Cowabunga! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Turns 25
What do Sam Rockwell, Robin Williams and "Take On Me" have to do with this 1990s hit? Find out
Turtle power hit movie theaters on March 30, 1990 – exactly 25 years ago. While the quarter century that’s passed since then has seen four more theatrical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles releases, three more TV series and countless items of turtle-related merchandise, that first movie stands as a landmark.
And even if you were one of those kids who lived and breathed TMNT, you might not know all the behind-the-scenes turtle trivia we’ve gathered together to celebrated the film’s 25th anniversary.
It’s darker than you might remember.
ma Your memories of the movie may be overwritten by the lighter, more kid-friendly TMNT cartoon. The movie, however, sticks more closely to the gritty comics.
The movie kept one major innovation from the cartoon, however.
Previous to the original cartoon, the four turtles each wore red masks. It wasn’t until the original cartoon debuted in 1987 that Leonardo wore blue, Donatello purple and Michelangelo orange. Raphael kept the original red, and that color scheme has carried over to every subsequent adaptation.
No one wanted to make it.
Amid fears of a box-office bomb of Howard the Duck or Masters of the Universe proportions, the pitch for a TMNT movie was turned down by Disney, Columbia, MGM, Orion, Paramount and Warner Bros. It was eventually released by New Line Cinema, which at the time was known more for indie fare and the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
It was one of the most successful independent movies of its day – and maybe ever.
You hear the term “independent movie” and you probably don’t think of Ninja Turtles. However, it was one, and it grossed more than $200 million – well over its $13 million budget, making it a financially successful indie even by today’s standards.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop designed the turtle suits.
And they were revolutionary at the time, according to Entertainment Weekly. While one person inside controlled the body movements, the turtles’ facial expressions were manipulated remotely by computer. The system would later be refined for the TV series Dinosaurs.
The Hensons, however, were not thrilled with the tone of the film.
Jim Henson died weeks after the film’s release, and the sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze, is dedicated to him. In 1991, an anonymous source told PEOPLE that his children were upset by the dedication because Henson felt the original film was too violent – “excessive, pointless and not his style” – and the dedication could be misconstrued as an endorsement.
There were no tie-in action figures.
As plentiful as TMNT toys seemed in 1990, you might be surprised to know that Playmates, the makers of the series’ action-figure toys, didn’t release any based off the movie. It wasn’t until the less violent sequel hit theaters that the company felt comfortable marketing tie-ins to kids.
But there were tie-in pizza deals.
The turtles love pizza, making the movie a lucrative marketing opportunity for a big-name pizza chain. And while Domino’s made the winning bid to be the turtles’ pizza of choice in the movie, Pizza Hut paid $20 million in advertising elsewhere – including a commercial that played at the beginning of the TMNT VHS cassette.
It has some serious martial arts movie cred.
It is, after all, a martial arts film at heart. The film was produced by Golden Sky, the production and distribution company responsible for bringing many Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies to the United States.
Nashville fans may recognize April O’Neil.
Actress Judith Hoag plays the most prominent non-turtle in the movie: reporter April O’Neil. Today, Hoag is probably best known for playing Tandy Hampton on Nashville, though she’s had recurring roles on Big Love and Private Practice.
Robin Williams helped.
Hoag was unsure of a role in a movie about martial artist amphibians. At the time, she was making Cadillac Man, which starred Robin Williams, a fan of the comics. Williams’s enthusiasm reassured Hoag. “I’m a brand-new actor, my career was just starting off, and I had Robin Williams’s seal of approval,” she told Variety. “After that, I would proudly say the Turtles name.”
April almost wore that yellow jumpsuit.
If you watched the cartoon series, you’ll remember that April wears a banana-yellow jumpsuit. It’s a distinctive look. In that same Variety interview, Hoag said her version of April narrowly escaped this horrible fate. “They had this really horrifying white jumpsuit and dyed it yellow,” Hoag said. “It was nixed.”
It put Corey Feldman’s voice to good work.
Feldman voiced Donatello. In 1993, Howard Stern had him call the 7-year-old son of his show’s producer to talk TMNT in his Donatello voice.
There’s a Brady Bunch connection.
Michelangelo is voiced by Robbie Rist, who’s best known for playing Cousin Oliver on the final season of The Brady Bunch.
And a Sesame Street connection as well.
Kevin Clash, the former voice of Elmo, not only provided the voice of Splinter, the turtles’ sensei, but also worked as the character’s puppeteer.
But not a Fresh Prince connection.
In the movies, Shredder is voiced by actor David McCharen, but the most familiar voice for the turtles’ main adversary is probably James Avery, who played Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
It features a then-unknown Sam Rockwell.
He’s the head thug.
And it features an equally unknown Skeet Ulrich.
He’s a more minor thug. In this clip, he’s the one who speaks the line “What the hell was that?”
Josh Pais is the movie’s MVP.
Pais, who plays Raphael, is unique among the film’s cast because he’s the only actor to both voice a turtle and perform in the suit. He also appears onscreen. You can see him about 29 seconds into the trailer, as the taxi passenger who asks “What the heck was that?” He’s gone on to a lengthy career not wearing turtle masks, BTW.
It was Sally Menke’s first major editing job.
Two years later, she’d edit Reservoir Dogs she then became Quentin Tarantino’s right-hand woman and edited every one of his movies until her death in 2010.
It spawned a No. 1 single.
Partners in Kryme’s “Turtle Power” reached No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart, knocking out Elton John’s “Sacrifice.” It hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The movie has some additional music cred.
Director Steve Barron made his name helming music videos, including the one for A-ha’s “Take On Me.” He also did Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69.”
The British cut was light on the nunchakus.
Due to a British ban on movies showing nunchakus, Michelangelo’s weapon of choice, the overseas version of the film was cut considerably. (You can see just how much was excised here.) British fans only got to see the uncensored, nunchaku-ful cut of the film in 2004.
There was an alternative ending.
In it, April unsuccessfully pitches the turtles as an idea for a new comic book. So meta!
Oprah once interviewed the turtles.
Like, an entire show. The costumes look, um, not quite as professional as in the movie. Around the 24:20 mark, Oprah asks April if there’s any interspecies love between her and any of the turtles. Good times.