By the second time Groot said his famous line in Guardians of the Galaxy, the little girl with the red-faced mother behind me in the theater had cracked the code. From then on, every time a character tossed a question or confused glance toward the arboreal humanoid, she’d yell “I Am Groot!” in unison with Vin Diesel. When Groot shoved a limb through a dozen henchmen and slammed them Hulk-style against a wall for good measure, she shouted out his catchphrase, and when he produced only a sheepishly demonic grin in return, she lost it. When he wrapped his limbs around the other guardians as they plunged from the sky, I could hear her whisper “Groot?” like an ad for Kleenex over my left shoulder. When he danced inside a flower pot, she danced too.
She was probably about the same age I was when I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in 1990, so I imagine the memory will stick with her. She might dress up as Groot for Halloween, play with his action figure, eat sugar cereal with his face on it (that’s still a thing, right?) like I did with the talking turtles. After this weekend, there’s also a new generation of kids who will become Michelangelo on Halloween night as well as a group my age, shaking our oatmeal fists while ineffectually saying, “This is what the real Turtles was like.”
As you could have guessed, the new incarnation of TMNT was big enough to launch a sequel, and it’ll be another adventure with a childhood favorite that I won’t see.
It’s not solely because the reboot launcher is being flogged by my professional pals. I knew from the first trailer that they weren’t making it for me, so I shrugged and got comfortable with letting my nostalgia go. It’s fantastic that some movies can be engaging for both kids and parents (we are all Groot), but I also can’t begrudge a movie whose loftiest goal is to be colorful daycare. I can only imagine what my own parents thought back in 1990 when a rat puppet explained the origins of a nefarious latchkey program operator with an affinity for metal shoulder pads. The rose colored glasses can’t stay on forever.
To be clear, despite hitting comic books the year I was born, TMNT was one of the cultural touchstones of my childhood that wasn’t appropriated from an earlier generation like, say, Star Wars. The Saturday Morning Cartoon and the movies held major sway with my tiny, not-yet-fully-formed brain, but that version of the characters belongs in the past.
Speaking of the holy trilogy, I can’t help but wonder if original series fans are in for a world of hurt with the new J.J. Abrams-led sequels set to come. Outright loathing and memory-wiped dismissal of the prequels have been canonized as the “correct” responses to little Ani Skywalker learning to race pods, but those movies were still sickeningly large successes ($2.5b in worldwide gross) that undoubtedly sold about a bajillion dollars worth of plastic and shitty cereal because people in their 30s weren’t the primary target. Clearly, there’s a disconnect there; grownups who grew up with the movies hated something that was aimed at 12-year-old children who love it when marshmallows are shaped like Jar Jar Binks. Their pop culture — which had been so lovingly gifted and accepted and handled with care — had been offered in a new package to someone else. Sometimes that happens just as soon as we stop playing with the toys. Ahem:
Which is why you have people claiming that George Lucas (and, yes, Michael Bay) raped their childhood.
Yet as we brace ourselves for more reboots of things we recognize (and often still love) from our youth, we’ll have to accept that friends we made a long time ago may have nothing for us. New versions of our childhood memories aren’t being made for us anymore.
I don’t have a daughter or son, so I’m spared both the obligation and the opportunity to watch movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2k14 and share my version in the context of a new incarnation. It’s situations like these that make me wonder what those conversations sound like, how some parents are bridging the gap between the two worlds with the same name (while I can ignore the new version completely). As of this weekend, the phrase “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is going to evoke very different mental images for people of very different ages.
But there are always going to be stories like TMNT and Star Wars that span decades of popularity, inviting creators and copyright owners to explore and exploit on repeat. Sometimes they’ll walk the line of pleasing kids of all ages, and sometimes they’ll feature Megan Fox recording news segments on her cell phone. All we can do in the face of increased nostalgia-mining is to hope for the former while expecting the latter. Some day the little girl behind me will grow up and have to say, “No, this is how Groot is supposed to look!” and that’s gonna have to be okay.