Retro Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Character Design

BY JOHN CARTER JR

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the most iconic franchises of the 80’s-90’s era. The property originally debuted in 1984, the same as The Karate Kid, and the franchise grew to be beloved by fans everywhere and its iconic nature would also be known. Characters like Splinter, Shredder, and the turtles themselves became synonymous with an era of popular American Karate movies such as Ninja Turtles, Karate Kid, and the Mortal Kombat films.

While the film wasn’t the most critically acclaimed or praised for its scriptwriting, which for any TMNT fan was still a hit, it is known for its iconic Jim Henson puppet suits. The Turtles and Master Splinter were realized by the Jim Henson Company and the characters designs have established certain trends in following iterations of the character, this was through realizing some of the traits found in the first animated renditions in a live-action format. These amazing, and frankly odd, works of puppetry were not only incredible set pieces but also helped realize the world of the turtles. At the time of the film’s release, this was probably the best medium to represent the Turtles and Splinter. 

The film had amazing iconic creatures and locations, including the Ninja Turtles Sewer hideout and Foot Clan Lair. However, this film was not short of its iconic human cast as well. Judith Hoag as April O’ Neil and Elias Koteas as Casey Jones were perfect matches for the known roles and completely fit the aesthetic of the film. Hoag would be replaced in later installments of this particular Ninja Turtles canon, which is a shame given how perfect she was for the role, this makes her appearance in the first film all the more special and helps the justification that this film was the best among them.

You can’t have the Ninja Turtles without one of its iconic villains. This would be in the form of the Foot clan and their fearful leader, The Shredder. The appearance of the Shredder in this film is not only an outstanding depiction of the role by James Saito but also because of this particular version of the shredder costume. Glitter and all this version of shredder is massively different from many other iterations of the character, and while the character is completely ridiculous (given his use of small blades in the age of easily accessible firearms) it is fun to see him represented in this fashion. Toshishiro Obata played Shredder’s second in command, Tatsu, and had a similar menacing presence. 

Concluding what makes these films stand apart and add to the iconic status of the franchise is the crazy unique aesthetic or representation of the characters. From the impressive Jim Henson puppetry involved, allowing for the main cast and Splinter to exist, to the amazing human cast (good and evil characters) this film was made for the fans to be nostalgic about for decades to come. Thirty years later The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still one of the most beloved media franchises out there and its fan base continues to grow due to this.

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