Link to the Past: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

logan j. fowler reflects on heroes from his childhood — heroes in a half shell …

When I was in first grade, I clearly remember my mom having a post report card conference with my teacher. It went rather well, so as a treat, my mom took me to Toys R Us to pick out a toy. The memory is still so tangible because of the toy I picked out: a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle by the name of Michelangelo. From there you could say, “The rest was history.”

Most children lock into an obsession or fad, even in this current day. For my childhood, it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I religiously watched the cartoon, collected a ton of the toys, dressed as Donatello for one Halloween, ate the cereal and the random licensed snacks with the Turtles’ mugs on the wrapper, played the video games, and saw all three movies in the theater.

At a time, there was not one place where you could look at not see something TMNT. It was an endless pool of merchandise at our fingertips. However, while most of us got our introduction to the heroes in a half shell from the cartoon that aired on Saturday mornings, the Ninja Turtles actually got their start in a black-and-white comic that debuted in 1984.

The original TMNT comic series

The comic was originally started as joke sketch, as artist Kevin Eastman was just goofing around on a random evening with his friend Peter Laird, also an artist. The two eventually got the comic to become a reality (it was published by Mirage Studios), and the style parodied that of artist Frank Miller (Sin City, Ronin), with a dark, gritty, black and white, noir inspired tale.

The origin story sees the turtles founded by a rat in a sewer — and those same turtles are covered in an ooze. Said ooze begins to mutate the turtles as well as the rat, making them grow larger in size. Using the training he learned in Japan from his master Hamato Yoshi, the rat (who becomes known as Splinter), teaches the turtles the way of the Ninja, naming them all after great Renaissance artists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. The four turtles found their main adversary in the Shredder (Orouku Saki), the same person who killed Splinter’s master.

The artists were then offered a chance to license the product to the mainstream. The two agreed to push forth, and so begins the time line where TMNT entered into our living rooms. Playmates Toys, Inc. began developing a line of figures to be sold along with developing a cartoon to sell them (a common ’80s tie in theme), and with that said, the world was introduced to the pizza-eating, butt-kicking, four-foot-tall, bandanna-wearing turtles.

Saturday mornings were a thing of glory for a ton of kids back then, as they would grab their ninja turtle toys and watch the good guys in green disrupt the Shredder’s plans week after week. We laughed along as they chomped down on pizza, we rooted for them as they saved reporter April O’Neil, and we waited in anticipation until the next week when they’d come back on our screens.

The popularity of the cartoon lead to the inevitable movie deal, and in 1990 the turtles hit the big screen in a live action feature film. The origin story was retold, but it is closer to its comic book counterpart. In the cartoon, Hamato Yoshi WAS Splinter, not his master. In the movie, we get the original telling of the story, as Hamato Yoshi is Splinter’s master, and the rat is seeking to avenge his master’s murder. We also get side character Casey Jones in all of his hockey mask wearing, snarky, golf club wielding glory, and a series of dark moments that set the movie apart from the cartoon. Were there similarities? Absolutely. However, the movie sets a tone closer to that of the comic than of the cartoon.

Cowabunga dudes. Cowabunga.

The Jim Henson Company brings the turtles to life, providing state of the art puppetry for the heroes in the half shell, and the movie definitely successfully found common ground between the cartoon and the comic.

Not even a year later, the Turtles were back on the silver screen. The second film (Secret Of The Ooze) included a lot of more campiness and cheesiness, and instead of cartoon mainstays Bebop and Rocksteady as Shredder’s main henchmen, we got Tokka and Rahzar. Oh, and of course, the infamous Vanilla Ice tune featured in the movie, “Ninja Rap,” would become a classic tune in its own right.

The sequel wasn’t bad, but it goes to show how much this property exploded, as the movies were just a year apart. Also, the toys were selling like hot cakes, the cartoon was still five years away from going off the air, and the turtles already claimed a place on the pop culture wall of fame. But two years later, the world got another TMNT film, this time with the turtles getting transported to ancient Japan (Turtles In Time). Besides the Turtles, April, Casey, and Splinter, the film had NOTHING in common with the cartoon, as it gave us stock bad guys, a blah storyline, and some of the most cringe-worthy jokes in a turtle film. Maybe for a 10-year-old Logan, this may not have been true, but for a fan of the cartoon, you probably would’ve raised an eyebrow too.

With the live-action films all said and done, the cartoon plugged along until 1996, when the animated Saturday morning sewer closed for good (or so it would seem). But it was not a property to go down without a fight; the Turtles were resurrected in a live action serious in 1997 that introduced a female turtle, Venus De Milo. Called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, the series picked up where the movies left off, but was axed after a mere 26 episodes.

Giving the franchise time to breathe, the turtles came back to Saturday morning in 2003, and this time, the characters more resembled that of the comic book. Also, the turtles were pupil and iris less. Providing the green machine to a new generation of youngsters, the new TMNT cartoon saw a release of new toys, video games, books, clothing, and what have you. But for this property, lightning didn’t strike twice. Heck, when this cartoon first came on, I even watched it. Yeah I was in college, but still, the nostalgic factor did not work.

Regardless, I still went to the movies in 2007, as the simply titled TMNT hit the silver screen. A continuation of where the live action films left off, this CGI animated tale tells us of Leonardo going to Central America to hone his leader and ninja skills, while the rest of the Turtles get around by doing odd jobs (how did they get hired?). Raphael goes out at night as a justice serving vigilante and later gets in all out brawl with Leo, but the brothers must come to terms and join together as they must rid New York of monsters and an ancient army. The movie wasn’t bad — it was entertaining, to say the least — but it failed to recapture the nostalgic glory. Also, while I do appreciate the ties to the live action films, for the TMNT newbies, there should have been some sort of correlation between this movie and the current cartoon of the time.

Finally, as a treat to fans old and new, Nickelodeon movies released Turtles Forever in 2009. This was one of my latest Netflix rentals, and I loved the shell out of it. When dimensions cross over, the 2003 cartoon turtles come face to face with their late-’80s counterparts, the latter in all their goofy glory.

When the Shredder (the latest cartoon one, not 1980s one) decides to destroy all Turtles in their respective dimensions, he realizes he must start with the source, and that my friends, is where this movie kicks into high gear. We get to see the 1984 Turtles come face to face to face with their cartoon counterparts, and the three sets work together to take down the Shredder.

This movie works the nostalgic factor to its greatest degree, as I got to enjoy the ’80s turtles interact with the recent cartoon set, and seeing the 1984 turtles was simply awesome. Turtles Forever wasn’t a big movie release, as it was mainly played on the CW channel, and is available for rental or DVD purchase. But trust me when I say: If you grew up on the turtles like I did, this movie is for the fan in you.

While my childhood is years behind me, I always look back on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a sense of glee. They were a main product of my youth growing up, and whether I was watching the cartoon, viewing the movie, or playing with the toys in my pool, young Logan was always smiling. As old as it makes me sound, years like that will never come back to me, but to those who understand it, sometimes you just have to be grateful that you had a childhood like that, period.

May Turtle Power live on, forever. Cowabunga dudes.

GO NINJA GO NINJA GO!

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