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The First Live-Action 'TMNT' Had Some Dark Themes And A Strange Backstory

The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, released in 1990, held a special place in the hearts of so many kids. The film brought the beloved cartoon characters to the big screen for the first time, expanding the franchise beyond the comic book series and animated TV show.

The TMNT franchise continues to attract new fans with additional animated series, toy lines, video games, and movies adding to the legacy. The famous franchise has permeated all aspects of pop culture; there are memes, dirty jokes, and unique fan art. Many interesting TMNT facts exist, but the first movie is still probably the most bonkers thing in the Turtles universe.

Some people might assume it's an innocent children's film, but many aspects of the script, plot, and overall tone make the film much darker than it initially appears.

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  • The Turtles Scuffle With A Bunch Of Runaway Kids

    Many of the Foot Clan soldiers are actually just young teenagers who ran away from home. Consequently, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kick, punch, and slay other young people.

  • The Film Problematically Portrays Asian Culture

    Some critics of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film found the project problematic. Specifically, they claimed the Asian characters seemed stereotypical. One critic noted: "The story's villainous types are Asian, and the film plays the yellow-peril aspects of this to the hilt."

    One New York Times writer believed the film played into America's perceived fascination with Asian culture, calling the movie distasteful at worst and overly simplistic at best. She wrote:

    The Japanese enemy gang leader [in TMNT] is once again purely demonic and bestial, a hairless... figure who wears a metal claw for ornament. What gives the movie a more contemporary stamp is the fact that Master Splinter, the good-guy rodent leader of the Mutant Turtles, is also Japanese. It is as if Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan were cast into a single movie - seemingly presenting a balanced view of the Japanese as good and bad... And as individuals the Japanese are still portrayed as sub- or superhuman, possessing fabulous abilities and arcane knowledge that center on (another contemporary twist) martial arts.

  • Jim Henson Didn't Like The Final Project

    Jim Henson offered to work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a favor to director Steve Barron. Jim Henson's Creature Shop designed the costumes for all four Turtles, but the artist actually disliked the dark tone of the final product.

    In fact, Henson considered the Turtles' coarseness "excessive, pointless and not his style."

  • The Studio Fired The Original Director

    Steve Barron signed on to direct the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project, and all seemed to go well at first. But producers became incredibly wary after viewing an early cut of the film. The studio also objected to the film's harsh fight scenes.

    Consequently, Barron lost his directorial position, and the team made major edits to lighten the tone and appeal to younger audience members.

  • Dark Themes Permeate The Film

    Some people felt the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie seemed much grimmer than the animated series. And indeed, the film drew inspiration from the comic book series, which was incredibly gritty. While the TV show erred on the side of light, kid-friendly content, the comic focused on dark themes, real danger, and weapon-wielding.

    Some elements from the cartoon did make it into the 1990 film, though. The Turtles wear different-colored face masks, for example, and of course, they love pizza.

  • Pizza Hut And Domino's Fought Over The Merchandising Rights

    Two corporate pizza giants - Pizza Hut and Domino's - both wanted to cash in on the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, especially because the main characters love pizza. Eventually, the organizations decided to split the endorsement deal down the middle.

    The Turtles eat Domino's pizzas in the movie, but Pizza Hut secured a $20 million marketing campaign afterward.