Film Logan Polk's Film Reviews Moving Pictures Ongoing Series

Moving Pictures Vol. 36: We’re Family

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Logan’s Moving Pictures is back to talk about the greatest force in the universe, Turtle Power!

Like most people in my age group, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first came into my life via the television screen in our house. Ryan and I would have been about eight years old when the series debuted, and I very much remember being frustrated that all we got were five episodes over five days and then nothing for nearly a year. We ate it up though. We bought the toys, we played the arcade game (when we could get to one), and we very much debated on who the best Turtle was and which one we’d be if we could. I was always partial to Leonardo, I think Ryan was a Donatello fan, but I couldn’t tell you with any certainty. Unless it was the Arcade Game, then we would fight about who got Donnie. That Bo staff really gave you some reach. All that to say, from 1987 onward, we loved the Turtles. We loved everything we knew about them, something that kicked into overdrive three years later.

I don’t think we had any knowledge that their origins lie in the pages of comic books until after the first film in 1990, but I have some vague recollections of seeing the Archie Comics series in magazine racks here and there and the grocery store, and I’m certain I had a handful of issues, so we certainly knew there was overlap. Then, as the anticipation for the live-action film grew, we devoured anything we could that pertained to the Turtles. We even picked up the original Nintendo game, which was less entertaining and more frustrating than its arcade counterpart. 

I remember reading some magazine or another that had some behind-the-scenes info on the making of the movie and becoming fascinated with the puppetry used to bring the Fab Four to life. The movie would wind up being the last project Jim Henson worked on before his death, and in later years I was disheartened to learn that he regretted it because of how dark in tone the film was, originally thinking it would be bright and playful like the cartoon series. Henson and his company have a great many things to be proud of outside of the Turtles, but for me, it stands as my favorite film in their pantheon. I remember reading about the animatronic heads and thinking about the monstrous creatures you’d see at a place like Chuck E Cheese (or, in our case a place called Showbiz Pizza). They were meant to look inviting to kids, but they always scared the bejeezus out of me. Of course, the Turtles were martial artists inside of suits, not completely mechanical monstrosities. Still, as a kid, they looked insanely real. Hell, they still do.

Over the years Ryan and I always stood fast in our Turtle love. We would call into the radio station to request Turtle Power…because it’s just a good song. We saw every film. We watched the short-lived live-action series, as awful as it was. Eventually, I even got into the comics proper, though the original Mirage series was hard to track down in those days. At one point Image had rebooted the universe and I started picking up those issues, and then when Peter Laird made a triumphant return and picked up where the original Mirage series ended, I made sure to get every issue. We latched on to every cartoon iteration after the original (I did fall off with the most recent Nickelodeon reboot, Rise of the TMNT), but we found a particular appreciation for the 2012 series, which managed to be a perfect blend of the original animated series and the Eastman & Laird comics. 

Still, I don’t think anything ever has or ever will top our love of the first film. A movie we watched so many times we could literally recite every piece of dialogue, down to the ninjas grunting. We could hit all the music cues and transitions from scene to scene. We could act out a good portion of the fight scenes, and given how often we argued as teens, we definitely did. In fact, the original VHS release had a Pizza Hut commercial that played before the film, it was a song about a kid playing little league, and to this day I still know every word to that song. I haven’t heard it in at least 25 years…that’s how often we watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I recently celebrated our 44th birthday, for which I decided to head back to my former home of Chattanooga, TN, and spend the weekend with oft-mentioned friend Spencer and his family. Once there I was besieged fairly quickly by his oldest son, Ezra, who was beyond excited to help me plan out my birthday weekend. He’s seven, so there was nothing “fancy” about what we wanted to do, which was completely fine with me. We discussed shopping outings, food options, possible video game sessions, Lego sets we would possibly build, and maybe watching a film. It was something on my list to do for my birthday already, and I’d off-handedly mentioned to Spencer that I’d like to watch something from Ryan and I’s childhood. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came up, but it was a property not really familiar to Ezra. He knew of them, had a video game (his dad’s really) featuring them, saw the toys and the occasional cartoon in passing, but they weren’t of interest really. And if you have kids or are around them, you know getting them to watch something you want can sometimes be a battle.

Spencer, Ezra, Finn and I celebrating my birthday this year.

Fortunately, Ezra had just come back from NYC, where he spent his spring break. Not his first visit, but maybe the first one he’ll remember clearly for a while. Ezra also loves pizza, his favorite food in fact, and fortunately, Chattanooga has a place called NYPD (New York Pizza Department) that serves some delicious pies. Katy (mom extraordinaire) quickly put the pieces together, laid out the bait and in five minutes both Ezra and I were stoked that we’d get to eat NYPD, watch the Turtles superhero their way around NYC, and talk about Ezra’s visit as well. And it all went off without a hitch. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend our birthday.

I did my best not to mimic the dialogue and music as the four of us (Spencer and Katy joined as well) watched the story unfold. I was amazed at how into it Ezra actually got, and I must admit I was worried that Spencer and Katy would snicker at just how into it I still was, even at 44 years old. But, that didn’t happen. We were all enraptured with it, even agreeing at how marvelously it holds up. As unbelievable as it sounds, it’s been nearly 35 years since it was released and it looks better than most of the superhero stuff we’ve gotten in the last twelve months.

Ryan and the son of one of his closest friends, Mason, shortly after seeing Michael Bays TMNT reboot.

I’m not sure how long it’s been since I watched it, but the fact that it still delights me as much as it always has really speaks to my love of the film, the characters, and their universe, and just how good it truly is. The one thing that has changed though is how I view the fraternal strife between the characters, specifically Leo and Raph. As a kid it was easy to dismiss them both; Raph as the hot head who needs his anger to be validated, and Leo as the self-righteous and self-appointed leader who can do no wrong. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I can look back on my life and say I have very much been both of those people, often at the same time.

Their fight, which leads to the second-best segment of the movie (does anything top the Raphael/Casey Jones meeting?), is identical to so many I had with my own brother. In fact, a few months before he passed we’d exchanged a few words. To keep it short, I’d been staying with him and working remotely just because of Covid, watching him very much not taking care of himself despite being not well off, I spoke my mind, he spoke his, I packed my things and left the next day. We didn’t really talk again until about two weeks before he passed.

That’s me at the top, left to right there’s David, our brother-in-law, married now to Kelly sitting next to him, friend Adrienne and Ryan. I still have the gate he’s wearing there.

In the film Raph is the one who storms away, only to be jumped on the roof by the Foot ninjas. An emotionally charged battle ensues, bringing all the disparate good guys to one place, April’s apartment. When it’s destroyed the Turtles and company (including a comatose Raph) escape to a farmhouse to recover. Eventually, Leo and Raph have their brotherly reunion after he recovers, and as wonderful as it is it, of course, set me to thinking about my own. And not just the last one, but all of the one’s we’d had to have through all of our years on this earth together. And there were many. Mainly because there were never apologies, from him or me. Not for one single thing we’d put the other one through. While I can’t speak for my brother, I can say that’s a regret I’ll have to carry with me for the rest of my life.

It might not come as a surprise to most people that the Turtle’s creators, Kevin Eastman, and Peter Laird, had a bit of a falling out of their own. In 2000 Eastman sold most of his stake in the franchise to Laird and set about doing his own thing. Neither has ever really expounded upon why, but it’s not uncommon for creative partners to eventually suffer that fate. It’s very much like being close siblings and seems to be something they understood very well, and it’s reflected in how both of them wrote the Turtles’ relationships. Every one is different, and all have their moments that seemingly rip them apart. But, like the Turtles themselves, Eastman and Laird eventually reconciled. The result of a Netflix series, funny enough, The Toys That Made Us; you can stream the episode right here, it’s beautiful. That reconciliation then led to one of the most acclaimed Turtles stories in decades, The Last Ronin, published by IDW.

Maybe one of the last pictures we ever took together, our 41st birthday, with sister Kelly and our Mom.

My reconciliation with Ryan wasn’t sixteen years coming, but considering it only happened a few weeks before the end of his life I can say that no matter how long it had been, it had been too long. No apologies were asked for or offered, and much like Eastman & Laird it led to one last creative endeavor, an episode of our Star Wars podcast. Episode 100 of The X-Wing Files was Ryan’s last podcast, and I think it’s maybe my favorite thing we’ve ever recorded.

I miss my brother. Everyday. I regret so many of the things that were said, but more so I regret the things that weren’t. It’s a hell of a thing to lose someone so close: a friend, a partner, a brother. I can’t say with any certainty, but I imagine it’s like losing a limb, something our Father has had to deal with on top of losing a son. I’ve heard him talk about how, even years on, it often feels like it’s still here like you could reach out and touch it. It itches, it falls asleep, it cramps up…but those feelings are all phantoms. No matter what you do you can’t really soothe them. I feel my brother’s loss in the same way. Many days I go to pick up my phone and I just want to call him, or I watch something dumb and I think of how I can’t wait to tell him about it. I see something I’d buy just so he could have it. I take pictures of things I know he’d geek out about with me. I step into his living room and expect to see him in his chair watching television, and I hope to tell him that I’m sorry and that I love him.

Moving Pictures will return in two weeks…