80’s early 90’s right there.

Mixing it up

James Saito in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
James Saito in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

The creators and people behind the scenes where not stupid either, they didn’t leave out what “brought them to the dance”. The fun-loving, pizza scarfing, skateboard riding wacky Turtles that everyone fell in love with where there as well. They sliced and diced pizza, made jokes and skateboarded through the sewers.

They plaid up the “teenage” aspect of the Turtles well, which at times seems to get lost. It is in the name “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. These are adolescents; yeah they are giant turtles with ninja skills. But still, they should act like “kids”. Liking pizza and junk food; making odd jokes and being all around moody.

It was the perfect blend of the no-nonsense comic book turtles and the goofy fun of the Saturday morning cartoon turtles. It had just enough of both to satisfy everybody. 

Costumes and Characters

Even not talking about the incredible work on the Turtles costumes the whole costume design and sets are all beautifully well done. The Foot Clans Ninja simplistic costume shines perfectly on the big screen. They look very intimidating and cool at the same time. Shredder’s purple get up with blades everywhere should look ridiculous but again, it just works so well in the movie.

Also the whole set design again the way New York is framed and shot is superbly well done to show this grimy, crime-ridden city. The way April O’Neil voices over the opening shots. It is just delightfully done.

TMNT also added in some new characters. Like the super intimidating Tatsu, I can still hear is the raspy gruff voice in my head! And who can forget Danny? That little punk stealing money and then having the Turtles bail him out.

In the End

Finally, I think I can see not even being a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan that it is a solid movie. If somebody wanted one thing to kind of encapsulate TMNT then this movie would be a great thing to show. It has the seriousness and edginess, but also that playful fun as well. It combines what made the Turtles popular in the comic book world and what made them popular as a Saturday morning cartoon/huge toy seller.

Even looking at it through non-nostalgic eyes the movies still hold up to this day. It is of a specific time and era, but it is a well structured, well-made film. It also has what all of TMNT is always about is family. That shines through the film. It has action, adventure, comedy, and drama all rolled into one.

So, if you have never seen the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie or if you haven’t watched it since your childhood this is perfect to watch it. Also if you have never read the original comic book, I would implore you to check that out and then watch it to gain a whole new appreciation for it. 

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