Remember when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were real?

The original animatronic turtles built by Jim Henson's Creature Shop for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wowed audiences in the 1990s (image source: New Line Cinema).

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back in the pop culture zeitgeist thanks to their new Michael Bay-produced movie, which arrives in theatres in most markets this weekend. The barrage of trailers and promotion got me thinking about Steve Barron’s original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, which which is highly underrated, despite being one of the most successful independent movies of all time.

A much more faithful cinematic adaptation of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s original TMNT comics than any of the cartoons or sequels that have followed in its wake, the 1990 movie featured a cast of Turtles that might not have been real (at least in the sense that radioactively mutated turtles trained in Ninjtsu have never roamed the sewers of New York City), but at least physically existed. The movie’s success was largely due to Steve’s unique vision and the special effects wizardry of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and their then-revolutionary Performance Control System, which enabled a talented team of puppeteers and suit performers led by Brian Henson to bring the turtles to life.

Here’s a look at how they brought them to life from an episode of the British series Film 90, which features a great clip of puppeteer Mak Wilson demonstrating how he performed Michaelangelo’s facial expressions in the movie:

While the CGI Turtles in the new movie certainly do look expressive and impressive, I think that in the process of becoming entirely digital characters they’ve lost something in the process.

More than one review of the new film has complained that while the new Turtles are fantastic on their own, they tend to look artificial and out of place when integrated with live actors. That’s a common problem with these types of CGI-heavy films that didn’t exist in 1990. In fact, all of the effects in the 1990 film still hold up remarkably well today.

Filmmaking concerns aside, there are lots of fringe benefits to making practical Turtles. For one thing, the studio has live action Ninja Turtles that can go out and promote the movie, something that obviously isn’t possible with their current CGI incarnations.

In 1991, Barbara Walters – in what I’m sure was one of the highlights of her career as a serious journalist – interviewed the Ninja Turtles in character to promote  1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze. Compare that interview to this photo line at the L.A. premiere of the 2014 TMNT remake:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) L.A. Premiere

Bradley Fuller, Will Arnett, Megan Fox, Michael Bay, director Jonathan Liebesman and producer Andrew Form attending the premiere of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Westwood, California (photo credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures).

No disrespect to Wil Arnett, Megan Fox, et al, but which group would you rather watch an interview with?

The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is in theatres everywhere this weekend, but if you’d rather kick it old school I highly recommend the new documentary Turtle Power: Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is available for pre-order now and ships August 12th.