There’s a great episode of “The Simpsons” where Roger Myers Jr., a cartoon producer who runs the hit show “Itchy & Scratchy,” tries to introduce a new character to the series to rejuvenate the declining ratings. Poochie, the sunglasses-wearing, surfboard-carrying dog who conceived the studio, is “a dog with attitude,” explains one of the network managers. “He’s tense, he’s in your face. Have you heard the phrase “let’s get started”? Well this is a dog that gets biz-zay. Consistent and thorough.”
Poochie is a parody of many different cartoon animals with a group-friendly ‘attitude’, from Sonic the Hedgehog to Tony the Tiger. But perhaps the most important examples of the archetype are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – anthropomorphic reptiles with superpowers who live in the sewers under New York City, practicing martial arts, eating pizza, and hip 80s slogans like “bodacious” and “cow bonga.” .”
Originally created in 1983 by comic book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were envisioned as a sort of postmodern, semi-ironic broadcast of the popular superhero comics of the era, particularly Marvel’s Daredevil and X-Men. With their punky, slang-heavy bite and flip, easygoing attitude, they were the epitome of a certain brand of smart Gen X cool that peaked with the arrival of the ’90s: sarcastic and streetwise, borrowing elements from prevailing trends like surf culture. and hip hop.
Ninja Turtles felt extreme of the moment and captured the zeitgeist in a way that felt irresistible to kids. Remarkably, the moment is not over yet. Since its inception, the franchise has repeatedly reinvented itself with new iterations: live-action features, after-school cartoons, video games, graphic novels. It’s now back on Netflix with a new full-length animated film, “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie.” The continued rejuvenation of a franchise that could have easily become a pop cultural relic raises an important question.
How did the Ninja Turtles stay popular for so long?
When I was a kid in the early ’90s, my most prized possession was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Thrower, a football-sized battery-operated toy truck that made an incredible noise and gave off a faint smell of burning rubber. . , and whose “motorized disc firing action” I mainly used to terrorize my much-mortified little sister.
The Pizza Thrower was the crown jewel of an extensive collection of Turtles-related merchandise that covered my suburban bedroom, which contained not only action figures and accessories, but also coloring books, costumes, lunch boxes, and PEZ dispensers. When I was 5 I had Turtles sheets; When I turned 6, I had a Turtles themed birthday party. Basically, I was obsessed with Turtles.
I was hardly the only one. From the time Eastman and Laird’s original Ninja Turtles comic book was adapted for broadcast syndication into an animated series of the same name in 1987, the focus has been on four super-powerful, wise-cracking reptile heroes – Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, named after Renaissance artists. in a way that is typical of the franchise’s winking humor – became real-life matinee idols, cartoon superstars adored by kids all over North America and beyond.
Like “GI Joe” and “Transformers” before that, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was primarily created to promote the various toys produced by Playmates, a company that also made action figures based on “Star Trek”. Even by those standards, the Turtles merchandise was wildly successful: in the first four years of what was called Turtlemania, more than $1 billion worth of Turtles toys were sold worldwide, making them the third best-selling toy franchise ever at the time. .
Success continued into the 1990s: the animated “Turtles” series, in which the characters trained under their sensei, a rat named Splinter, while battling their nemesis, the evil Shredder, lasted for 10 seasons. A trilogy of live-action films aimed at a slightly older audience — “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990), “The Secret of the Ooze” (1991), and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” (1993) — became a box office surprise sensations, earning nearly $350 million and breaking box office records for independent productions. An early “Turtles” video game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, on Super Nintendo, became a best seller and has been ranked as one of the best games of its generation.
The Turtles’ versatility across a range of media properties helped boost their popularity. Further tweaks — including several attempts to completely overhaul or reboot the franchise — kept the Turtles fresh through the 2000s, albeit to varying degrees of effectiveness. A 2003 animated series on Fox and a 2012 digital animated series on Nickelodeon, both of which ran for several seasons and had their own enthusiastic fans. A 2007 animated film simply called “TMNT” and a couple of big budget blockbusters co-produced with Michael Bay, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” (2016) , all found some commercial success, but were poorly received by critics and longtime franchise fans alike.
There’s no question that these more recent “Turtles” iterations — including the latest for television, the animated reboot “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2018), which reworked elements of the premise and implemented some pretty drastic character redesigns — have introduced younger viewers to the franchise, many of whom were no doubt looking for new “Turtles” merchandise.
But a vital factor in the Ninja Turtles’ continued popularity are those same fans who loved “Ninja Turtles” as kids – kids of the ’80s and ’90s who never outgrew them. Their nostalgia fueled the enduring relevance of a franchise that might otherwise have faded into quirky obsolescence and become another He-Man or Garbage Pail Kids.
I know a man in his early 40s who recently had a giant Ninja Turtle tattooed on his right forearm. I know a CrossFit coach in his late thirties who names his workouts after Turtles institutions and bad guys: the Sewers, Shredder, Bebop, and Rocksteady. A new video game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, is built from the ground up as a faithful replica of the Turtles games of the early 1990s. And the new Netflix movie, while certainly goofy, is surprisingly dark and violent for a movie aimed at children in name – until it occurs to you that it may not be aimed at children at all.
As a kid, I found the seemingly grown-up style of action and humor in “Ninja Turtles” essential to its appeal. It was a family-friendly cartoon, of course, but there was something about the attitude — hip, defiant, a little bit subversive — that made kids feel like they were tapping into something more ambitious than the other cartoons on TV at the time. I think it’s that feeling of spiky coolness, what the Turtles would have called bodaciousness, that has kept so many fans coming back.