“Ugh. Where do they come up with this stuff?” groans a frustrated Raphael, the brooding, red-bandana-wearing member of the Ninja Turtles, whilst walking out of a New York movie theater that’s playing the 1980s creature feature Critters. Here’s why this is an important scene in director Steve Barron’s live-action film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The 1980s saw an explosion of brawny, Reagan-infused cartoon TV series (e.g. Transformers and G.I. Joe) and live-action romps (e.g. the American family battling the furry aliens in Critters is yet another microcosmic representation of Reagan’s war against international terrorism), but when TMNT hit cinemas in the spring of 1990, its band of sewer-dwelling, skateboard-riding (mutant) outcasts aligned themselves with what we call Generation Y (people born between the late 70s and early 90s), leaving behind the pandemic seriousness of the 80s (industrializing economies, wars in the Middle East, etc.) and embracing a childlike irreverence, a burgeoning urban terrain and yes, lots of pizza with no anchovies. The Turtles were in a pop culture class all by themselves. After emerging as an overnight sensation with comic book fans (Ninja Turtles’ creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman only printed 3,000 copies of the original black and white magazine-style comic book in 1984), the Ninja Turtles quickly became a phenomenon both onscreen (its popular animated TV series debuted in 1987) and off (Playmates Toys began producing Turtles action figures in 1987, becoming regular “must-haves” for the youth). Considering all of this Turtlemania, it’s remarkable that Barron’s live-action Turtles film was able to thwart the “Saturday morning” innocence of its source material and create a dark, atmospheric film which dug a little deeper into the themes that would interest its target audience—Generation Y.
In many ways, the Ninja Turtles were the perfect mirrors for the angst-driven Generation Y’ers. Take the case of the family unit, for example. Unlike the generation that came before theirs (Generation X), a substantial number of Generation Y’ers were born into single-parent families. The four Ninja Turtles—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael—were no different, living only with their father Splinter (a giant rat), in the most poverty-stricken of homes: a sewer lair. And like most young Generation Y’ers, the Turtles dealt with their anxieties by turning familiar behavioral schemes into occasionally distracting daily routines: The Turtles blended the speech patterns of 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure into their own vernacular (“Cowabunga!”), while also applying the Ninjutsu practices of 1988’s Bloodsport during their ventures onto the battle worn streets of New York.
Throughout TMNT, isolation is opposed to acceptance. Although the Turtles have a haven in their reclusive sewage den, the rest of New York’s teenage population (i.e. the movie’s “real” Generation Y) seeks acceptance (and shelter) from the Foot Clan, an underground gang overseen by the villainous Shredder. In a disarming scene, Shredder addresses his hordes of loyal teen followers: “You are here because the outside world rejects you. THIS is your family. I am your father.” The dark, striking images in these sections of TMNT (pre-teens smoking cigarettes, young kids fighting each other as part of the training to become a “foot soldier”) are a precursor to future Generation Y films of the 90s that follow teens desperately seeking acceptance, even in the midst of violence (e.g. Menace II Society, Juice and The Basket Ball Diaries). And for a PG-Rated “children’s movie,” the Ninja Turtles talk in a shockingly racy way, too (on more than one occasion, Raphael angrily yells out “Damn!”).
Perhaps the one aspect of TMNT that is not directly linked to Generation Y is its technical accomplishment. The Jim Henson Creature Shop (famous for introducing The Muppets to the world) made an indelible impression on young hearts and minds in multiplexes during the spring in 1990. The lifelike turtle bodysuits that the performance actors wore had movable mouths and blinking eyes. Even the skin of these turtle bodysuits seemed to sweat and pulsate. Detractors of the film always point to the obvious absurdity of watching four grown men high-kicking in giant turtle costumes. But to get hung up on that would ignore how special a film like this can be when it’s done right (as in Spike Jonze’s 2009 live-action film Where The Wild Things Are). And TMNT gets it right. Like the best children’s stories, fables and films, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie earns its place as a seminal work of popular fiction by acting as a cultural prism through which viewers (in this case Generation Y) can develop a more profound sense of their identity—depending on their cultural and historical vantage point. As the Turtles would say: “Totally tubular, dude!”
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.”