When I was 11 I got into a fight with a kid down the street over accusations that I broke one of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. I don’t remember if I did. I might have? The only thing I can legitimately recall is that we combined our toys, and that I was jealous that he had an April O’Neil and the turtle van, of which I had neither. His name was also Chris. We never hung out after that. He had a last name that included a biblical part of the body and middle school was going to do him no favors in that regard so he was probably already choosing his friends carefully.
This was what it was like to be a kid swept up into the concentrated Ninja Turtle marketing blitz of the early 90s. I had the action figures, I watched the cartoon, and I tossed my video game controller endlessly while playing the first NES game.* My passion for things turtle was deep and screeching and it was all because they were high-energy, colorful, and utterly inescapable. If it had a form, there was a Ninja Turtle version of it and it probably had the word “COWABUNGA!” on it somewhere.
*I even had a handheld version of the NES game which, when it ran out of batteries, became a post-Next Gen version of the starship Enterprise which could maneuver in planetary atmospheres, fire phasers like crazy, and achieve trans-warp drive.
What I’m getting at here is that the lingering presence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in our cultural firmament is less because there’s an idea there worth exploring and more because they’re effusive and harmless. Our nostalgia for them isn’t tied to the turtles as characters as much as it’s tied to the sense of boundless adventure and fun that is unique to growing up. I don’t miss the Ninja Turtles, I miss being able to occupy my mind for hours by taking a handful of toys and pretending that Donatello (the best turtle) had to rescue all the rest of the turtles from being thrown off a cliff (a big rock behind my house) by Shredder (who left the scene early because I didn’t have that toy), which he does, in the nick of time, only to discover that now all of the turtles, in their obviously weakened state at the bottom of the cliff, must now face off against Metalhead, for reasons.
(P.S. – There are spoilers ahead for this weekend’s movie. Although the plot is so basic that anything you can imagine is probably more of a spoiler than what you’ll read. Still, heads up.)
From the flurry of reviews over the 2014 reboot’s opening weekend, the latest movie’s failure to reignite this sense of wonder seems to be one of the main arguments against going to see it. And from the perspective of an adult, that’s an accurate assessment. The reboot certainly tries to make everything as silly as it is explosive, but it’s a very juvenile, very basic sort of humor. You almost expect to see a “Screenplay by HumorBot 5000” credit at the end.
And to be fair, the very first Ninja Turtle movie way back when wasn’t all that funny or well-done either. Inspired lunacy didn’t really come along until 1991’s Secret of the Ooze, which opens with the entirety of New York City eating pizza just because, stars David Warner as a mad scientist, closes with Vanilla Ice performing “Ninja Rap” and, oh yeah, also this:
Now THAT is a movie that doesn’t care whether you like it or not. I’ve still got my tattered VHS copy.
And honestly, the rebooted turtles franchise might get this crazy. The reboot did very well at this weekend’s box office and a sequel has already been announced for June 3, 2016.
But none of that explains why the 2014 reboot is doing so well, especially when similarly goofy but more heartfelt fare like Guardians of the Galaxy is readily available. The film itself doesn’t provide the answer to this question, either. The movie takes a good 30 minutes before the turtles really show up, everything except the mountainside snow fight is boring, Splinter has the most wrongest voice a wisened old rat could possibly have, Shredder is a secondary threat at best, and while the movie puts serious effort into giving Megan Fox a laudable character arc regarding how she’s the only person who does any friggin’ work around here despite being dismissed as a token Hot Chick, it undercuts that at the end with a leering butt shot.
Are movie audiences just stupid, then? As comforting as it would be to consider one’s personal artistic sensibilities as elevated above the masses, the answer is probably not. They’re not as familiar with summer blockbuster tropes as some of us are (a woman behind me in the audience was actually surprised when William Fichtner’s oily businessman character was revealed as a bad guy) and less likely to demand variation or subtlety, but that doesn’t make them stupid, it just makes them momentarily passive. Just as I once thrilled to The Secret of the Ooze, someone else thrills to this year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
And that’s really what defines the actual worth of this reboot movie. You can go see it, and legitimately hate it based on the merits of its quality (well, you won’t hate it, it’s not that focused, you’ll just be bored), as long as you recognize that this isn’t for you anymore. That while you’re yawning for the umpteenth time during the final battle, an 8 year old three seats down from you is feverishly gripping the seat in front of him, hoping that the turtles beat Shredder so this UNBEARABLE EXCITEMENT will cease/never cease.
Me? I’ll leave the theater glad to have caught the Arrested Development joke that Will Arnett snuck into the movie. That kid? He’ll leave with his family and jump around the subway car yelling “Cowabunga!” a million times. As will the other families that packed the screening I was at, I imagine.
Are you an adult? Don’t go see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It sucks to realize that you can’t get joy out of something any longer, and it sucks to waste time and money on that depressing realization.
Are you an adult with a young kid bugging you to see it? Take them to see it. Sure, it’s a bit soulless, but if my own
11-year old sketches of a sewer system that extends from New York City to my house childhood adventures have taught me anything, it’s that there’s still something of worth beyond all of that.
And also that Super Shredder is dope. He’s not in the movie. But he lives on in my memory.
Chris Lough is the programming manager at Tor.com, complains about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a lot, and runs too much. He’s on Twitter. It’s okay.