Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: A Look Back
The tenth installment of this series, and a milestone. What better fit than to look at one of the biggest franchises of all time?
"Heroes in a half shell?" What does that even mean? Did it even matter, though? When it comes to children's programming, or just big popular things in general, you're in select company with likes of Looney Tunes, Star Wars and Pokemon as your brethren. There's a lot of classic and popular franchises over time, but not a whole lot completely dominate the landscape of popular culture. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was, and still is as its going strong today, one of the most popular things to ever be put on earth.
I can't think of a single kid that I knew that wasn't a fan of the Ninja Turtles. For over a decade they were everywhere and were everything to an entire generation. I know this because, even today, I'll be chatting with someone who also grew up during that era, maybe are even from another country, and they were into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well. They'll likely know each Turtle, Leonardo the leader, Raphael the angry wise ass, Donatello the genius and Michelangelo the "party dude." They'll probably know their names and, most likely, have no idea who the real Renaissance artists
The phenomenon is really one of those "once in a blue moon" things that rarely happens and, at least to my recollection, the only thing as big before it was Star Wars. Even Batman in 1989 didn't quite overrun our society on this level and that was a huge hit that spawned animated series, toys and videogames itself.
I sort of consider the Ninja Turtles a streamlined version of the team-superhero comics like X-Men or Justice League. It's on a smaller scale and that focused characterization and storytelling is what allowed it to shine. It was simple and didn't try to do or be more than it was supposed to be. Everything about them can be found right in the title. They're teenagers, mutated turtles and trained as ninjas. To know your concept and express that rather than try to expand beyond it is what allows for subtlety and nuances to shine alongside stories that are easy to follow and characters that become more and more appealing as it progresses.
When the movie hit, there was little else as big (outside of Home Alone that year). I can remember drawing the poster, seen to the left, and insanely proud of it. I had the most difficulty with Rafael on the right because his teeth and mouth were oddly shaped. I also remember going to the theater to see the film with one of my friends. The first time I heard the turtles say "Damn" I knew this was not exactly like the cartoon. Now, older, I actually appreciate that edgier and dark/serious tone a lot more and understand that its the intended style that the Turtles were supposed to have in the first place. The film, despite being dated even for its time, was actually pretty damn good.
Videogames also were huge and the Turtles had their share of digital incarnations. The biggest, by far, was the arcade games that allowed four players at once. These were always crowded and almost always had all four players filled. When they made the transition to the Nintendo Entertainment System, almost every kid had to buy it day one (or whenever it arrived to their local stores, game released weren't as mandated and strict back then). Of course, I can't go on without mentioning the action figure line, one of the largest lines of toys with all sorts of characters and vehicles to play around with. They eventually got a little dumber and dumber in concept, but they were still "totally radical."
And so are the Turtles, and always will they be. Their images, slang and concept are now down in history. As it turns out, though, the toy line is pretty much the whole reason why we know the Turtles at all...let's see how it all began.
A Brief History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
-Originally a comic book series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984, the first incarnation had the four heroes, much darker in tone than they would later be known for (thank to inspiration by the likes of Frank Miller) drawn in black and white, oversized magazine style paper with newsprint pages. It was the pure definition of independent comic book publishing, all made by two guys in Massachusetts who did it, originally, as a parody and only intended for one comic issue. Only 3000 copies were printed. Their original designs showed four skinny turtles all wearing red bandannas, their names and weaponry would stay with them throughout their various incarnations.
-The popularity of the comic drew the attention of Mark Freedman who pitched the idea of the Turtles to Playmates for a toy line. Playmates, looking at the likes of Transformers and GI Joe, felt it would be more prudent for it to be marketed first as a cartoon series. Working with playmates, the Turtles were repackaged to be set up as an animated series. A five-part mini series was made, which eventually led to the cartoon being picked up as a regular series. The popularity was about to skyrocket.
-The TV show was an instant hit, and the toyline profited greatly because of it. Around this time, Eastman and Laird's role with the comic series became lesser and more guest artists and writers took over the reigns. This incarnation became what many identify the Ninja Turtles with, and many videogames, toys, comics and novelty items came from it and its more "kid friendly" approach.
-The animated TV series ran from 1987 to 1996. 193 total episodes were produced. Many veteran children show writers and producers were responsible for crafting it during its run including Michael Charles Hill and David Wise (Transformers), Fred Wolf (Ducktales, Alvin and the Chipmunks) and Michael Reeves (Ghostbusters, The Smurfs). Jack Mendelson was brought in as adviser and story editor.
-Naturally, people wanted to get the Turtles into theaters. The first live-action film was released in 1990 and closely resembled the plot of the original comics from 1984 as well as its dark tone which would be altered for the sequels to better reflect the lighter cartoon series. It was directed by music video director Steve Barron with a screenplay by Bobby Herbeck (TV sitcom writer) and Todd Langen (The Wonder Years and also writer of the sequel). At a budget of only 13.5 million, it grossed over 200million worldwide.
-The sequels had larger budgets but weren't quite as successful. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was released only one year later and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was released in 1993. Neither reached the top 10 of box office results in their respective years (the original film breaking in at #9 for1990)
-After the animated show's run, a live-action show was produced. It lasted for one seasons and shelled out(pun intended) only 26 episodes. It was produced by the same group that were involved with the Power Rangers. Controversially, a female Turtle was introduced, Venus de Milo, however she has not appeared in any media since other than a fan series on the internet. Peter Laird, who is now full owner of the Ninja Turtle franchise after Kevin Eastman sold him his share, utterly despises and disavows the character to this very day.The show, the character and similar dumb approaches to the franchise (such as a rock and roll tour) over-saturated the market with Ninja Turtles and eventually people got tired or just bored with the concept.
-In 2003 the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were revived via Fox and Mirage Studios, the originators of the first series. It came it a perfect time to introduce the Turtles to a new generation and is noticeably closer to the original comic with a darker and edgier tone and lots more action and elaborate stories. The series is ongoing to this day.
-The reinvigorated franchise brought a new film with it, a fully computer animated movie that is a continuation of the original movie trilogy. Produced by Imagi Animation studios (their first major feature) and was written and directed by Kevin Munroe (also his first major feature, but has worked for some of the top studios in the world including Disney, Jim Henson Company and Nickelodeon). Peter Laird also oversaw much of the film's development. Entitled just "TMNT" the film opened number one at the Box Office earning around 24million on its debut weekend. A sequel is currently in development.
Top 10 Reasons the Ninja Turtles Were So Popular
Out of all of these look backs I've done, none have ingrained themselves so deeply to so many than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The popularity of it is something that only comes along once in a blue moon. It spawned countless imitators and is still rather popular today. What exactly was it that got kids so into it? There were better kids movies, better cartoons, even better action figures. For the Turtles, though, it was all about the attitude.
Kids love pizza. They always have and always will. It's like alcohol to the Irish. The Ninja Turtles were four ass-kicking mutant amphibians (Ass-Kicking Mutant Amphibians a far cooler title) that also loved pizza. It was a way to relate to them on the most simplest of levels: find out what kids like, have your heroes like it as well. Pizza, though, became even more popular because of it. Places like Pizza Hut had huge marketing campaigns with the Turtles franchise and kids would even bring their action figures to the restaurant and eat pizza while playing with their toys.
9: Simple Team Premise
Human beings naturally like to itemize things. That's why I do a lot of Top 25/10 lists. It's easy to organize and understand. Ninja Turtles was perfect at doing this. You had four identifiable heroes, one leader in Splinter that oversaw them. It's simple to understand and thus easy to really get into quickly. By not trying to be overly complicated, it makes it that much more accessible. We're gradually introduced to them through the eyes of April O'Neal, which is a rather genius way to use her as the "everyman (woman)" to ease people into the world rather than just dropping them right in like many cartoons and movies tended to do.
8: New York City
It's easier to think of 1980s action movies not set in New York City than movies that did. The city was known to everyone because so many movies used it as its setting. But not movies for kids, usually. The Ninja Turtles, across all their outlets like comics, movies and the cartoons, all took place in a real place we all knew, even if we didn't live there. It had the sense that the Turtles, then, could very well be real as well, we simply didn't see them. It also helped that the city is a character itself and the franchise always played off it.
As they are teenagers, the Ninja Turtles often spoke like teenagers. So much so that they more or less determined what was cool to say and what wasn't. In combination of their own turtle based lingo (such as "Shell Shocked") they became synonymous with phrases like "Cowabunga Dude," "Gnarly," and "Rad." It was a combination of surfer slang and typical teenage dumb phrases, and every kid would spout it constantly like it was going out of style (thankfully, it did by the mid 1990s)
There are three universal truths that emerged from the 1980s. Cocaine was a helluva a drug, hair metal rocked the world and ninjas kicked all sorts of ass. Ninjas were huge, as were martial arts, but the shadowy and stealthy ninja could be seen in nearly everything (when he wants to be seen, that is). There's just something utterly cool about sneaking around and slicing people up. While the Turtles weren't the best of Ninjas in terms of accurate depictions, other than staying unseen when need be (by wearing trenchcoats and hats, apparently), they still exuded that sense of silent and mysterious action that hid themselves from the rest of the world.
5: The Villain was Just Cool Looking
As generic as he might seem now, there wasn't a whole lot of villains that were as unique as The Shredder. First, he was Japanese and a hell of a martial arts master. Second, it's a good rule of thumb that the more sharp blades on your person, the cooler you are. He has great fashion sense as well with the silver, black and purple ensemble that was so chic. Third, a great voice by (mostly) Uncle Phil himself, James Avery. It was dark and gritty with a little bit of Cobra Commander thrown in for good measure at times.
4: Action and Martial Arts Fighting
In the 1980s, kids loved (and I mean loved) martial arts. It was a sense of empowerment to them and looked cool at the same time. It was the hip, cool new thing and, to be honest, I can't think of any children's programming before the Ninja Turtles that put an emphasis on it. That really just writes itself. There were tons of martial arts movies, but not a single kids show about people punching and roundhouse kicking their way through swarms of bad guys? The Turtles changed all that and really sold themselves thanks to impeccable timing with their concept.
3: Incredible Personalities that Appealed to All Walks
Every aspect of how a person could act and be is represented and stremlined down to four mutant Turtles. Everyone had their favorites because at least one will be one a kid can relate to. They covered all their bases. Michelangelo was for the free-spirit party guys, Donatello for the brainy or artistic types, Leonardo fit the bill for the type-A personality and jocks, and Rafael was perfect for the rebellious and angst-ridden groups.
2: Not Human
One of the biggest factors that allowed the Ninja Turtles to transcend so many demographics is that the Turtles were so separate from the rest of society. They weren't low class, middle class or upper class. They were neither rich nor poor. They weren't of any racial background. This allowed them to be, in a way, characters any kid could live vicariously through. In combination of the third entry, many would dress up as their favorite ninja turtle and really become them. In away, those Turtles were perfect shells (ahem) for kids to live vicariously through.
1: They Were Teenagers
Many franchises, cartoons and comic heroes, had one common thing: the heroes were adult. G.I. Joe, Ghostbusters, He-Man, X-Men, Batman....all the heroes were adult. The Turtles, though, spoke to the youth. They were kids themselves and acted accordingly. They skateboarded, played videogames, goofed around and watched TV. They weren't fans of authority, often rebelled and still, though, they come home and enjoy the company of their brothers even if they fought a lot. Teenagers in the 1980s were given a new level of sophistication and even appreciation thanks to the many movies, like The Breakfast Club, Karate Kid or Back to the Future, and many young adults and kids looked to them as examples of how to live and enjoy their lives. Now there's an entire franchise of action, mutants and martial arts with teenagers as the central figure that acted appropriately.
Of course, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weren't perfect ... (Doubly so). The market eventually became flooded and over-saturated with them, and the people who kept trying to find ways to cash in the franchise eventually just killed it. But, like Joe Montana playing for the Chiefs or Prince changing his name to that weird symbol, the good not only outweighs the bad, it thankfully overshadows it. It wasn't the most sophisticated show, but it gave kids exactly what they wanted and what the needed.
To go through the motions of this series with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost feels redundant if not flat-out unnecessary. Almost everybody already knows about them, their history and their impact. They were huge back then and I doubt I brought up things that weren't already known. But this series is a celebration of these types of things and if I can bring in some interesting facts, then it's fun and sometimes comedic. The Ninja Turtles, though, are self-explanatory. There really was nothing quite like them before and dozens of copycats after.
I'm kind of amazed at how popular the franchise is even today. That's over twenty years (although the late 1990s didn't see them too much). The Ninja Turtles programming and most recent film still hearken back to the original series and roots. It's different yet incredibly familiar, and isn't that what being nostalgic is all about?