‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Retooled for Nickelodeon

September 26th, 2012


The new, slightly more modern Ninja Turtles creeping around a corner on Nickelodeon.

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The show’s creator, Ciro Nieli, surrounded by comic books and memorabilia in his office in Burbank, Calif.

JIM FARRELLY is a pop culture expert at the University of Dayton, where he teaches courses titled “Fantasy and Magic” and “Apocalyptic Films.” So, as a person who thinks seriously about silly topics, he would seem like an ideal candidate to field this question: What was it about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” back in the 1980s that made boys go gaga?

His answer: “There’s no accounting for taste.” All right then!

Nickelodeon, however, not only thinks the answer is much more complex, it believes the question should be asked in the present tense. What young viewers first found charming in the ’80s worked again in the 1990s, and, most important, Nickelodeon thinks the magic remains: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” a slick new computer-animated series, arrives on the children’s cable network this weekend with a one-hour special. Nickelodeon has been trying to lay down expectations, but Viacom, which owns the channel, last week trumpeted the series to Wall Street analysts, calling the remake “tremendous” and noting that related merchandise is selling out in stores. A second season is already in the works.

Nickelodeon sees the Turtles — Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo — as potential heart paddles for its schedule. Over the last year, the channel’s audience has dropped by more than 20 percent, creating a code blue for its executives and corporate overlords. Moreover, Nickelodeon has not minted a blockbuster new toy franchise in years. So while it continues to experiment with fresh concepts, the channel is making a big bet on familiar, time-tested material (that fits the core Nickelodeon brand). Draw eyeballs to the schedule, the thinking goes, and viewers will sample other shows. The Turtles also come with immediate toy sales; it typically takes years for a new cartoon hit to grow into a consumer products juggernaut.

But for people who never understood the appeal of these characters, and I am definitely in that camp, despite being a child of the ’80s, it seems like a long shot.

Ninja turtles? With Renaissance names? Who live in sewers?

The first thing cartoon historians would point out is that a talking rectangle doesn’t sound like much of a cartoon colossus either, but “SpongeBob SquarePants” hasn’t done too badly for himself. Moreover, people have long puzzled over the Turtles. “‘What kind of drugs are you on?’ was a question we heard a lot,” said Kevin Eastman, one of the creators of the 1984 comic book that sparked the entire Turtles phenomenon. “Dude, we couldn’t afford drugs in those days. We just thought they looked cool.”

The franchise, just to jog your memory, centers on four humanoid turtles and their sensei, a rat named Master Splinter. Splinter was once human and the turtles were just pet turtles until they were transformed by a weird green ooze. Splinter retreated to the sewers, raising the four turtles and training them as ninjas.

The concept was a mash-up and parody of various comics, but it also turned the superhero formula on its head: Instead of starting out as humans and taking on animal powers — Spider-Man, Wolverine — the reverse happened. Comic geeks found that interesting, but there were other reasons the comic took off, said Brad Ricca, the author of a forthcoming book called “Super Boys” and a member of the English faculty at Case Western Reserve University.

Independently published and distributed, the first Turtles comics had a do-it-yourself look that made them stand out on shelves, and, because the Turtles were mutants, X-Men fans gave the comic an immediate look, helping the books to catch fire, he said. The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” title was also an asset; what struck outsiders as ridiculous and unwieldy was proof to comic fans that they were in the know about something.

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