Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a fascinating multimedia brand. I was born at the start of ’89 so I missed the initial wave of excitement but I still remember the re-runs drumming up plenty of interest (and toy sales) when I was young. I can also remember the third movie coming to TV and causing plenty of excitement in school. It was only when I was a teenager that I actually realised the characters originated in comics and had a far more interesting birth than just a flashy kids cartoon. A new documentary, Turtle Power: Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, released this year and examines the franchise starting right back at its origins. Eager to learn more, I was more than happy to check it out.
The documentary is basically sliced into three parts. The first part takes up about 20 minutes or so and contains interviews with creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They talk about how they met and eventually developed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles concept and first few comic book issues. They also cover the influences behind the series, such as the underground comix scene and Frank Miller’s Daredevil. It really gives you a feel for the mindset behind the two men and what they were aiming to emulate. You can tell this was something created out of love and for the genuine pleasure of doing it. The success was a happy accident born of hard work. The documentary mixes in archive footage and plenty of the original artwork so there’s always something to sick your eyes on. It’s easily the most personal and interesting segment of the entire documentary.
The second part of the documentary is the longest and begins by introducing some new faces to the interview chair, overall it concerns the process of licensing the concept into a series of toys and the resulting products which came from that idea.
Since it moves chronologically, it begins by discussing the toys and the early attempts to get them created. It’s just as entertaining to hear stories of the blasé reception to the concept, and the struggle to actually get the project off of the ground, as it is to hear about the comic’s beginnings. This naturally leads into explaining the development of the original cartoon where the voice actors, including the late James Avery, discuss developing the voices used for the characters and how they got the job. Everything is kept very light-hearted and the participants all seem to be enjoying themselves as they reminiscence individually and as a group. Finally there’s a lengthy segment that covers the pre-production, filming and release of the first movie. Thanks to behind the scenes footage and even concept sketches you get a surprisingly in-depth look at how the film came about. This portion is almost unrecognisable compared to the rest of the documentary as Eastman and Laird almost vanish entirely as the details of props and animatronic turtle suits become the new focus. It’s not any less entertaining but it’s quite different in format and tone.
The final portion of the documentary is a little muddier and unfortunately not as engrossing as the first two. With only around 20 minutes left the documentary frames this last part as being about the fans and reception. In reality it talks about some of the early off-shoots and other products of the 90s but then catapults to modern day and hastily wraps things up. To say that the franchise has had various other TV shows, video games and comic books it’s bizarre that a documentary billed as definitive would skip over half of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ lifespan. Further complicating things the tone varies wildly in the final few minutes with a borderline strange sequence of a child playing with toys while serene music and a voiceover tells us about the lasting legacy. It feels like a rushed attempt to inform us that the franchise isn’t dead, that something has kept coming out since the mid-90s. There’s also an incredibly brief story of Eastman and Laird uncomfortably realising how giant the franchise had become, but it’s never really addressed properly or elaborated if this was a real concern or a passing thought. What do the two creators think of the modern state of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? What actually is the modern landscape? Sadly the documentary doesn’t tell us.
Taken overall this is a good documentary. It’s well edited for the most part and the interviews are entertaining and thorough. Even without any interest in the brand I’d wager you can enjoy it. However strange pacing issues and a hasty final segment mar what is otherwise great work. Although the first part is heartfelt, amusing and incredibly involving, the final segments feel pulled from another documentary altogether. It’s jarring how it can soar right by such a huge chunk of the history when it so carefully details the first movie, which itself is a strange choice to dedicate so much time to. Especially as both the second and third movies receive just a brief mention each.
To conclude, this isn’t the definitive documentary it claims it is. In actuality you could say it contains a mini-documentary which is a very well researched and impressive story of the origins of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that leads into another two mini-documentaries. The second is about the first movie and the third is is a summary of early highlights that took place when the franchise hit its peak. It’s an uneven package and certainly not definitive, but there’s enough in there to make it worth watching.
Note: I really struggled on whether to give it 3 stars or 4. When the documentary is at its best, it’s very good and I genuinely think it is worth seeing. However it’s also very uneven, is oddly paced and it’s undeniably unfinished, so I just had to be fair and factor in the problems. Between you and me though, let’s say it has 3.5 stars.