By Ralph Novak
April 02, 1990 12:00 PM

Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas

There was the search for the Northwest Passage, the idea of making Trenton, N.J., the U.S. capital, the Edsel, George McGovern running for President. Now there is this idea, turning the wry, happy-spirited animated TV series about four mutated turtles into a live action movie.

It was probably a hopeless project from the start (Batman notwithstanding), since the continual violence that is innocuous, cartoonish brouhaha in animation becomes troubling mayhem when inflicted on real actors in a live movie. Parents should consider carefully before exposing young children to this kind of pounding.

The tone of the dialogue is inferior too. The disarming banter that raises the animated series above its competition is largely missing from this version of the turtles’ story. Here the turtles go around saying “Damn!” Characters sneer lines such as “You want a fist in the mouth?” The hand-to-hand combat is relentless, and a lot of the film is shot almost in the dark, as if someone pulled a plug on Jim Henson’s animatronics, which were used to make the guys in turtle outfits seem more lifelike.

Furthermore, the turtles are relegated to supporting status by a lame romance involving Hoag and Koteas (Tucker).

Some of the series’ amusing minor characters—including the bumbling villains Bebop the boar and Rocksteady the rhino—are missing, though the evil Shredder, played by a human in a Darth Vaderish outfit, is around. So is the turtles’ mentor, Splinter the rat, a puppet piloted by humans.

The turtles appear mostly as humans dressed in nicely designed turtle suits, with a few Henson effects—such as moving lips—operated electronically.

The visual side of this film, uninspired as it is, wouldn’t have been fatal if director Steven Barron (who did Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video) and screenwriter Bobby (The Jeffersons) Herbeck had created a way to transpose a brilliant cartoon idea. As it is, they made a movie that displays two traits nobody would ever associate with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: It is grim and it is no fun. (PG)

(More or less concurring opinions from two reviewing brethren: Nick Carcaterra, 3, says, “I liked the part when Raphael said, ‘I love being a turtle.’ I liked the part when Donatello opened the pizza box. I liked the part when Michaelangelo told the Turtles, ‘Cowabunga!’ I missed Bebop and Rocksteady. I like the cartoon song better. Hi-Ya!” Thad Novak, 10, adds, “It’s a good movie for a martial-arts action movie, but for a Turtles fan, it’s not so good. Raphael doesn’t have that anger streak in him, for instance. There’s too many things wrong with that picture for someone who watches the TV show.”)