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Four Turtles vs. a Duck: Comparing the Relative Cinematic Merits of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and Howard the Duck

Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-TMNT-1990-Movie-Leonardo-Raphael-Donatello-Michelangelo1This is going to be an odd column, but today is a Monday, so if you can’t start off the workweek with a little typespace oddity, then you might as well not start it off at all. We’re not going to be talking about obscure characters or old toys that need a spit shine or top five things that are ginchy. We’re going to be talking about movies. Specifically, movies based on comics, so we’re at least thematically in the same neighborhood if maybe at the end of a cul-de-sac with that weird old guy that only leaves his house at night.

There has been much hubbub about the brand new Ghostbusters movie debuting very soon. A new Ghostbusters movie has been kicked around for quite a while, with many wondering or hoping that the original cast would be coming back. Unfortunately, the passing of Harold Ramis made that an impossibility. With that option gone, the studios have decided to go in a new direction, which is to reboot the franchise with four females in the roles popularized by four males back in 1984. This has, to put it lightly, caused discussion. If you are at all aware of the Internet, you will read that word “discussion” with a knowing nod of the head, because the Internet is where everybody gets to have an opinion, and the more obnoxious the opinion the bigger your final score or something.

As we’re currently living in 2016 and everything we own is getting smaller except for our debt and our tempers, Hollywood is debuting new ways to anger the perpetually angry at a rate previously unheard of. Ghostbusters are turning into women, Batman is being portrayed by Ben Affleck, Star Wars is acknowledging that there might be more than one black person in a galaxy far far away, and Michael Bay is still being allowed to make movies and rape childhoods. Regardless of what’s happening, somebody is pissed off about it, even if there’s no real reason to be pissed off about it.

We here at Fwoosh have no shortage of opinions about things, so the new Ghostbusters movie has caused a bit of debate. Some of it is even-tempered, some of it is absurd, some of it is snarky, and some of it is probably off-topic. Standard Internet. One particular comparison was made between the fact that a new Ghostbusters movie doesn’t erase the older, revered one in much the same way that the newer Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies don’t erase the older, revered Turtle movies. This led to a minor discussion of the merits of the previous Turtle movies from the ’90s and their actual quality in comparison to the newer CGI-infused Turtle movies. This led to one Fwoosher’s bemused questioning of the fact that any Turtle movies are good.tmnt20

And here, after all that, is where I come in. With a scoff.

At this point, having been a spectator on the thread (I have no concrete opinions about the new Ghostbusters movie one way or the other), I asserted that the 1990 Turtle movie was indeed a good movie. The aforementioned Fwoosher was dubious about my assertion, having, I optimistically assume, watched the aforementioned Turtle movie and found it lacking.

With us being two reasonable people, this did not then lead into a fiery torrent of angered calls for blood with swear words wielded like gladiatorial blades. Instead, this led to a polite request to compare and contrast the relative merits of the Turtle movie and the bona-fide box-office failure from 1986, Howard the Duck, perhaps in the hopes of getting to the root of how I can defend the Turtle movie. How can the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie be good if the Howard the Duck movie was bad?


A respectful request, and one I could not turn down, because respect is a currency the Internet as a whole can often be lacking.

Howard the Duck was a Lucasfilm-produced movie that has a reputation mainly built entirely on the fact that it was a colossal failure at a time when Executive Producer George Lucas needed a win. As Return of the Jedi and all the merchandising money behind it was drying up, there were still bills to pay. George put all of his eggs (so to speak) into Howard the Duck, a movie about a talking duck that cost more than Return of the Jedi to film and yet only made back about a million more than what it cost. Of course this meant that Lucas had to sell off some things to maintain solvency. One of those “things” eventually ended up being Pixar, so basically you can thank Howard‘s failure for Toy Story.

Howard was a project that George had been interested in since the 70s, when the character was at the height of popularity, relatively speaking. Howard the Duck was a unique comic on the rack, a Marvel comic with an independent comic’s spirit, a highly cerebral book that eschewed the ordinary superheroics of Marvel’s catalog. As guided by the late Steve Gerber, Howard was (to borrow the most cliched description ever) an existential journey guided by a Duck from another world. It’s the kind of comic that few could pull off successfully, but Gerber was, without doubt, a singular talent. Marvel in the ’60s was a time of invention, but Marvel in the ’70s was a time of experimentation. The book was of its time.

By the time the movie came out in 1986, Howard was merely a footnote in comic history. His book had been cancelled and the creation had been ripped from the creator. Some characters are not meant to be handled by others, and even though skilled writers attempted to write Howard after Gerber, none were his equal. And further, some characters are not meant for other mediums. Howard is a comic book character through and through. He is neither a cartoon nor a movie character. He belongs in the panel, surrounded by bubbles and boxes and colors and ink. His adventures can only properly be represented in the peculiar world that lives a geometry-bound life on newsprint. Alan Moore has famously scoffed at Hollywood’s idiocy in turning his made-for-comics stories into movies, and Howard the Duck is a perfect example of why some comics probably don’t need to be movies.


The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, however, by the time of their cinematic debut, were a cultural juggernaut. With multiple ongoing comics, a syndicated cartoon, an avalanche of merchandise, including toys and anything else marketing could think of, there was no place to hide from the four Turtles. They were no longer bound by a single medium. The story of this independent comic by Eastman and Laird and its rise into massive success is now the stuff of legend. With the previous year’s unbelievably successful Batman movie, it was a damn good time to be a comic-based movie. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went on to be one of the most successful movies of 1990.

But, admittedly, that says nothing about quality.

Howard the Duck currently has a 14% according to Rotten Tomatoes. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a 40%. This means that both are technically “rotten,” with TMNT being slightly less rotten according to reviewers, including review heavyweights Siskel and Ebert, both of whom could, at the time, still be counted among the living. Slightly less rotten is probably damning testimonial, but who critiques the critic? This is not a movie for the critics.


The movies have a surface similarity: anthropomorphic title character(s) assisted by caring female (April O’Neal and Beverly Switzler, respectively) who go on to fight a BIG BAD, in order to save the planet, city, or whatever. Along the way, hijinks, danger, wisecracking, and bonding ensue. In both it takes a village in order to properly get across the live-action foam rubber characters. Multiple stuntmen and voice actors portray the Turtles, with some able assistance from animatronics, all orchestrated by one of the finest studios for foam rubber, latex and puppetry: Henson. For Howard, many little people are involved in bringing the diminutive quack-up to life, with a separate voice actor providing his sardonic lines.

To contrast, and to get to the meat of this article-without-end, it is at this point I will have to treat myself as a hostile witness. I’ve only seen the Howard the Duck movie once. And in that single showing, I can agree with the naysayers on one point: it is a terrible Howard the Duck movie. I say that meaning it is does not really feel like the Howard the Duck comic, feeling more like somebody took a surface read on the concept and then married that with an Odd Couple-style road-movie romp. Like those Crosby/Hope movies, if Bing Crosby was a talking duck and Bob Hope was a rock ‘n roll chick wearing pink panties. So yeah, exactly like that.

And because of that, I found it, in my single watching, completely entertaining in the way movies that you really can’t believe actually got made are entertaining. Is it a “bad” movie? It is indeed a movie that doesn’t “get” the source material at all and is basically a movie about a random duck that does things. That punches all my quirk buttons hard. But that doesn’t make it a “good” movie, just a weird-as-balls entertaining one that throws duckboobs in the face of the source material and manages to be watchable in the way that Mystery Science Theater made a career out of proving over and over. You’ve heard of Ed Wood specifically because his movies are so bad they’re unbelievably watchable. Good and bad become meaningless concepts in the face of such things. Like Homer Simpson said: you strap yourself in and feel the Gs.6Bymw

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, though, is absolutely good, for all the reasons that Howard fails at being a “good” Howard the Duck movie. The movie straddles a very delicate line between the grittier comic book and the more kid-friendly, all-ages cartoon. The colored masks firmly plant it in the cartoon world, but there’s a layer of violence and angst that root it to the comic. Watch Raphael’s simmering rage. That’s straight out of the comics. The storyline of the movie closely mirrors that of the earliest comic stories, even including an interlude where a turtle is badly injured. The movie sidelines the cartoon-esque “Cowabungas” and “Turtle Power” themes and slows the pace down to allow these characters to breathe. We can feel the concern for this character. Where Howard the Duck goes for non-stop one-liners and absurdist humor to mask the minimal Duck-out-of-water plot, the Turtle movie allows each Turtle — or each colored slab of foam rubber, if that helps — a distinct personality all their own. There is a humanity portrayed by those foam-encased actors that makes you forget you’re watching a strange pairing of creatures that shouldn’t, by all rights, be cohabitating. There is no uncanny valley CGI, there is no vague, unfocused sightlines as the real-life April tries to converse with something that will be added later. There is the genuine interplay of reality, and it’s done astonishingly well.Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-Leonardo-TMNT-1990-Movie

Howard the Duck, unfortunately, never moves beyond that slight disconnect of “I’m watching a dude in a duck suit.” If you’re fascinated by Howard, it’s not that the character has transcended the blending of costuming and actor but that you’re wondering why his lips barely move when he talks. The Turtles have more expression in their faces than the dude currently playing the Green Arrow on that show about that dude with the bow and arrows that will be playing Casey Jones in the newest Turtle movie.

I’ve never seen the two movies that followed the original 1990 Turtle movie, and I will more than likely never see the most recent movies. This is not out of willful ignorance, but because I’ve already seen two Transformers movies and that’s my Megan Fox threshold for this life. But really, I don’t need to. A better Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles move could, no doubt, be made, but it probably won’t any time soon, and I’m content with the one that was already made. Is it a “good” movie? It’s a source-accurate, well-acted movie with convincing creature effects, great choreography (considering the stunts are being performed by foam-encrusted humans) and a simple yet effective plot. It’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in name and form, and it succeeds in being exactly what it set out to be.

Of course it’s a good movie.