UNFAIR COMPARE: TMNT (1990) vs. TMNT (2014)
Instead of doing anything productive with my afternoon, I decided to see the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I still had a free movie pass to burn, so there ya go.
Which brings us to this week’s edition of UNFAIR COMPARE.
To be honest, I’m kind of afraid of falling into a crotchety-old-man trap of saying “THE ORIGINAL WAS BETTER,” whenever I do these features. Then again, I suppose it’s not my fault that Hollywood keeps on making terrible movies. Maybe I’ll do a feature comparing, say, the 1980’s Captain America to The Winter Soldier just for fairness’ sake, but that’ll have to wait ’til later.
But yeah, the new TMNT movie isn’t quite as bad as I was afraid it was going to be, but I still prefer the original version, for reasons I shall expound on shortly. I didn’t leave the theater feeling bewildered and mildly angry, like I did when I saw the new Transformers. I imagine part of this comes from the fact that I’m not as emotionally invested in TMNT as I am in Transformers- despite both franchises being key parts of my childhood, I still go out of my way to collect Transformers toys, but not Ninja Turtles. (Seriously, my Classics shelf is pretty badass).
Then again, there’s also the fact that TMNT’s kind of been ruined from the start. The franchise started off as a parody, and went in all kinds of gonzo directions from there. It’s naked, crass marketing at its finest, and I’m sure TMNT merch will continue to keep Eastman and Laird rolling in cash moneys for a long time.
See, here’s the thing. Alamo Drafthouse is the best place in town to see a movie, for a variety of reasons. To start, they’ve got a damn fine beer selection, and you can get it at your seat. And with a lot of the movies I wind up watching, a steady supply of alcohol helps immensely.
Another fun thing about Alamo Drafthouse is how they have themed pre-show stuff before each movie. So instead of boring commercial slides or whatever, they have stupid youtube videos or cartoons from earlier incarnations of the franchise or whatever.
This time around, they featured random clips from the time the Ninja Turtles were on Oprah (it happened!) to promote their ‘Coming out of their Shells’ musical tour.
Those clips were pretty key, really, as they served as a reminder that, as bad as the upcoming movie might be, it would have to try really hard to be any worse than the Turtles had been before. (Then again, they also featured some footage from the TMNT II arcade game, which is awesome).
Anyway, let’s get to some bullet points!
To the credit of both movies, they focus more on the turtles than the random human supporting characters. So yay for that.
Still, I have to give 1990’s TMNT credit for having Casey Jones, who is awesome.
On the other hand, I will concede that the new movie at least had one piece of inspired casting, putting Will Arnett into the role of April O’Neil’s cameraman, Vern. Does anyone else remember Vern from the old cartoon? Because seriously, Vern. He even got his own action figure!
THE BAD GUYS
In the old TMNT flick, the Foot Clan had a pretty straightforward M.O. They’d tempt random street punks to their bad-ass hideout (they had NARC!), train them to be ninjas, and then have the ninjas run around and steal TV’s. This is how you did crime in 1980’s New York.
This also gave room for the 1990 movie to have a subplot involving one of the punk-ass kids initially betraying the turtles, and then helping them out, and otherwise having a proper character arc. So yay for that! Though in retrospect, the 1990’s punk kids would never get past film censors or whatever nowadays. I mean, they smoked. Dun dun dun.
This is the sort of thing you don’t see in movies anymore- the premise of New York being near apocalyptic levels of grit and anarchy. Blame Guliani for cleaning up NYC, or Hollywood for favoring CGI or whatever, but there’s something kind of compelling in that kind of interpretation; it shows a setting that needs a vigilante hero to save it.
In comparison, the NYC of 2014 feels pretty generic. So does the Foot Clan; they’re just random Call of Duty looking dudes with guns. Since they’re not ninjas, I’m assuming they’re spelling ‘clan’ with a ‘k’ because they’re racists or something.
Oh, and new-Shredder stomps around in his Michael-Bay-Megatron cosplay outfit, which I guess means he accomplishes more than 1990 Shredder, but he doesn’t have near as much menace- or motivation, really. The new Foot Klan has some evil scheme they cribbed off an old James Bond movie, but it really doesn’t make any damn sense when you think about it too hard. So, y’know, don’t think about it too hard.
There’s been a lot said about the re-design of the new Turtles- and to be honest, I’m not that torn up about it. The original TMNT were barely distinguishable at all (they even had red masks!), so deviation to individualize them makes sense. It’s not like they haven’t worn terrible outfits before, either. This said, they still kind of look like The Hulk’s hobo bastard children.
In both 1990 and in 2014, the Ninja Turtles were brought to life using the most advanced technology at the time. It’s just that in 1990, that involved Jim Henson’s creature factory, and in 2014 it involves banks and banks of computers.
However, in making the Turtles CG, I think something is lost. For one, in the original movie, they weren’t just puppets- there were dudes inside the costumes, jumping around and kicking dudes in the face. And you know who did the fight coordination for the 1990 TMNT? A little company called Golden Harvest. This is awesome.
You know why this is awesome? Because Golden Harvest is the same company that produced a buttload of classic Jackie Chan movies, among others.
So, on the one hand, you have a movie that’s directly related to Jim Henson and tangentially related to Jackie Chan. On the other, you have…a bunch of rendering software. Huh.
We all know the breakdown:
“Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines.
Raphael is cool, but rude.
Michaelangelo is a party dude.”
Don’t lie, you just sang that.
The 2014 TMNT movie takes these basic personality traits and pounds on them- they’re one-note characters in the sense that hitting a key on a piano with a hammer still counts as one note. I’m not saying the 1990 movie was an Oscar-worthy piece of character work, but it managed to show the basic personalities of the turtles with a little more (read: any) nuance.
Take Raphael, for example. In the 1990 movie, it actually shows us his anger, and he sets off on his own to get into trouble on numerous occasions. He even swears! There’s a whole generation who learned the word ‘damn’ because of Raphael. But by the end, he returns to the fold in order to rescue Splinter. This is what’s called a ‘character arc.’
Meanwhile, in the new movie, Raphael is just kind of a dick, then he gets some rocks dropped on him, and then he makes a teary confession towards the end of the movie about why he’s a dick. It’s…yeah.
Honestly, though, Splinter is the one who comes off the worst in this movie. Why is that, might you ask? It’s pretty straightforward, really- Splinter’s introduced in the new movie by beating the snot out of the Turtles for breaking curfew.
Nevermind the fact that the Turtles were out saving lives or anything, it’s just ‘Oop, corporal punishment time!’ He softens up a little bit later when it’s time to give exposition, but he still comes off like a dick.
In comparison, 1990’s Splinter is a kindly old kung-fu master- frail, but wise. He manages to connect to the punk-rock Foot-clan recruit kid when he’s captured, and it’s clear over the course of the movie (and of the next few) that Splinter rules over his ‘children’ through respect, not fear. He even wins the day through trickery. These things are key points, if you ask me. And that’s before you get into the slightly problematic aspect where new-movie-Splinter learns to be Asian from a book he finds in the sewers.
Besides, old-Splinter makes a funny.
I wasn’t expecting a good movie when I went in. And again, the movie wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting it to be.
This said, the new TMNT lacks a lot of the old franchise’s charm. And heck, the new TMNT aren’t even good at ninja-ing; we never get any of those cool (but cheap) camera tricks where they just dissappear (because that’s what ninjas do).
I suppose you could escalate the threat level of the Foot Clan by giving them assault rifles- but the Turtles are revealed to be bulletproof about two thirds of the way through the movie, so that kind of eliminates that threat. And even before then, the Turtles are punching through walls and throwing shipping containers around and all sorts of stuff.
What it really comes down to is the fact that the new TMNT is a superhero movie…but the old one isn’t. The old TMNT flick is a 1980’s Ninja movie, and that’s what makes it great. The stakes are far more personal in the old flick- Splinter wants to avenge his master, Shredder wants revenge for the scars on his face, the Turtles want to rescue Splinter, etc.
Of course, I’ve heard they’re already making plans for a sequel to the new TMNT, because Hollywood has no new ideas. Though really, there’s potential here, as this might be an opportunity to go into the crazy-ass gonzo corners of the TMNT franchise that haven’t been explored before.