Cowabunga, dude! If you were living in North America and happened to be a tween boy during the late ’80s, those two words meant only one thing: It was time for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to kick some serious criminal butt! From 1988 to 1993, the heroes on the half shell reigned supreme in the boys’ action category. Apart from making Domino’s the pizza of choice with the under-12 set, the Turtles yielded a hugely popular comic book line, an animated TV series, three theatrical films and a US$4-billion merchandise program that helped catapult a then-fledgling toy company–Playmates–to the top of the industry.
Launched in ’83 as a comic book penned by New Hampshire-based doodlers Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, TMNT spoofed the dour Ninja comics that were popular in the early ’80s. The premise for the comic focused on four sewer-dwelling turtles who metamorphose into wise-cracking teen ninjas one day after coming into contact with a can of radioactive waste. Between ’83 and ’89, the TMNT series sold a stunning 3.5 million comics, and TV became the logical next step.
The Turtles’ then-licensing agent Mark Freedman, of Surge Licensing, tapped animation house Murakami Wolf and Swenson to produce six half-hour episodes, which became an instant hit and aired repeatedly in syndication in 1987.
MWS went on to produce a total of 190 half-hour episodes, and when the show moved to CBS Saturday mornings in 1990, it debuted in the top-rated spot, a position it wouldn’t relinquish for the next two years.
At its height, the Turtles’ popularity with boys bordered on an obsession, which was spurred on by the release of two successful theatrical features, both produced by Golden Harvest Films. Released in 1990, the first TMNT movie did US$135 million at the box office and was followed by a second film a year later which raked in a cool US$80 million. Around the same time, Richardson recalls, there were reports that public works departments in many U.S. cities had to reinforce manhole covers, because kids were lifting them up to try and see the Turtles.
Plans to revive the property began in fall 2000, when the Turtles’ licensor Mirage decided to renew its agreement with toyco Playmates for another five years. Both companies agreed that the Turtles’ underlying concept could still work as a TV show. ‘The values that the Turtles embodied–of having fun and the importance of brotherhood–are still very relevant to kids today,’ says Mirage’s CEO Gary Richardson.
Soon after, Richardson tested studio interest for a new show and was flooded with calls from a number of parties, before inking a deal with Warner Bros. Animation. That agreement calls for Mirage to pull together a presentation package for a new Turtles cel-animated cartoon by the end of this year, says Richardson, who’s confident Warner Bros. will greenlight the show to air next year. Further down the pipeline, in co-production with Hallmark Entertainment is a US$60-million CGI/live-action mini-series, which is tentatively scheduled to air during sweeps in ’03 or ’04. Mirage has also corralled martial arts director John Woo’s Digital Rim Entertainment to produce an all-CGI TMNT feature. Mega agency William Morris is currently shopping the project to potential distributors, and Richardson expects the flick to be in theaters by 2004.
Mirage’s immediate focus, though, is TV. With TMNT’s original audience all grown up, the challenge, says Richardson, is to come up with a show that retains the essence of the original series, but is still relevant to its primary target of boys two to 11. Inevitably, that means toning down the schtickier elements that helped to define the original cartoon’s success.
The new series will steer clear of the original’s quirkiness in an effort to establish a darker tone and highlight the characters’ plight to fit in a world as perennial outsiders, an element that should resonate with many kids today, says Richardson.
While the property’s revival will remain in a holding pattern until the fate of the TV show is decided, the Turtles will get a nice shot in the arm when Mirage releases a new TMNT comic from creator Peter Laird in December. The black-and-white comic, which Laird is writing by himself, will be followed by regular bimonthly releases.
‘I’m picking up where the last Mirage TMNT comic left off 15 years ago,’ says Laird, who welcomes the chance to return to the original spirit of the property. ‘There will be all new adventures, new characters… but no girl turtles!’