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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Year: 1990
Studio: Golden Harvest
Director: Steve Barron
Writer: Bobby Herbeck/Todd W Langen/Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird
Cast: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Josh Pais, David Forman, Brian Tochi, Michelan Sisti, Robbie Rist, Leif Tilden, Corey Feldman, Kevin Clash, James Saito, David McCharen

I remember sitting on a bus in Sydney back in the days when I worked in the city. I'd just bought the seven inch single of Spin That Wheel by Technotronic with Ya Kid K doing the main vocal, and I couldn't stop pulling it out of the paper bag to look at it. The front cover graphic was of the title in huge letters and a photo of Josh Pais in full costume as Raphael.

I don't remember if I'd seen a trailer by that stage, but I was endlessly fascinated by the look of the four lead characters. The make-up effects by Jim Henson's Creature Shop are still sublime – the seamless blend of rubber costumes, animatronic head and facial movements and puppetry seamless even now.

Moving from full-movement body suits where the electronics in the head didn't move (during fight scenes, for example) to medium or still shots of the titular brothers emoting and performing were doubtlessly done with cuts in editing, but I've watched this film more than a few times over the years and you still can't see the joins.

It's the very model of in-camera effects being more tactile than any amount of CGI, and because they were so well done back then you immediately invest in four humanoid turtles who love pizza and ride skateboards as I write these words almost 35 years later.

That was the sell, all that was left was for writers Bobby Herbeck and Todd W Langen to write a decent story (which Eastman and Laird, the creators of the comic, mostly did for them), director Steve Barron and the performers not to screw the rest up.

Golden Harvest, famous for Hong Kong action movies and putting the likes of Jackie Chan and John Woo on the map, actually approached Eastman and Laird with the idea of a movie after their comic book series grew popular, bringing director Barron and writer Langen with them. Barron had a relationship with Henson, and the rest is history.

When reporter April O'Neill (Judith Hoag) is attacked by muggers late one night returning home after a series of reports on an escalating crime wave in New York, she's rescued by a group of four barely-seen figures who burst out of the sewer, fight off the creeps and disappears back below the street again, leaving her dazed but unhurt.

When the leader of the underground criminal gang who's actually behind the crime wave, a Japanese ronin warrior named The Shredder (James Saito/David McCharen) orders O'Neill silenced before she exposes them all, she's once again rescued after The Shredder's minions – the Foot Clan – attack her on the subway.

Her rescuer, Raphael (Pais, who also did the voice), brings her back to their subterranean home where she meets the family, erstwhile leader Leonardo (David Forman/Brian Tochi), party dude Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti/Robbie Rist) and computer whiz Donatello (Leif Tilden/Corey Feldman) and rat Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash but controlled entirely by puppetry), who identifies as their adoptive father.

Splinter explains how four humanoid, bipedal and intelligent animals who speak English came about when a mysterious ooze leaked into the subway, how his former owner was a kung fu expert and how he mimicked his movements from his cage and how, when he found himself in the care of four baby turtles, he decided to take them in and teach them everything he knew about the art of ninjitsu.

After her shock, April is delighted to have the incredible new friends in her life, but The Shredder is closing in on them all, and with the help of lone vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a battle of skill, will and bravery ensues, especially when splinter is taken prisoner by The Shredder and strung up as bait for the guys.

I'd never read the comics or watched the cheesy animated TV show from a couple of years earlier. I knew they existed, but it was the thought of seeing how they made such distinctive (if silly) characters in live action that hooked me. From the time I first saw a photo or clip on an entertainment news program – I can't remember which – I was jumping out of my skin with excitement.

I might have been so in love with the idea it blinded me to any deficits or shortfalls in quality in the actual script or the filmmaking, but I stand by my defence of the film to this day. Aside from the superlative effects, there's the easy charm and naturalistic performances by Hoag and Koteas. There's the humour and moments of darkness that aren't at all for little kids.

But even if I'm wrong about the rest of of what I loved about it, I don't care. It might have been my age at the time, but it was one of those experiences with a movie that gave me a sense of lifelong ownership, the lightning-in-a-bottle magic you get all too seldom and (I'm afraid) you might simply get too old for.

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