Passing the torch to the next generation of fans of the Heroes in a Half Shell…
Being a child of the eighties, I was spoilt for choice when it came to childhood entertainment. Incredible television shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, The Real Ghostbusters, Batman, Knight Rider and the Transformers dominated the airwaves and the fantastic action figures that arrived with them filled my toy boxes for many years. Despite this impressive array of brilliant genre defining entertainment, my overall devotion leaned toward that of the Star Wars franchise. With movies like the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, I was transported to a galaxy far, far away and thrust into the epic battle between the Rebellion and the Empire which has remained with me to this very day.
However, with the nineties fast approaching I was introduced to a new television series that would not only build upon the foundations established by such great shows, but would capitalize on the worlds appetite for something different and out of the ordinary. A series based upon a little known but immensely popular comic book from the talented duo of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Four walking, talking turtles and their sewer rat mentor had been mutated by a strange glowing ooze that had seeped into the sewers of New York City and transformed them into a crime fighting team like no other. With their master having been schooled in the art of ninjutsu in his native Japan, the four reptiles had learnt the ways of the warrior determined to defend their city from unforeseen threats which swiftly arrived in the form of the Foot Clan and their infamous leader The Shredder.
The novice comic book, designed and illustrated by the artistic duo of Eastman and Laird, had seen an upsurge in success in the latter part of the eighties before toy manufacturer Playmates discovered the property. Excited by the colorful characters inhabiting the comic book, Playmates swiftly struck a deal with the originators to bring a new line of action figures to market. With the action figures designed and rolling out on the assembly line, the creative team, following the formula established by both Transformers and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe contacted Fred Wolf Films, a producer of animated cartoon series’ who were eager to create a new television show to introduce the characters to the wider audience.
It wasn’t long before a deal was agreed, and in the winter of 1987, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series exploded onto our screens and blew the minds of a generation of kids…all mesmerized by the fantastical adventures of the heroes on a half shell.
The franchise began with a five-part miniseries that served as a springboard for a regularly syndicated series that introduced a host of new characters that hadn’t seen the light of day in the comic series. Mutated goons like Bebop and Rocksteady, were brought in to accompany The Shredder and his legion of Foot Ninjas in his quest to rid the world of the Turtle vigilantes which struck a chord with fans of all ages.
By the time I had reached my eleventh birthday, I was fully immersed in the world of the Ninja Turtles. It was a phenomenon. Every dinner was pizza, and every meal time was accompanied by the TMNT television series for background noise. Unfortunately for me, my peers had already begun to discover the wonders of the opposite sex and teased me for my continued devotion to the show, but my commitment showed no signs of wavering. And then, at the pinnacle of the show’s success, my mind was blown by the promise of a live action movie set to debut early in the 1990 summer season.
I remember nothing being as important. The Turtles were about to make it to the cinema screen, a destination where I had spent many of my childhood weekends tethered to my older brother Carl Roberts, who had stepped in as a surrogate father in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce. Together we were partners in crime, devoted cohorts and connoisseurs of the cinematic experience. We saw everything and anything. From Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Ghostbusters and the finale to the Star Wars original trilogy before Tim Burton’s Batman, the first ever 12A rated movie in the UK arrived on screen.
But despite the thrill of seeing Tim Burton’s Batman on the big screen, the notion of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie exploding across the cinema screen was mind blowing!
And so, the anticipation began!
The wait was excruciating. And, when the trailer finally debuted on a late-night television film review program, my twelve-year-old mind was sent into delirium. The show, which was simply named Film 1990 and hosted by BBC legend Barry Norman, revealed the trailer whilst the end credits rolled and gave us our first look at the anticipated blockbuster. Boasting the considerable talents of renowned puppet master Jim Henson, famous for his incredible work on The Muppet Show, the movie looked incredible. The Turtles were brought to life with state of the art animatronics, that controlled both the mouth, facial features and eye coordination and looked incredibly realistic.
The movie had promised so much…but with the weight of expectation, could it truly deliver?
Boasting a budget of just thirteen and a half million dollars, the expectations of the Hollywood hierarchy were low. A fact that was accentuated by the movie struggling to find a studio willing to assume the responsibility of distributing it to the world. With the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the height of their popularity, the notion that none of the big studios were willing to distribute the movie and bring it to the billions of excited fans around the world boggles the mind. But finally, New Line Cinema stepped up and agreed to shoulder the obligation. The movie was released on March 30th, 1990 and went on to dominate the box office and defy expectation with a revenue topping well over two hundred million dollars.
The movie was sublime, heralded as the quintessential outing for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which reverted to the darker tone of the comic books envisioned by Eastman and Laird. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael were pitted against their arch nemesis, The Shredder and his band of ninja thieves whom had launched a crime wave upon the city. The film was incredible, and the action sequences pulled no punches. They were violent and expertly choreographed but mixed amongst the ninja kicks was a light-hearted comedy that kept the violence grounded and restricted it from becoming a harder edged property.
The impressive latex suits had been designed with flexibility in mind, and had allowed the stunt performers inside the ability to perform almost any ninja moved demanded of them. Nothing was off the table. Everything from ninja kicks, punches and even backflips were possible and they were used to their full extent giving us a fully working character to embrace. Jim Henson’s puppet performers, as was expected, brought their incredible expertise to the project and applied it to the facial masks that covered the actors’ head. With a flick of a switch, the Turtles could smile, wink, blink and laugh and even express the mental anguish they were suffering when their beloved master Splinter, was kidnapped.
The movie was praised for its take on the source material, and rightly so. A masterful score from composer John Du Prez only helped to amplify its brilliance through the screen and gave us a traditional Kung-Fu inspired soundtrack that preserved the aura of the comic book. Sadly, to this very day his masterful score has yet to be released in any official capacity, which is a real tragedy for film score lovers like myself.
Despite the franchise moving into the medium of film, the animated series continued to dominate the television landscape and run concurrently with the inevitable sequel which came in the form of “The Secret of the Ooze”. The second outing was a more vibrant and colorful take on the source material and exploited the lighter tone of the series which saw the arrival of a new wave of mutated creatures. Once again, the talented John Du Prez provided another masterful score that maintained the atmosphere of the original but added a higher tempo to accentuate the Turtles triumphant return. Unfortunately, the transition to a lighter tone failed to pay off and the revenue stream took a definitive decline with a box office reward just shy of seventy-nine million dollars.
This critical reaction did not coincide with my feelings at the time. I found the movie to be a thoroughly entertaining sequel that built upon the fun aspects of the original, but harnessed the best of its comedy giving it an edge over other tent pole movies released at the time.
Despite the lukewarm reception to the lighter tone, New Line Cinema pressed on with a third sequel and in spring of 1993, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time arrived on the cinema screen. The story reverted to the tales of the comics, but maintained the lighter tone desperate to find a balance between the mediums. Regrettably, by the time the movie arrived, the bubble had burst and the appetite for more TMNT content had diminished, a fact that was reflected in the poor return of just forty-two million dollars.
Unfortunately for the Turtles, 1993 saw the release of Jurassic Park. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece boasted real life CGI dinosaurs which raised the bar for movie making and overshadowed all its competition in one foul swoop. The Hollywood landscape changed forever, and as I grew older my tastes changed but my love for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie has never faded. In fact, I still love all three of the movies but the original casts a very long shadow.
In growing older, I have found it a joy to introduce my son to the brilliance of the original movie. A reboot of the cartoon series has now been introduced boasting many of the original’s best elements which has caught his attention, but it owes its success to the series that started it all. Even a reboot of the movie franchise has been attempted with Michael Bay, (notorious for eroding the Transformers franchise) assuming the responsibility for its production. But, as is always the case with his movies, the characters were altered and their appearance tampered with which only diluted its appeal to the hard-core fans.
No matter how hard they try, they will never surpass the brilliance of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. It is regarded by many as the quintessential adaptation of Eastman and Laird’s source material and with a great director in Steve Barron, a sublime musical score from John Du Prez and the majestic brilliance of the Jim Henson creature shop, the movie captured lightning in a bottle. To this day, it holds a special place in my heart and whenever I hear Du Prez’s melodious opening title, the hairs on the back of my neck still tingle just as they did when I was twelve years old. It fills me with pride that my son has now embraced the original, just as I did back in the day. He has seen both reboot movies on the big screen, but still prefers the original trilogy whilst at the same time, embracing the rebooted animated series.
It has been a passing of the torch moment. But, when the house is quiet and the Blu-Ray player sits unused, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is never too far away…
And there we will be…screaming Cowabunga with a mouthful of pizza!
All we need now is an official score soundtrack release for all three movies. Their issue is long overdue and as devoted fans, we deserve to have them exploding through our iPods. Time to champion the cause dudes, in the finest tradition of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…
I think we deserve it.
Until next time…Cowabunga!