When the New York City Police Department is unable to stop a severe crime wave caused by the Foot Clan, four mutated turtles — Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael — come forth to save the city. Under the leadership of mutated rat, Splinter, and together with their new-found allies April O'Neil and Casey Jones, they fight back and take the battle to The Shredder. The film kept very close to the dark feel of the original comics, and is a direct adaptation of the comic book storyline involving the defeat of Shredder, with several elements also taken from the 1987 TV series that was airing at the time, such as April being a news reporter, and the turtles having different-colored masks, as opposed to the uniform red masks of the comic.
The film became the highest-grossing independent film of all time, as well as the ninth-highest-grossing film worldwide of 1990 and the most successful film in the series until the 2014 reboot. It was followed by two sequels, entitled The Secret of the Ooze in 1991 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III in 1993.
As a crime wave rises in New York City, Channel 3 news reporter April O'Neil talks about rumors of young children and teenagers being reported as the majority of the thieves, connecting it to a rumored Foot Clan, which originated in Japan. On an ordinary night, she comes across thieves stealing from a news van and is attacked. She is rescued and one of her rescuers leaves behind a sai when the police arrive to collect the tied up criminals. In the storm sewers, four anthropomorphic turtles return to their underground home and meet with their master Splinter, who advises them to remain hidden from the world and work only in the shadow. Raphael admits he lost his weapon, and when the others order pizza he leaves in disguise to see a movie. After leaving the movie, he encounters Casey Jones who tries to exact justice on a pair of muggers by beating them with sporting implements. After a brief stand off between the two, Casey takes off into the city and Raphael loses his temper. Returning home, Splinter confronts Raphael about his temper.
April is attacked in the subway by members of the Foot, after spouting rumors of them on television. She is knocked unconscious while trying to fend them off but is saved by Raphael, who takes her back to their home. After reviving her, Splinter explains their origins and introduces her to Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo. Unfortunately, Raphael had been followed by a member of the Foot. After the turtles take April home, and spend some time over pizza, they return to find their home ransacked and Splinter missing. With nowhere else to turn, they return to April's apartment. The next morning, April's supervisor Charles Pennington and his son Danny arrive; Charles chides April on her behavior with police chief Sterns and advises her to be careful, while Danny catches a glimpse of Michaelangelo, garnering his suspicions. Later, Charles confronts Danny for being arrested for stealing and Danny runs away into the subway. He escapes to a warehouse on Lairdman Island, the hideout for the teenaged thieves of the Foot. It is revealed that Splinter is there, held prisoner by The Shredder, who acts as a surrogate father to the outcast teenagers. His second-in-command is Tatsu. Danny gives The Shredder his information on the Turtles.
After a heated argument between Leonardo and Raphael, Raphael goes up to the roof of April's building and is attacked by dozens of Foot Clan members. The fight moves into the building, where April and the others are attacked after Raphael is thrown down a skylight window. The numbers cause the floor to give way, and they continue their battle in the basement. After Foot reinforcements arrive, overwhelming the turtles, Casey appears, having seen Raphael earlier on the roof and he helps even the odds. In the melee, with Raphael in a coma, the building catches fire, forcing the Turtles to escape. Retreating to an abandoned farm April's family owns, April learns that Charles has fired her from the TV station. Raphael awakens from his coma and makes amends with Leonardo. The four of them train. After receiving visions from Splinter, Leonardo and the rest decide it is time to return to the city. Meanwhile, Danny encounters Splinter, whose kindness casts doubts on his decision to betray the Turtles. He goes to hide in the Turtles' den, and is there when they return. In the night, Danny slips away, followed by Casey who discovers the thieves' hideout. Danny meets with Splinter again, who tells him the story of his master who was killed by a man named Oroku Saki, whom he and Splinter realize was The Shredder himself 15 years prior. Danny grasps how insane The Shredder truly is after learning his past, but he inadvertently alerts him that the turtles have returned. The Shredder sends his men to raid the turtles' home, but the Foot are ambushed as the group has already anticipated their attack.
Casey and Danny free Splinter, and after Casey defeats Shredder's second in command Tatsu, they convince the teens to follow them and teach them the error of their ways. They return to the city as the Turtles face off against Shredder, who outmatches them. The Shredder taunts the Turtles, saying he killed Splinter, causing Leonardo to attack Shredder. Shredder disarms Leonardo, threatening to impale him with his spear unless the Turtles drop their weapons. The Turtles do so, but Shredder plans on killing Leonardo anyway. Before he can do so, he is distracted by Splinter, allowing Leonardo to escape. Splinter then faces Shredder, revealing that he was Hamato Yoshi's pet rat who disfigured Oroku Saki after the latter killed Hamato. Vengeful, Shredder charges Splinter with his spear but he falls over the ledge of the roof after Splinter vaults him with a nunchaku. Splinter tries to spare him, but Shredder attacks, forcing the rat to let go, and he falls into a garbage truck. Casey turns on the trash compactor and crushes Shredder.
The police arrive and arrest the defeated Foot Ninjas. April is reinstated by Charles, with better perks, to cover the story. Danny reunites with his father who is overjoyed to see him, and they have reconciled. Casey and April meet, and she tells him to kiss her, which he obliges, much to the cheering from the Turtles.Judith Hoag as April O'Neil, a reporter for Channel 3 News
Elias Koteas as Casey Jones, a street-wise vigilante and former ice hockey player who becomes an ally of the Turtles
Michael Turney as Danny Pennington, Charles's teenage son and a member of The Foot
Jay Patterson as Charles Pennington, April's boss
Raymond Serra as Chief Sterns, the Police Chief of New York City
James Saito as Oroku Saki / The Shredder, the founder of a network of runaways-turned-thieves and the main antagonist of the film.
Toshishiro Obata as Tatsu, Shredder's second-in-command
Sam Rockwell as Head Thug
Skeet Ulrich and Scott Wolf appear uncredited as members of the Foot.Josh Pais as Raphael, the rebellious and angry Turtle
Robbie Rist as Michelangelo, the fun-loving, party Turtle
Brian Tochi as Leonardo, the leader of the Turtles and the closest to Splinter
Corey Feldman as Donatello, the brains of the TMNT
Kevin Clash as Splinter, the Turtles' master.
David McCharen as Oroku Saki / The Shredder
Michael McConnohie as Tatsu
David Greenaway as Raphael (facial assistant)
Josh Pais as Raphael (in-suit performer)
Mak Wilson as Michelangelo (facial assistant)
Michelan Sisti as Michaelangelo (in-suit performer)
David Rudman as Donatello (facial assistant)
Leif Tilden as Donatello (in-suit performer)
Ernie Reyes, Jr. as Donatello in-suit martial arts stunt double
Martin P. Robinson as Leonardo (facial assistant)
David Forman as Leonardo (in-suit performer)
Kevin Clash as Splinter (puppeteer)
Rickey Boyd as Splinter (facial assistant)
Robert Tygner as Splinter (assistant puppeteer)
NOTE: All four actors who played the in-suit Turtles also appeared in cameos as minor characters, with David Forman (Leonardo) as a gang member, Michelan Sisti (Michaelangelo) as a pizza delivery man, Leif Tilden (Donatello) as a messenger of The Foot and Josh Pais (Raphael) as a passenger in a taxi. Pais was the only actor to portray a Turtle on screen and provide his voice.
The film's budget was $13.5 million. Much of the production took place in North Carolina, with a couple of location shoots in New York City during the summer of 1989 to capture famous landmark areas, such as Times Square, the Empire State Building, and the Hudson River. Filming in North Carolina took place at the North Carolina Film Studios, where New York rooftop sets were created. Production designer Roy Forge Smith and his art director, Gary Wissner, went to New York City four months prior to filming and took still photographs of rooftops and other various locations. While in NYC, Smith and Wissner were allowed to explore an abandoned Brooklyn subway line, as they could not gain access to a city sewer, but the structure of the subway had the same principle as a sewer. They also went to a water tunnel which had large pipes running through it.
After design sketches were created, the construction team used the studios' backlot to create some of the sets. There were problems with the manholes that led to the Turtles' home, in that an eight-foot square room had to be constructed beneath them, but found water at about five-feet, and thus had to pour concrete into the underground rooms to keep the water out. In order to make the sewer authentic, a tide-mark was given, and it was covered with brick, plaster and stucco paint to give the walls a realistic look. The Turtles themselves were created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop in London. Jim Henson said that the creatures were the most advanced that he had ever worked with. The creatures were first made out of fiberglass, and then remolded out of clay. They were produced as molds to cast the whole body in foam rubber latex. The work at the Shop was completed within 18 weeks.
Many major studios, such as Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia Pictures, MGM/UA, Orion Pictures, Paramount (whose parent company Viacom would acquire the TMNT property in 2009), and Warner Bros. turned down the film for distribution; they were worried that despite the popularity of the cartoon and the toy line, the film could potentially be a box office disappointment, like Masters of the Universe was just a couple years prior. The film finally found distribution roughly halfway through the initial production, via the then small and independent production company New Line Cinema, which at that point had been known for distributing low budget B movies and arthouse fare.
Live Entertainment Inc. announced that the film would go to VHS via its Family Home Entertainment label on October 4, 1990. The suggested price was $24.99 per cassette. Pizza Hut engaged in a $20 million marketing campaign tied into the film (despite the fact that Domino's Pizza was used as product placement in the film itself). Items included advertising in print, radio and television, and several rebate coupons.
The UK version removed Eastern fighting weapons like the nunchaku, using alternate shots of Michaelangelo in order to conceal his nunchaku weapon, or omitting the show-off duel between Michaelangelo and a member of the Foot clan. Also, the scene of Shredder in the garbage shred was heavily edited and the Turtle Power song was edited to change the word 'ninja' to 'hero' as per the UK TV series. The unedited version was released on DVD in 2004 in the UK.
The German theatrical voice-dubbed version is identical to the UK version, i.e. it omits the usage of the nunchaku. Furthermore, the German dubbing audio track contains several "cartoon-like" sounds in order to soften the violence of the fight scenes. Although the German dub of the film was released with unedited pictures on DVD, the German dub audio version with the "funny noises" was still kept, because they were permanently merged into the German voice-dubbing audio.
On the film's initial release, Owen Gleiberman, writing for Entertainment Weekly, gave the movie an F rating, finding that none of the four turtles or Splinter had any personality, and felt that a young audience might enjoy the film, noting that the reviewer might have "gone for it too had I been raised on Nintendo games and the robotic animation that passes for entertainment on today's Saturday-morning TV." Kim Newman wrote in the Monthly Film Bulletin that he found the characters reminiscent of the early '70s Godzilla film series, describing the turtles as "loveable monsters in baggy foam rubber suits" who "befriended lost children and smashed things up in orgies of destruction that somehow never hurt anyone," and that the Turtles "drop the occasional teenage buzzword but are never remotely convincing as teenagers, mutants, ninjas or turtles, leaving them stranded on the screen as big green Muppets with different coloured headbands." Variety, the New York Times, and the Monthly Film Bulletin all noted the Asian villains of the film; Variety described "overtones of racism in its use of Oriental villains", while the Times' Janet Maslin stated "The story's villainous types are Asian, and the film plays the yellow-peril aspects of this to the hilt." Newman noted a racist joke in April O'Neil's response to the Foot Clan, "What's the matter, did I fall behind on my Sony payments?", finding that the film expressed a "resentment of Japan's economic strength even while the film is plundering Japan's popular culture." Roger Ebert commented that there is "no racism" in the film.
Maslin of The New York Times criticized the cinematography, stating that it was so "poorly photographed that the red-masked turtle looks almost exactly like the orange-masked one." Variety described the film as "visually rough around the edges... sometimes sluggish in its plotting" Ebert stated that the "most interesting part of the film for a non-Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fan is the production design", which he described as a "low-rent version of Batman or Metropolis."
Both Gleiberman and Maslin praised the work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, with Maslin stating "without which there would have been no film at all". Variety praised the film's tongue-in-cheek humor and the "amusingly outlandish" martial arts sequences. Ebert concluded that the film is "nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and probably is the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. It supplies, in other words, more or less what Turtle fans will expect."
The film opened in North America on March 30, 1990, coming in at #1 at the box office over the weekend, with more than $25 million. The film turned out to be a huge success at the box office, eventually making over $135 million in North America, and over $66 million outside North America, for a worldwide total of over $200 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1990 worldwide. The film was also nominated for awards by The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
In 1990, the film was released to VHS and reached No. 4 in the home video market. The film was released to DVD in Region 1 on September 3, 2002; it includes only minor special features, such as a trailer and interactive menus. The film was also released in the MiniDVD format.
On August 11, 2009, the film was included in a special 25th anniversary box set (25th anniversary of the original comic book, not the movie), released to both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. It also contained Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, and 2007's animated release, TMNT. No additional features, other than theatical trailers, were included.
In Germany, however, a "Special Edition" was released on March 12, 2010 with additional features, including an audio commentary by director Steve Barron, an alternate ending, and alternate takes from the original German release, where Michelangelo's nunchaku had been edited out.
Warner Home Video released the film along with Secret of the Ooze and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III as part of a "Triple Feature" on Blu-ray in June 2012, minus the fourth film TMNT. Warner Home Video released the film separately on Blu-ray on December 18, 2012.
Following the huge success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the box office, several sequels were created. A year later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was released in theaters, and was a commercial success. In 1993, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was released in theaters, to a smaller box office take. After a 14-year absence from theaters, a fourth film, TMNT, was released in 2007, though unlike the first three, this was a CGI animated film. Seven years later, a reboot, also with the title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, was released in 2014, and a sequel titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was released in theaters on June 3, 2016.