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I’ll admit it: I put this one off ’til the last minute. I don’t know why, but something about the idea of watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles this week felt childish and weird. But I watched it, and lo and behold! It’s actually pretty good.
The film focuses, obviously, on the four titular turtle mutants. They, and their mentor, the rat Splinter, all mutated from a chemical spill. Splinter then proceeded to teach them the “ways of the ninja,” which he learned from his master (and previous owner) Yoshi. The turtles are teenagers who love pizza and call human women “foxes” and “babes.” It…could have been a disaster of a movie.
But fortunately, the writing is solid. The cinematography has a distinct flare, with quick cuts, sliding motions, and a vivid color palette. As a colorist, I found the colors particularly appealing, especially given difficult lighting conditions (night scenes, rain, etc.). Musically, I found it very 80s retro, and definitely loved that about it.
The only major flaw I can really find in the film is this: It hinges on really tired racist Yellow Peril stereotypes about Asian people. All of the Asian humans in the movie are bad guys who know ninjitsu, for example. Splinter the rat manages to be a caricature of the Magical Asian Sensei, complete with accent. The turtles themselves all have Brooklyn/Queens/Manhattan accents, in comparison. Additionally troubling: the first time we see the costumed ninjas working for the villain, they speak with stereotypical Japanese accents.
However, we find out later that this corps of followers primarily consists of non-Asian kids from New York.
I get that Yellow Peril stereotypes exist in the comics. It happens in a lot of comics made in the Silver and Bronze age, and their subsequent adaptations. We’re still dealing with that kind of cruddy representation, in fact. Take, for example, the new Daredevil series. In the first season of that show, Daredevil’s greatest adversaries besides Wilson Fisk are a Madame Gao, a mystical heroin dealer, and Nobu Yoshioka, leader of the Hand, a Japanese criminal organization. Daredevil fights literal ninjas in New York City, just saying.
Anyway, I can’t recommend Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to people who are sensitive to racial insensitivity and stereotyping. Compartmentalizing can only take you so far, after all. But aside from that one enormous flaw, I think this movie works really well as a story, and could have been one of my favorites if not for the racism.
Now, next week I’ll be exiting my usual superhero stories to watch Dick Tracy. Be sure to tune in next week!