Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans both young and old finally got their first look at this summer's live-action movie update, and, well, they're not exactly chanting "Turtle Power!" For this adult TMNT loyalist, the CGI-heavy trailer puts the old-school 1990 Turtles movie, with those dudes in Mutant Ninja suits, into a whole new, even-brighter-than-before light.
No, the first trailer for this summer's Michael Bay-produced, live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie didn't ruin my childhood yesterday. My childhood was just fine, thank you—no soulless Hollywood production could undo any of it, let alone a measly 90-second preview for a soulless Hollywood production.
To be fair, I can understand those who've made that negative proclamation in the last 24 hours. Because I, too, was once a fanatical TMNT kid. Michaelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael were four of the most important figures in my pre-high-school days. I only lasted three weeks as Boy Scout because the weekly meetings started at the same time as the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show, and there was no way I was missing that. In the third grade, I started a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Fan Club," of which I was the president and vice-president and, naturally, assumed the roles of Master Splinter, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Casey Jones. I was a 9-year-old tyrant who couldn't give a damn less about diplomacy.
The highpoint of my TMNT obsession took place on March 30, 1990, the opening day of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I can distinctly remember exclaiming to my mom, while we were at Pizza Hut enjoying a pre-movie meal that the Turtles themselves would appreciate, "This is better than Christmas!" I still have the cassette tape edition of the TMNT promotional music album Coming Out of Your Shells. It's the one sold exclusively at Pizza Hut that includes the wonderfully cheesy title song/power ballad and Michaelangelo's kindergarten-level rap jam "Cowabunga!"
After the extra-cheese slices were devoured, we rushed to the local multiplex and snagged some primo seats in the middle of the theater. I sat there wide-eyed and cheese-grinning for 93 minutes as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles swept over me.
I laughed my ass off when Donatello (voiced, creepily enough, by Corey Feldman) yelled, "The Pizza dude!" My burgeoning sexuality didn't know how to react to Ms. Judith Hoag, that pretty redhead playing my dream girl April O'Neil. I felt all kinds of things when the emo Raphael got his shell beaten half to death on the rooftop by that swarm of Shredder's Foot Soldiers. And, triumphantly, I clapped until my palms were sore when the final credits rolled and Partners in Kryme's now-laughably pedestrian hip-hop theme song "Turtle Power" blasted through the theater. I was too young to realize that lyrics like "Raphael—he's the leader of the group, transformed from the norm by the nuclear goop" made Young MC sound on par with Big Daddy Kane. As far as my TMNT-infused mind could tell, Eric B. and Rakim had nothing on Partners in Kryme.
Before yesterday, it'd been at least five to six years since I'd last watched the '90 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. The last time I did, it was with some friends of mine and a trusty bottle of Jack Daniels. The experience was amazing. Much to our collective grown-up surprise, the big fight sequences—mainly the big one inside that old collectibles shop, when Michaelangelo smashes the Foot Soldier's head with the cymbals—were still impressive, with kick-and-punch choreography that's well beyond what you'd expect from a PG kids' movie.
The tone felt darker than ever, too, with Raphael's near-death ringing more profoundly and the stuff having to do with Shredder manipulating the wayward teenagers feeling more unsettling. It's by no means a great movie—working against that sense of surprising malevolence is an at times obnoxious need to get goofy. For every delightful "Pizza dude!" moment or James Cagney impersonation, there's a lazy visual gag, like the green foursome being irked by a bottle of Turtle Wax. But, screw it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles '90 is better than people give it credit for, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
It wasn't until last night, however, when I gave the film another look in response to director Jonathan Liebesman's 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot's first trailer, that I gained an all-new appreciation for the 1990 film's greatest component: its lack of computer-generated turtles.
Even 24 years removed from the film's initial release, those animatronic suits are no joke. Created by the late, unparalleled puppet master Jim Henson's Creature Shop studio, the turtle suits give Mikey, Leo, Don, and Raph a special kind of life. April O'Neil and Casey Jones can touch the turtles with it actually looking like they're touching them. When the turtles get into elaborate fisticuffs battles against the Foot Soldiers, the physical contact has serous secondhand impact. And as a kid, I saw animate, two-legged objects that made it seem like my beloved Ninja Turtles had truly come alive. Too naive to understand that they were really dudes in Jim-Henson-manufactured costumes, I couldn't believe that those characters I watched as TV cartoons and played with as plastic figurines and cuddly plush dolls were believably interacting with humans on the big screen.
Yesterday's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trailer premiere gave me none of the wonderment whatsoever. Maybe it's because I'm now 32 and too mature to get that magical feeling from something make-believe ever again. But I'd like to imagine that today's third-graders will watch that trailer and react similarly, or with only slight enthusiasm. They've recently seen Optimus Prime fight Decepticons in pricey, eye-popping CGI; they've watched kaiju robots kick each others' asses in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim; they've been to Pandora and felt how I did over Judith Hoag's April O'Neil by seeing a video game incarnation of Zoe Saldana. At this point, what can four steroid-infused Shreks talking to Megan Fox do for their imaginations?
Until Jonathan Liebesman's movie opens in August, I won't be able to form a fully justified opinion of this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And, who knows, the presence of likable actors like Will Arnett and William Fichtner could help elevate the film into something memorable. There might even be some one-liners worthy of existing alongside '90 Donatello saying, with excellent snark, "Do you like penicillin on your pizza?" Sadly, though, it's damn near impossible to sustain that optimism once you weigh the tell-tale factors here. Like, Jonathan Liebesman's last two movies were the wretched Battle: Los Angeles and the despicable Wrath of the Titans. And Megan Fox is only slightly more convincingly emotive of an actress than the perpetually drugged-out Paz de la Huerta.
Most crucially, my dudes Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael will be all motion-capture CGI. It's one thing for Michael Bay to go that route for his Transformers movies—in those, he's dealing with alien robots that turn from cars and trucks into chrome-calibrated pugilists. There's no need for realism there. But the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are supposed to look and feel like human-sized turtles who walk, talk, and eat pepperoni slices like you and me. Based on the film's trailer, that illusion, a product of suspending one's disbelief and channeling his or her inner 8-year-old, is completely gone.
It should be said, though, that I'm especially bitter when it comes to the topic of CGI invading childhood staples. My other favorite anthropomorphic fictional character growing up? Scooby Doo, and we all know how Hollywood's predilection towards computer animation treated him.
I'm so sorry, old buddy, old pal.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)