The best thing that Santa Claus ever brought me was a VHS copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I remember ripping off the wrapping and yelling out in excitement, pausing just long enough to let my mother snap a quick picture. Robin Hood was simply the coolest. The movie had lots of really neat sword fights, and every now and again, Kevin Costner would shoot an arrow at someone. I had spent years watching “grown-up” movies in my grandparents’ basement while the adults chatted upstairs and now, due to the magic of VHS, I finally had a “grown-up” movie of my very own. Life was pretty damn good for an eight-year-old boy.
Needless to say, I was a pretty stupid kid.
That sentiment bubbled up again with the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trailer and the subsequent reactions. At best, fans of the series have managed to muster a cautious optimism for the trailer, noting that it looks neither terribly good nor terribly bad. At worst, people view the entire thing as a cash grab at our childhoods. And oh, that unnecessary CGI. I can understand the frustration of fans of the series. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as satire.
The origin story of the turtles was intentionally written to coincide with Matt Murdock’s origin story; the tension between the youthful turtles and their overly-cautious mentor gently pokes fun at the relationship between Charles Xavier and his mutant wards. Should Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be just another incomprehensible action film by producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman, it would be completely fair to criticize the upcoming film for losing touch with its roots. The original comic book series was a smart bit of fan fiction from men who loved comic books while the movie runs the risk of being “50 Shades of Green,” a brainless superhero rip-off that echoes the worst parts of the blockbusters that inform its structure.
While the adult version of me understands— and even shares— these criticisms of the new film, I would also be lying if I pretended that Eastman and Laird’s version of TMNT served as my infection vector into the franchise. I was a fan of the television series before I knew anything about the show’s origin. As such, I had no patience for Leonardo’s veteran leadership or Donatello’s brilliance with machines. Since Michelangelo was the turtle who made the most jokes— and ate the most pizza— he was instantly my favorite, and for a time I adopted orange as my favorite color. I loved every aspect of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that constituted a dumbing-down of the source material.
And, yeah, that’s probably because I was a pretty stupid little kid.
The best (and worst) thing about childhood movies is that they are not static. Your relationship with film changes as you experience the world, so what seemed smart and edgy to an eight-year-old child is not going to resonate quite the same way with a thirty-year-old one. I recently tried to re-watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and while I found myself appreciating Michael Wincott like never before, the rest of the movie was nothing like what I remembered. Gone were the eye-popping action sequences and the cooler-than-cool performances of Costner and Freeman. What was left was a terrible mishmash of ‘90s blockbusters and one very sweaty performance from Alan Rickman.
When Hollywood revives something from our childhood, we want to feel that same sense of childish wonder while watching something that appeals to our adult intelligence. If they deliver a movie that emphasizes the former at the cost of the latter, we cling to the original version and decry producers for exploiting our nostalgia for a cheap buck. But many of the movies that we loved as kids were never meant to have a fifty-year shelf life, and that’s okay. I can choose to over-romanticize the quality of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or I can view it simply as a stepping-stone on my way towards being a more discerning filmgoer. Kevin Costner was my conduit into smarter and more coherent action movies, and eventually that lead to smarter movies, regardless of genre. Without the grand idiocy of Robin Hood, the eight-year-old me would never had made the leap. I needed the spectacle to get me hooked.
There will be many kids who will see the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and love it. There may even be a few future cineastes that fall in love with movies because of the Michael Bay film. And while we can and should continue to pressure Hollywood to make smarter movies for our youth— to challenge them to think critically instead of merely consume— there’s no need to throw the mutant baby out with the bathwater. TMNT can be both big and dumb and an inspiration to young kids who see it in theaters for the first time. We may be upset about the thrashing it gives one element of our childhood, but we also have to remember that somewhere, some kid not unlike the younger version of me thinks that Michelangelo is the cool one because he gets all the funny lines and eats a lot of pizza. And from there, they may go back and watch the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, and this is how we grow as film fans.
As for me and my own sense of nostalgia? As kids, my brother and I used to play our version of war. We would set up our action figures and army men on opposite sides of the room— taking turns picking each character in a kind of preadolescent fantasy draft— and then attempt to knock each other’s armies down with jumbo rubber bands. For this reason, the Ninja Turtles were always among the last toys picked. The larger size of the plastic molds made them an easier target, and the design of their shells meant that they were incredibly top-heavy and prone to falling over. My brother and I quickly learned that we could simply shoot the rubber bands at the bookshelf or table as hard as we could and the small impact would cause every turtle to tip right over.
Will the new movie match the adult reasoning I ascribe to my TMNT fandom? Probably not. But would an eight-year-old me, armed only with a bag of rubber bands, think it might be just as cool as watching a bookshelf full of toys falling onto the floor? That much I think Michael Bay and company can get right.