When you get right down to it, the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise is nothing short of improbable. Created by a duo of New England indie comic creators in the early 80s, an offbeat style parody of Frank Miller comics with an initial print run of 3,000 issues went from underground sensation to global sensation in about the span of three years. TMNT managed to be saints of the underground, inspiring a boom in black and white indie comics, and icons of commercialism at roughly the same time; most comics can only hope for one. The history of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can’t help but be fascinating, and provides Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, released in 2014 for the 30th anniversary of the characters, ample material. And while Turtle Power never quite lives up to its definitive claims, it’s an intriguing watch packed with some unexpected emotion.
Perhaps the greatest boon to Turtle Power, is the astounding amount of video footage that exists from the early days of the Turtles’ creation. Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird filmed an impressive number of home videos documenting the pair working in their early living room “studio” and fleshing out ideas for the Turtles.More than the interviews with the creators themselves the people around them (which are ample and informative), these home videos capture on film footage of a pair of creative and excited young dorks pouring their ideas onto paper. This footage, displayed on a TV in a familiar sewer lair, captures the energy of the early days, but also can’t help but reflect the Eastman and Laird’s wistfulness for those days when paired with their interview audio. Footage of meetings between Eastman, Laird, and executives with toy company Playmates reveal not only cool looks at early concept art and action figure prototypes, but also the roadblocks, compromises, and flashes of creativity that went into turning an indie darling into a commercial juggernaut.
The film’s weakness is that it doesn’t spare this same time and attention for all facets of TMNT history. There’s a wealth of material covering the beloved original cartoon and the production of the first movie in ’89. There are fantastic conversations with luminaries such as Brian Henson, who recalls his father Jim Henson’s experience working on the movie, and there’s a fun segment exploring how the original cartoon vocal cast approached their characters, the highlight of which is the late James Avery (Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) speaking about imbuing the evil Shredder with Shakespearean gravitas. But after the first movie, very little information of true worth is revealed. Scant details are divulged about the production of the second movie and the poorly received third movie isn’t so much danced around as vaulted over.
Released by Paramount, whose parent company Viacom currently own the rights to the franchise, it is clear there was an edict against exploring the lower moments in Turtle history. Viewers hoping for details on, say, how the creators wethered the failure of the reviled “Next Mutation” which gave the world lady Ninja Turtle Venus de Milo (seriously) are left hoping. In fact, there’s a swath of time between the early 90s and the excellent 2012 cartoon that goes completely unexplored, a period that saw the cooling of “Turtlemania”, but also the release of another well-received cartoon and a fourth feature length film. By the time the film opts for a montage of fans saying nice things about the franchise and its various incarnations instead of mentioning about 15+ years of the franchise’s history, you’d be forgiven for having serious doubts about claims to “definitive history”.
What an edict from franchise owners could do to bar exploring weaker entries in the Turtle canon, it could not do to eliminate the air of melancholy that underlies Turtle Power. The main story told might be about the ascendancy of Ninja Turtles from scrappy underdogs to cultural powerhouse, but the real emotional arc is how that success strained the friendship of the co-creators. There is no big, outsized argument between Eastman and Laird, but the film documents how unimaginable financial success hastened the drifting apart of two men whose personalities were already vastly different. The lively, energetic “Raphael” of the duo Eastman speaks about the development of the franchise a little differently from the quiet, introspective “Donatello” Laird, but both hint at a sadness that the creative and personal partnership that gave rise to TMNT’s success suffered for it.The two are never filmed together in the contemporary interviews, making their reminiscing about early days over footage of the two together in the early 80s all the more poignant. Hearing the two men talk about their past together and seeing the emotion the underlies it makes the fluff-filled back half of the film much more interesting to watch, far more emotionally investing.
Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a very accurate title, but is probably catchier than the more accurate alternative Turtle Power: The Early Days of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Then Maybe Some Other Stuff, I Guess. For the hardcore fan or the curious viewer who grew up with the cartoons, there’s enough great early archival material to make for a breezy watch, but those looking for that definitive history will probably want to keep searching.