First, we check out the comic book where it all began, discussing how a black-and-white spoof aimed at adults became one of the most popular children’s franchises of all time. Radical! Next, we revisit the kitschy cartoon series — and the catchy theme song we’ll never be able to get out of our heads, even if our brains are removed from our bodies and placed in awkward bald-guy-in-red-underwear human suits. Righteous! And finally, we return to 1990’s live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and debate who, exactly, this mashup of samurai lore, stoner slang, dated movie references, and goofy kiddie humor is supposed to be for. Cowabunga!
Do we still feel the Turtle Power after all these years? Or has this whole franchise aged about as well as April O’Neil’s bright yellow jumpsuit and white go-go boots? Don a trench coat, grab your nunchucks, and head on down to the sewers for another cool (but rude) episode of When We Were Young!
Like most young boys in the late 80s and early 90s, I lived and breathed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a definitive period of my life. I saw the movies, treated the cartoon series as appointment television, had way too many toys, and ate my fair share of pizza. (Would I have been just as much of a pizza fiend without the Ninja Turtles? Who’s to say?)
But unlike other entertainments I adored around this time — Batman and Jurassic Park, to name a couple — the fondness didn’t really carry forward into adulthood. I never felt a particular call to revisit the films, until it was time to do so for the inevitable Ninja Turtles episode of our podcast. The reason to explore this topic was obvious — how could something that occupied so much of my time as a child have so little impact?
As it turns out, I’ve stored plenty of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle knowledge in the dark recesses of my memory. Once jogged, I could recall images from the video game, songs from the Coming Out Of Their Shells concert tour, cereal bowls, popsicles, Spaghetti-Os, beach towels, and dozens and dozens of action figures — none of which I ever would have thought about again if not for this podcast.
Certain images and moments from the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie still strike me as iconic, even if my adult brain tells me it isn’t so. Flashbacks to Splinter’s days as a normal-sized rat, teaching himself karate within a cage, are still oddly evocative (as is his imprisonment). The turtles’ sojourn to April’s family farm resonates as awfully somber, even if it’s also kind of silly and out of place when viewed through a grownup lens. And the Shredder still exudes a badass cool as the villain of the piece. The Jim Henson creature effects may not be totally convincing, but they hold up better than you might think.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a silly idea from the get-go, dreamed up by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird one pizza-fueled evening as a joke. (The legend doesn’t say they were smoking marijuana, but I’d bet on it.) For as ridiculously popular as this franchise became — spawning six films, a multitude of animated TV series, concert tours, video games, and billions of dollars worth of toy sales — there’s not much there. Four turtles and a rat, some pizza, the sewers, a TV news reporter, a talking brain — all drawing inspiration from both samurai culture and Italian masters of the Renaissance? Okay! It struck me this time how much TMNT borrowed from Star Wars — with Splinter as Yoda, Shredder as Darth Vader, Raphael as Han Solo, and Leonardo, Donatello, and Michelangelo splitting time as Luke Skywalker (since they don’t really have distinct personalities, despite the TV theme song’s insistence that they do). This first feature film is one wacky, uneven outing, with most of the humor falling flat for me 30 years later, but still — I couldn’t hate it.
Digging up all this nostalgia — whether I want it or not — proved to me that the Ninja Turtles and all their many, many action figures will always be a part of me. Cowabunga, I guess?