'Ninja Turtles' Movies Work Best When Not Played For Laughs
Good news for fans of martial arts and unhealthy amounts of pizza (that would prevent most of us from practicing said martial arts) the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are coming back to the big screen ... again. A new computer-animated movie is in the works, set to be produced by Seth Rogen, which is concerning for a few reasons. For one, Rogen's previous foray into the animated world was primarily focused on how some junk foods resemble genitals ...
... but also Rogen's involvement implies that this new movie will be comedic -- but on the big-screen, the Turtles have always worked best when taken totally seriously.
There's really no topping the original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Unlike other comic book franchises that gradually pivoted from campy incarnations to gritty gloom-fests, the Turtles' first movie was pretty goddamn gritty, only to become goofier with every subsequent installment. Like, "peak Vanilla Ice cameo" levels of inanity.
But the first film's dark realism isn't an obstacle for kids. If anything, the movie solidified a generation of kids purely through the story's emotional engagement. We went in as fans of a cartoon that featured a robot with a talking brain in its tummy and left the theater genuinely bonded to these characters. How did it accomplish this? Well, for one thing, the villains' plans are grounded and relatable. When we first glimpse the Foot Clan, they're boosting TV sets.
Which is a more realistic evil scheme than, say, world domination, and it's more impactful for children; what kid in the '80s wouldn't find the idea of losing your TV traumatizing? Shredder's scheme isn't just accessible to kids, like the best movie villains, joining him is actually tempting. Instead of living in an underground cyber-sphere like in the cartoon, the film's Shredder lures his runaway minions to his badass "skate punk Chuck E. Cheese" lair.
The movie doesn't rely on an impending apocalypse to give us stakes, the stakes are mostly character-based, represented in the form of Danny, April's boss Charles' son, who gets mixed up with the Foot because he has a fraught relationship with his dad -- again, a very familiar touchstone for kids.
Most importantly, the Turtles should be vulnerable. In the recent Michael Bay-produced movies, the Turtles are near-invincible superheroes; in the '90 movie they're not impervious to pain. Hell, Raph almost dies and the movie devotes a large chunk of time to letting him recuperate at a farm while his brothers grapple with their own fear and despair. This was somehow all in the service of selling action figures.
Which is undeniably intense for young kids, but it's also memorable and affecting. These moments of poignancy were almost entirely jettisoned in the sequel due to parental outrage and concerns over the original film's violence. The solution was to alter the tone but keep the violence. Meaning that the Turtles were still allowed to beat the crap out of people, just not with actual weapons (and with more wacky sound effects). Michelangelo couldn't wail on ninjas with nunchucks, but sure, assaulting them with meat products was totally cool.
Which isn't to say that the new movies need to copy the old one -- but after multiple attempts to reboot this franchise have failed to gain traction with young audiences, maybe turning to comedy isn't the best strategy. Yes, the premise of giant horny reptiles with martial arts training is inherently absurd, but what catapulted the franchise into global success in the first place was a willingness to take that absurd premise and treat it with grimy earnestness.
Top Image: Golden Harvest