If you were a kid back in the late or 80s or early 90s then odds are you were into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If as an adult you are slightly embarrassed by that, no worries. The documentary “Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” will make you feel like a kid again and will make you yearn for the toys you used to play with as a kid. An unabashed love letter to the Turtles and their fans, the movie is also a touching story of an unlikely American success story.
“Unlikely” is the word, since by all accounts this should never have happened. Among the many facts revealed by first-time director Randall Lobb, we learn Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird conceived TMNT not so much as a straight action comic book series, but as a parody of everything that was popular in the medium at the time. They killed off their main villain in the first issue because well, they didn’t think there would be a demand for a second issue.
Not only was there a demand for a second issue, but the comics eventually outsold The Avengers and everybody today knows who these guys are. The sales allowed Eastman and Laird to get their own studio off the ground and to make a deal with Mark Freedman of Surge Licensing to turn their property into a toy line. To bring the Turtles’ story to the kids a cartoon series was created, which once again went beyond everyone’s expectations.
All of the voice actors from the show are interviewed, including the late great James Avery who did the voice of the villainous Shredder and was better known as Uncle Phil on The Fresh of Bel-Air. No matter how kitschy the show may look by today’s standards, all of the actors involved clearly had a great time and when they are together in the same room it is like a happy family reunion. A live-action movie was inevitable, which ended up making an unexpected fortune in 1990.
Even the most hardcore fans would admit those movies were not masterpieces of cinema and Laird briefly says the sequel was a step back, but you learn some interesting and amusing fact regarding the production of the first one. It turned out to be one of the last movies involving Jim Henson whose company created the actors’ rubber suit and Kevin Clash of Elmo fame was the puppeteer in charge of Master Splinter. It was not always smooth sailing as one actor ended up getting sick in his suit while the head was still on.
A cynic might see this documentary as a shameless promotion of this summer’s newest TMNT movie, which will of course feature CG Turtles, and indeed it will be released on DVD the same month as the Michael Bay produced feature film. However in its own this is really compelling rags-to-riches story about two guys who started out with nothing, bonded over similar artistic tastes, and ended creating a property that is described by one interviewee as the “Cartoon Beatles.” If you are a Beatles fans and are insulted by this, you only need to take a look at the success of the comics, the cartoons, the movies, a live music show, and the endless toy line to see it is an accurate description.
As a former owner of many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and even the Turtle Van, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia watching this movie. If you were a parent who was dragged to the movie back in 1990, then maybe watching this you will understand what all the fuss was about.
(“Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is currently available on Netflix and will be released on DVD and Digital HD on August 12.)