Tuesday, August 5, 2014

'Turtle Power' documentary DVD review

"There was something about the name" — Mark Freedman, Surge Licensing 

Just like the members of The Beatles, KISS, New Kids on the Block and any number of bands, it's likely you have your favorite member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Diehard fans can tell you which ninja warrior uses what weapon or who wears what color bandana, but even the casual fan probably can name his or her favorite Turtle.

Unlike the recent, seemingly never-ending trend of quickly manufactured boy bands, the Turtles legitimately became an international, cultural phenomenon in the 1980s. The catchphrase "Cowabunga, dude!" is as closely associated with Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo and Michelangelo as the phrase that ran with the boxes of each of their action figures, "heroes in a half shell."

There was no push from social media — because it didn't exist when the Turtles took the world by storm. And there certainly were no talent shows, which pushed the foursome into the public spotlight.

In about 3 1/2 years from the Turtles' first comic-book appearance in May 1984, Leonardo (the disciplined leader), the sarcastic and short-tempered Raphael, Donatello (the intelligent "gadget guy") and the mischevious partier Michelangelo had their likenesses racing off the toy shelves and had five to seven cartoon episodes running each week.

"It was a surreal moment," says co-creator Peter Laird in the recently released documentary, "Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

"To think, you know, less than three years after we scraped the money (together) to publish the first Turtles comic we would be having our own TV show and a toy line," Laird says.

"Turtle Power" is a dynamite look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' ridiculously quick rise to international fame. Director and writer Randall Lobb does a fantastic job of interweaving interviews by co-creators Laird and Kevin Eastman and the people who made the popular comics, cartoons, toys, films and even a touring rock show (yes, the Turtles were rockers with their own album!) possible. Also interviewed are fans, comic store owners and historians about the quartet's cultural influence. 

Basically, Turtles fans, this is a must-see documentary. Aside from not giving any coverage to recent animated projects, this project deserves the highest grade I give anything I review: an A.

A history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 
Eastman and Laird created the Turtles after Eastman drew some masked turtles standing on their hind legs while he was watching TV. Laird tried to do one-up Eastman and the birth of an enduring, cultural legend suddenly had happened.

This is the cover of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, No. 1.
 Borrowing $1,074 from Eastman's uncle and scraping together what money they could, the pair published the first 3,000 copies of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES No. 1 in May 1984.

Little did Laird and Eastman know their creation had any staying power. But based on their profits from the first handful of issues, the pair made the Turtles their full-time job and created Mirage Studios, whose artists soon took over creating the comics.

The stories used many homages to Frank Miller's gritty DAREDEVIL run, specifically with the Turtles' archemnies, the Foot Clan, subbing for DD's Ninja enemies, the Hand. The wise Splinter obviously was inspired by Stick, who gave Matt Murdock his no-nonsense martial arts training.

"They were making fun of the Ninja trend. They were making fund of the dynamic poses of Jack Kirby, but they were doing it with great, great affection and that's one of the reasons the comics worked," says Mark Askwith, manager of the comic shop Silver Snail, one of the first places to sell TURTLES.

"By the third or fourth issue, it was selling more than THE AVENGERS," Aswith says in the documentary.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as seen in the "TMNT" film, which was released in 2007.
While Mirage Studios soon took over the art end of things from Eastman and Laird, the duo's early work truly was collaborative.

"There was a little of each of us on each page and it got to be where you couldn't see where I sorta left off and he (Laird) started and visa versa," Eastman says.

Mark Freedman, of Surge Licensing, first oversaw the juggernaut that soon became the Turtles toy empire at Playmates Toys Inc. It was about this time when each of the Turtles apparently were designated their own color for the bandanas they wear across their faces; Laird and Eastman's versions originally had red ones. (For you completists: Donatello wears purple and uses the bo staff; Raphael, red and sai (daggers); Leonardo, blue and katana (sword); and Michelangelo, orange and nunchuka. To be honest, I always get their colors and weapons mixed up!)

As Playmates was designing their action figures, a Turtles animated series was being developed. In December 1986, Playmates accepted the first toy deal. The "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon debuted Dec. 14, 1987 on almost 200 networks nationwide.

On March 27, 1990, the Turtles were "lean, green and on the screen" in director Steve Barron's dark, gritty yet undeniably fun live-action film which featured stuntmen from Golden Harvest, Inc. kung-fu films in spot-on Turtle costumes. Two more movies, which were significantly less critically acclaimed — much less beloved, soon followed.

A movie poster for the 1990 live-action flick, which made $135.2 million domestically. 
The late 1980s and early 1990s were the Turtles' cultural high point, but the four brothers have refused to stay housed in their sewer homes.

There was another animated series that ran for six years starting Feb. 4, 2003. "TMNT," a computer-generated film, had a short theatrical run in 2007. More recently, Cartoon Network has been creating a kid-friendly animated series that is fun for youngsters and diehard Turtle fans.

Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael are returning to the big screen Friday in a film directed by Michael Bay and starring Megan Fox as April O'Neil and Will Arnett (who voiced Batman in "The LEGO Movie"). (Two interesting side notes: Eastman based April on the waitress he was dating at the time who eventually became his wife. Fox starred in the first two "Transformer" movies, which were directed by Bay.)

What else can you say about the "heroes in a half shell," but … "Cowabunga!"

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