Replacing The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Voices In Post Wasn't A Popular Decision

While I don't hate any of the "TMNT" movies (not even the confused patchwork that is the Michael Bay-produced 2014 big screen reboot), director Steve Barron's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is the only one I would venture so far as to call a genuinely good film. Unlike the other "TMNT" movies to date, Barron's 1990 flick serves up plenty of silly Turtle-related hijinks while also being serious and even moving when it needs to be, creating a vision of New York City that feels lived-in and real. That's no minor achievement, either, given this version of NYC is swarming with masked ninjas, mutated reptiles, and a giant talking rat voiced by original Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash.

Equally good is the voice work for the Turtles themselves in the film. Brian Tochi, who evolved into a prolific voice actor starting in the '90s, lends his vocals to Leonardo, the most responsible and grown-up of the reptilian vigilantes, who acts as the group's de facto big brother. There's also Robbie Rist, who voiced Choji Akimichi in the English-language dub of the "Naruto" anime series, as Michelangelo, the least mature, most fun-loving Turtle, and Corey Feldman (famed for his tween roles in movies like "The Goonies" and "Stand By Me") as Donatello, the nerdy, tech-savvy member of the Turtles crew.

Rounding out the Turtles voice cast is Josh Pais as Raphael, the most volatile and rebellious member of the Heroes in a Half Shell. Pais is also the only in-suit Turtle performer in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" who voices their character in the finished film. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in commemoration of the movie's 25th anniversary in 2015, Barron said it was only after production wrapped that he even realized most of the Turtles would end up being voiced by different actors.

Surf's up, dude

David Forman, a prolific stunt coordinator and stunt performer who's been active since the mid-1980s, served as Leonardo's in-suit actor in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Longtime "The Muppets" puppeteer Michelan Sisti and creature performer turned location manager Leif Tilden similarly donned the 70-pound costumes to portray Michelangelo and Donatello during filming. All three actors "wanted to play the voice, and it wasn't fair to not give them a chance to be the voices," Barron told THR. In hindsight, he admitted, it "was obvious it was going to change. But we didn't know as we were making the film. We had no volunteers or stars saying, 'We'll do the voice.'"

Pais, in his own comments to THR, said he was told his physical performance was a little too closely attuned to Raphael's vocal mannerisms for his voice to be replaced by another actor:

"Raphael's New York accent was my decision. They went along with it. I was actually the only actor that it's my voice and I'm in the body. I think it was because this physical way of moving, they just said it was so connected to the voice that we can't see anyone else doing it. I brought that to it. It wasn't in the script."

Tochi, by comparison, revealed that two other actors were hired and then fired to voice Leonardo before he came aboard. "I thought, 'What the hell does a turtle sound like?'" he explained. "It came down that they were looking for something that was kind of surfer-dude-y. I said, 'Ah, that I know!'" Likewise, Rist said his inflections as Michelangelo were inspired by the uptick in "surf-speak" (e.g. using words like "gnarly" and "dude") among his peers after the release of Martha Coolidge's hit teen rom-com "Valley Girl" in 1983.

The trouble with Donatello

For the most part, there didn't seem to be much bad blood between the Turtles' in-suit actors and voice performers — or, at the very least, none so much that the costume actors felt the need to air their grievances to THR 25 years later. According to Tochi, the voice cast "got along fine" too, with Feldman being the only real source of tension due to him arriving late for recording sessions "a lot of the time."

Feldman, as it were, was going through a much-publicized struggle with drug use at the time that he was working on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." This likely contributed to the awkward interaction Tilden had with him at the film's premiere:

"Corey Feldman did my voice [as Donatello]. I went up to him at the premiere and said, 'Hey, I play the character you did the voice to,' and he just totally dissed me. He didn't want to want to deal with me whatsoever. It was around the time he got busted for cocaine in the back seat of his convertible or something. All I remember was walking by him surrounded by cameras professing his innocence to cocaine right outside the 'Ninja Turtles' premiere. Kids are walking by."

In spite of middling reviews, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was a box office hit, grossing $202 million on a $13.5 million budget. It's the blend of the Jim Henson's Creature Shop's incredible animatronics, excellent voice work (combined with stellar physical performances by the in-suit Turtle actors), and the film's ability to juggle fairly disparate tones that have allowed it to age gracefully over the last three decades. That we're still getting new "TMNT" movies in 2022 is a testament to just how much Barron's film endeared the masses to its pizza-loving heroes.