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My Heroes in a Half-Shell

When T.J. and I launched Why Love the ’90s?, our general arrangement was that T.J. would be the wide-eyed ’90s apologist, while I would act as the crank who hates on everything from that decade.

So far, I’ve more or less stayed in that lane, but there are some things that even I can’t really hate.

And with all of the recent furor surrounding one of those things, I decided it’s time to revisit my love for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And yes, I said Teenage MUTANT Ninja Turtles, not Alien Ninja Turtles or just Ninja Turtles.  Michael Bay’s upcoming reboot of the franchise has been discussed with much vigor–and in many fan quarters, venom–over the past couple of months.

Specifically, this has to do with his stated desire to change the origins of the heroes, a fundamental change that to me is on the level of not killing Uncle Ben in a Spider-Man movie.

There are certain things that have to happen regarding the Ninja Turtles, and while some of these details have and can change, one thing shouldn’t and can’t: four baby turtles have to get doused in mutagenic ooze and grow into human-sized intelligent mutants obsessed with pizza and trained in martial arts by a mutated rat who names them after his favorite Renaissance painters.  It’s a tale (almost) as old as time.  

Meanwhile, Bay’s version would see the Turtles reimagined as aliens, and you can see why the fanbase rebels against that.

Then again, time will tell how the changes work, or if they’re even made.  Even if Michael Bay cocks up Ninja Turtles–and for the new film, that will be the title, truncated for marketing purposes even though the full title should be recognizable to everyone–we’ll still have the boys as we remember them.

However we choose to remember them.

It all began with the first issue of their eponymous comic book, back in 1984.

Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird conceived the Turtles as a satirical take on the “grim ‘n’ gritty” era of comics (and specifically Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Ronin), as well as the popularity of all things “mutant,” given the success of X-Men and New Mutants at the time.  

The first issue was an independent comics smash, and just a few years later, the Turtles were shot into the big time with an animated series and accompanying toy line.  I remember seeing the first commercials for the show, which instantly intrigued and excited me.

The hype was worth it–the show was great, and having watched the first episodes again a few years back, I can say that they still hold up.  It’s a fun action cartoon no matter when you’re watching it or how old you are.  (And it blows my mind that sitcom hack Chuck Lorre wrote the classic, still awesome theme song.)

The cartoon began in syndication in 1987, but was picked up by CBS in 1990, becoming a Saturday morning fixture until 1996–after a dreadful last couple of seasons which saw the show lose its trademark sense of humor and become dreadfully dark and dull.

During that time, there were multiple comic series (the original Mirage Comics title and a second title published by Archie that would split off from the animated continuity and develop its own surprisingly deep mythos), video games (a few of which are almost universally beloved), and even an album and concert tour.

And man oh man, the concert tour.

The Turtles actually took their act on the road in 1990, in a live stage show branded the “Coming Out of Their Shells Tour.”

The crux of the show was that the Turtles became rock musicians, and alongside April O’Neil and Splinter, fought a Shredder (whose costume was so laughably terrible) who plotted to eliminate all music.  There was an accompanying cassette, sold at fine Pizza Huts everywhere.  I wore that out, singing along to songs like “Coming Out of Our Shells,” “Sing About It,” “Tubin'” and “Walk Straight,” and annoying my dad by playing it in the car so much.

The most surreal moment of that entire period was the Turtles’ appearance on Oprah to promote the show.  If you can imagine Oprah interviewing four guys in foam turtle suits, asking questions to April about interspecies romance, then playing host to a visiting Shredder…you still can’t imagine how weird it was to watch that as it aired.

Unless you saw them being interviewed by Barbara Walters.

However, if I had to choose one bit of TMNT to call a favorite, it would be the first movie.  Not only do I consider it one of the finest comic book to film adaptations, I also consider it one of my absolute favorite movies.

For a time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the highest grossing film released by an independent studio (New Line).  It definitely had huge hype leading up to its release, on the backs of the cartoon and toys.  Amongst my friends and everyone else I knew, it was the most awaited movie of 1990.

And it was so good!

It still is.  I have just about all of it memorized.
“Cricket!  Nobody understands cricket!  You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket!”
“Pizza dude’s got thirty seconds.”
“You’re a claustrophobic!”
“You want a fist in the mouth?  I’ve never even looked at another guy before!”


It’s endlessly quotable, and I’m not doing myself any favors by spouting lines out of context, but I am doing it without the aid of IMDb.  The first Turtles movie is just burned into my brain.

Despite excising the extraterrestrial and overtly fantastical elements that made their way into the cartoon (except, of course, mutated turtles and rats), the movie felt like a pretty close approximation of the characters and their world.

The essence of the property is still there.  Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo live in the sewers with their sensei/father figure Splinter, secretly protecting New York from crime, when their secret existence is compromised thanks to their rescue of reporter April O’Neil (skewing towards the animated version, rather than the lab assistant from the comics).  

Despite landing on the story of the century, April becomes the Turtles’ trusted friend, but nonetheless draws them into a battle with the Foot Clan, headed by the evil Shredder, who senses his own connection to the Turtles.  When the Foot lays siege to the brothers’ underground lair and kidnap Splinter, the Turtles, April, and sports-crazed vigilante Casey Jones hit the road in order to regroup and plan their assault on the Foot.

Though a few of the attempts at edginess (oh, Raphael’s cursing!) come across as forced, the movie works most because the Turtles really seem like teenage brothers.  They joke around, they bicker, they may tear into each other, but in the end, their love for each other seems much more real than you’d expect from overdubbed actors in rubber turtle suits.   

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really is a well-done family actioner, which is more than I can say for the lesser sequels.

After the original animated series left airwaves in 1996, the property cooled for a while.  Saban developed a live-action series in 1997 called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation–which is rightly derided and in some cases forgotten.  The Turtles spent the bulk of the ’90s as a nostalgic afterthought, until 4Kids Entertainment revived the brand in 2003 with a new animated series, which is pretty good in its own right.

But that’s another decade, for another generation of kids to look upon with fondness.  This is about the ’90s, and during that time, Turtle Power reigned supreme in the world and in my heart.

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