Cowabunga! Why ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Is Still Relevant
It’s been 30 years since the heroes in half shell kicked their way onto movie screens. Unlike other fads of the late ’80s and early ’90s that had their brief time in the sun, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has lived well past its “mania.” Since their comic book debut in 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s ninjutsu-practicing reptiles, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, have been present for every generation. Across six theatrical films, five TV series, an animated crossover with Batman, a bevy of video games and countless comic book appearances, the TMNT have embedded themselves into popular culture in a way that few, if any, other independent comics creations have.
It’s more than childhood nostalgia that makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles such a beloved film. The mid-’90s didn’t offer the array of comic book films we have today. The believability of the world is what made the franchise work then, and it’s why it has remained so highly regarded among fans and comic book connoisseurs 30 years later. Despite a production that was nothing short of a saga, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feels crafted with care and love, as opposed to the cheap cash-in it could have been.
Director Barron and screenwriters Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck managed to synthesize aspects of the popular cartoon series, including the Turtles’ catchphrases, love of pizza, and colored bandanas, along with the darker and more mature elements of Laird and Eastman’s comics. The film’s tagline “Hey dude, this is no cartoon” still manages to speak volumes about the intentions of the production. The tone is fun and playful, and the story is straightforward, but from the costumes to the performances, there’s nothing cartoonish about the film.
As a property primarily aimed at children, TMNT has always seemed like one of the easiest to dismiss by parents who didn’t grow up with it. Yet the continued existence of these characters, and the success of that first film, relies on the idea that they have the capability for depth and emotional resonance. There is this fear of loss at the heart of the film, even when it’s punctuated by comedy. That fear comes back around later in the film during the retelling of Shredder’s origin story. It’s heavy stuff for a supposed kids’ film, yet it’s that very heft that has allowed the movie to stick and stay with us into adulthood.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been held in such esteem for so long because it is a story about growing up, about teenagers becoming adults, and the stealthy approach in how that theme is handled is nothing short of radical. The style in which they’ve been depicted may have changed, and their shade of green has varied over the years, but the TMNT have never found themselves stuck in the sewers for long.