In 1990, a film about four brothers who are trained in the art of ninjutsu by their single father and then save New York City from the scourge of a violent street gang, was released to rapturous audiences. It became the highest grossing independent film of all time (eventually surpassed by "The Blair Witch Project" nine years later). If you read the above description and already know which film I'm referring to, congratulations, you are my people, let's grab a drink. But if you're scratching your head in confusion as to the name of this film, let me save you some time—it's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
In his two-and-a-half out of five star review of the film, the venerable critic Roger Ebert wrote, "This movie is nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and probably is the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie." As much respect as I have for Ebert, rest his soul, his review was irritating. Even more favorable reviews dismissed it as a silly film—kids will enjoy it, but otherwise why waste your time?
That attitude has carried on for some thirty-plus years, as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) continues to not be treated with the respect it deserves. Specifically, it doesn't get nearly enough praise as a film that has something necessary to say about New York City. On their respective lists of “101 Best New York City Movies,” neither Time Out nor Vulture saw fit to include the Turtles. Vogue's "23 Movies That Will Bring New York to You"? Nope. Conde Nast Traveler's "49 Movies That Will Transport You to New York City"? Nuh-uh. Rotten Tomatoes has a list of two-hundred-and-twelve movies about New York City and not a single one is "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." The only appearance on any of these lists—that I have seen—for Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, Master Splinter, and April O'Neil, is Complex's "The Best New York City Movies: 50 Flicks About The City That Never Sleeps." And even then, it's not the original that's highlighted but rather, its vastly inferior sequel ("The Secret of the Ooze"), which features a Vanilla Ice cameo.
This is a disgrace. It's an injustice. Sure, it's fair game to dismiss the Turtles, who live in the true underbelly of the city in all of its glorious grime, in the literal sewers. But to get a real New York experience, I'm supposed to watch "Manhattan," to see a middle-aged pseudo-intellectual stare at the skyline and "date" a 17 year old? Is watching four giant ninja turtles take down an opposing group of masked ninjas on the subway platform somehow less thrilling than watching Dan Akroyd and Bill Murray carrying their proton packs to capture ghosts? You want to convince me that the Foot clan, headed by Shredder in all his metal-faced glory, is less intimidating than Nino Brown and his goons in "New Jack City"? IS CASEY JONES AND APRIL O'NEIL'S SEXUAL CHEMISTRY NOT AS TITILLATING AS THAT BETWEEN HARRY AND SALLY IN "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY"??? (Let's just take a moment here to truly appreciate the incredibly versatile and talented Elias Koteas, a human character tasked with carrying the muppet-once-removed turtles to cinematic glory.)
Let's take this even further—"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is an immigrant story. Splinter has moved to New York City from Japan, with no familial blood ties in his new home—so he creates a family that, while they live in poverty, subsists on their love for one another, while he, as patriarch, passes down the lessons of his cultural heritage to his Americanized children. Let's not even stop there (why would we?!)—"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is also a story about how the NYPD has failed ordinary citizens with their inability to prevent crime. In that vacuum, four marginalized residents take on the task of community protection, while the police twiddle their thumbs and yell at a dogged reporter who dares question their competence. And let's take it even a step further than that—"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is about how the city's divestment from its youth leads to a feeling of alienation. The non-turtle youth in this film then turn to antisocial behavior, when really all they're seeking is a community that cares. (We can all be heroes in a half-shell.)
You're telling me this isn't a classic tale of social decay in a gilded palace? That this isn't New York City? And this is all before you get to the goddamn pizza, with cheese dripping off the slice right into your turtle mouth—the true transforming ooze of the whole affair. And speaking of: Where do you think Pizza Rat got his whole style from? Swagger-jacking Splinter.
I will rest my case here. But I resent evenhaving to make it. If you can't see the gem right in front of you, list-makers, the fault is your own. For me and my people, we will continue to walk in the righteous path of Turtle Power.