Pop quiz: Name the most successful independently produced film in Hollywood history. Stumped? You're reading a review of the DVD right now. Hotter than Pokemon at their peak, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a merchandising machine, and their current comeback is pretty strong as well. It didn't get much bigger than this however, the first feature film.
Four mutated, talking, teenage turtles and their master, a giant, mutant, talking rat name Splinter, begin to defend New York against a major crime wave. At the heart of this big news story is the Foot Clan, led by Splinter's old nemesis Iroku Sakai, otherwise known as Shredder. With their master kidnapped by this group of thugs, the turtles join together with news reporter April O'Neal (Judith Hoag) and Casey Jones (Elisas Koteas) to rescue Splinter and save the city from the menace.
I can still remember (barely) the first time I seen "TMNT." Dragging my mom along unwillingly on opening day, her face was shocked by the sheer amount of violence contained in this film. Now that I can see it without bias of the Ninja Turtle Fan Club, I have to agree. For a PG-rated film, this is unrelenting in its depiction of Raphael being beaten, Splinter being tortured, and the brutal death of Shredder. It's pretty amazing this one got past the MPAA with this rating.
Following the original comic and shying far away from the animated series most kids were familiar with, this is really a great movie. Once you get past the 6-foot tall talking amphibians, you'll find the film filled with some great pop-culture references (from "Critters" to Vanna White) and superb fight scenes. How some of the stunts were done from inside the suits is unbelievable and their animatronic facial expressions (from the Jim Henson creature shop) give each turtle a personality. You really need to watch it a few times just to catch everything included.
The story itself is pretty bare bones. A simple good versus evil morality tale has been done to death, but in order to help the target audience follow the on-screen action, this was necessary. Surprises are few unless you have never seen a movie before (everything here is foreshadowed), but it hardly matters. The title characters are a blast to watch, their costumes are amazing, and fans of the comic will surely be satisfied. This is a movie that will appeal to just about everyone, but be aware it can be pretty grim. (**** out of *****)
Viewers have a choice of watching the film in either 1.85:1 widescreen or cropped pan and scan. These are contained on separate sides of the disc, but neither version looks very good. In fact, these transfers are terrible. If you read DVD reviews and wonder what "film grain" is, this movie is practically the definition. Nearly all background details have been lost and darker scenes are hard to make out. Compression rears its ugly head a few moments as well, but it never takes over like the grain. The case itself claims this comes from a new high-definition transfer, but that's hardly believable. The only positives are some occasionally bright colors and very strong black levels. This movie looks ten years older than it really is. (*)
The newly revamped soundtrack, mixed into 5.1, is great. The soundtrack really gets things going in the LFE channel and echo effects when inside the sewer are outstanding. Stereo effects are superb, really doing a great job of using all three front speakers to match what's on screen. A few moments even send the turtles into the rear speakers, particularly a sequence with Donatello skateboarding in the sewer. (****)
Sparse on features, New Line really missed an opportunity here. Besides some trailers (oddly, this movies trailer plays automatically when the disc is put in), information on the turtles, and a really bad "Sewer Maze" game that hardly qualifies as entertainment, this disc is barren. A VHS documentary exists on the making of the film, so where is it? How about something on the phenomenon Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created? This is disappointing. (*)
If you never watched this movie because you thought it was for kids, you're missing out on a great film. It really has a little bit of everything and though it does cater to the target audience (it has to) a little bit, this is 90-minutes of pure cinematic fun. Don't feel embarrassed to grab this one at the video store.