The evolution of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies
Writer: Casey Lee
The Turtles are coming Out of Shadows.
When creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first came up with the idea of the Ninja Turtles, it was mostly meant as a joke. But when the first issue of the later named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books were put out in 1984, the turtles became such a phenomenal hit that they were able to not only pay back a hefty loan from Eastman's uncle, but had spawned a licensing empire.
From the grittier and violent comic books, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went on to have decades worth of its action figures, television series (both animated and live-action), video games, and without a shred of doubt, movies. In fact, just focusing on the cinematic history of TMNT alone, which we would be mainly talking about here, is already quite an extensive trip through its evolution, and like all successful movie franchises, has its ups and downs.
So, with the rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming out of the shadows with a new sequel, here's the evolution of the heroes in a half shell over 30 years.
The Live Action Years (1990 - 1993)
After becoming a cultural icon thanks largely to its child-friendly cartoon adaptation for the small screen, a big screen adaptation of the heroes would almost seem inevitable. However, back during a time when tolerable CG was still in short supply and hand drawing an entire feature length would seem too gimmicky, Hollywood wanted to make a big splash by employing the most viable option at the time; costumes and puppetry.
With music video director Steve Barron at the helm, the simply titled "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" made their feature debut in 1990, under a relatively humble budget of just over US$13 million. A good chuck of that money went to the best in the puppetry business though, with the Jim Henson Creature Shop being brought in with their then state-of-the-art 'puppetechtronics' system that could control the eyes and facial expressions of the turtle faces, so the actors had to wear a rigged headgear, on top of the puffy costumes.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was a smash hit, slicing a US$90 million pizza pie out from the box office, and so sequels seemed like a no-brainer. However, due to toymaker Playmate's discomfort about the violence shown in the first movie, "The Secret of the Ooze" suffered from a lack of Cowabunga fight scenes (and Vanilla Ice's 'Ninja Rap'). By the time "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III" made a measly US$42 million in 1993, plans for a fourth installment were finally shelved, but the costumes lived on in a television series which introduced a 'lost sister' to 4 dudes.
The CG Mutation (2007)
By 2000, one half of the creators, Eastman, had sold his rights to co-creator Laird, and a new animated series was started with Laird's personal involvement that brought it closer to the darker tone in the comics. Plans for a new TMNT movie was made since 2000, but things only started to kick off about 4 years later.
In the years since their last feature, CG technology has grown rapidly, and so director Kevin Munroe decided to take the CG approach in bringing back the turtles, instead of the escalating cost of costumes. Staying true to the dark tone in the comics and the then running animated series, he also fend off attempts to put emphasis on its douche humour to make it more appealing to a more mature audience.
A product of collaboration between studios in Hollywood and Hong Kong, it was not connected to the movies that had come before, but it started out as the turtles reunited after an incident that had distanced themselves from each other. With a solid voice cast that had Chris Evans, Nolan North, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mako Iwamatsu (in his last role), Zhang Ziyi, Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Smith, "TMNT" released in 2007 to moderate success at the box office.
Although there were expansive tie-ins to cement TMNT's place in popular culture in the early years of the 21st century, it amounted to no sequels after that and the rights of the turtles eventually went to Nickelodeon in 2009.
With the full rights of the turtles in Nickelodeon's hands, it was only a matter of time before its movie division started work on reviving the franchise. Controversy erupted among the fan base when news that producer Michael Bay had envisioned the turtles to be aliens instead of radioactive mutants, and concerns were not quaffed by the time the first trailers showed the human-like faces behind 'just the mask'.
Other than sharing the same title as the first feature, it was made in similar fashion with suited actors, only this time with the skintight grey leotards and head rigging for motion capture, instead of the heavy green shelled costumes. Released on the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the comic books were printed, the Bay-ified (although directed by Jonathan Liebesman) "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was met with both criticism and praise (for that elevator scene). Still, it managed to make almost four times its production budget of US$125 million, and also became the highest grossing movie the franchise has had so far. Is it any wonder why there's a sequel now?
The Ones that Stayed in the Sewer
The cinematic history of the turtles is not only defined by what had eventually reached our screens, but also by those that didn't as well. Very early when the sensation of the comic books was reaching its height, both Laird and Eastman had been approached for rights by Roger Corman to make a comedic adaptation that was looking to star comedians like Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait and Billy Crystal.
Cinema Online, 29 May 2016
Then there was the fourth live-action movie that never came to be after the box office bomb of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III". Originally titled "The Next Mutation" (which became the name of the live-action television series that followed after the movies), it would introduce new mutations to the turtles and Splinter that gave them powers such as chroming their skins or transforming into a dinosaur hybrid. Guess with Michael Bay now holding the reins, we are bound to see a TMNT and Transformers crossover at some point?