It’s a scenario that might have supplied Rod Serling with his eeriest opening monologue. “Submitted for your approval: Having fallen into a slick of radioactive sewer slime, four turtles emerge as intelligent, humanlike beings with a taste for pizza more suited to teenagers than terrapins. Prudent parents be warned: These herpetological home-wreckers are just around the corner, ready to high-kick their way into the hearts of your children, unwitting victims in a treacherous terrain called…The Twilight Zone.”
Well, folks, er, dudes, this isn’t The Twilight Zone. But judging by the wails of exasperation arising from parents across the land, it might as well be. “Turtles in the morning, turtles at night, at breakfast, dinner, in the bathtub, in the car, if I hear ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ one more time,” says one battle-worn parent of a 3-year-old, “I’m gonna go crazy.”
Craze, in fact, is the operative word. It began in 1984, when the Turtle brothers, Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo [sic] and Raphael were hatched—and crawled to cult popularity—in the black-and-white comic books produced by former free-lance artist Peter Laird, now 36, and ex-short-order cook Kevin Eastman, 27. Four years later they invaded both morning cartoons and the consciousness of America’s preteen—and, most dramatically, preschool—mainstream, shrieking “Cowabunga!” (the Turtles’ favorite war cry, stolen from Howdy Doody’s Chief Thunderthud) and badgering “Hey, dude” (their surfer-style greeting of choice). But now that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a major movie smash, the reptilian rumble has become a dinosaur-size quake.
“The gangbuster success of the movie has left the industry completely surprised,” says Hollywood Reporter business editor Robert Marich of the live-action spin-off, which has grossed more than $75 million since its March 30 release. “No one expected it.” Certainly not the 12 studios that turned down the project before tiny New Line Cinema—previously best known for its Bruce Lee chopsocky flicks—signed up. And certainly not the legions of grown-ups who find themselves surrounded by little people in green suits brandishing plastic martial-arts weapons and screaming, “Turtle Power!”
“Oh, my goodness,” gasps a ticket-taker at the Western Heights Cinema in Chicago Heights, 111. “You wouldn’t believe it, the line goes out the door, up the side of the building and around the back. We’re selling out every show.” Nor is America the only nation under siege. Turtles are in the air, and on the air, with the cartoon show now broadcast in dozens of countries from Brazil to Australia. They’ll soon show up in Italy, Germany and Holland (to name just a few). When the Turtles made a July appearance at a Singapore airport, 30,000 children showed up yelling “Yo, dude!” Even Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Prime Minister—but more important, a devoted grandfather—is a reputed Turtle buff.
That kind of madness makes merchandisers smile. There are toys, of course: 30 “action figures” at last count and—at the rate of one to three a month—steadily climbing. Then there’s turtle-packaged frozen pizza, turtle cereal and turtle cookies; turtle pajamas, turtle toothbrushes, turtle underwear; turtle skateboards, turtle place mats, turtle sheets; turtle shampoo, turtle key chains, turtle lunch boxes; turtle ad ninjam—more than 600 products that will rake in an estimated $600 million in retail sales this year alone. Mark Freedman, president of Surge Licensing, the Long Island-based company that controls the worldwide merchandising, is in hog—okay, turtle heaven.
Ditto every link in the merchandising chain. Each day Burger King sells 200,000 cartoon videos made exclusively for their restaurants ($3.49 with purchase). “Conventional wisdom said we had a one-in-a-million chance to crack the kids’ market,” says director of media relations Cori Zywotow. But—Awesome, dude—they did it: Since January, when Burger King started such Ninja giveaways as clip-on badges, the fast-food chain has doubled the sales of its children’s meals.
At the Orange County, Calif., chain Toy City, the mood is similarly exuberant. “We get a shipment, we sell out,” gloats secretary-treasurer Marge Taylor. At about 6,000 a week, the $4.99 Ninja Turtle action figures are the store’s No. 1 seller. “There isn’t anything else hot in the toy industry,” she says. So long He-Man, bye-bye Batman and toss out that Ghostbuster slime. By last Christmas miniature Turtles, produced by Playmates Toys, Inc., had karate-chopped their way onto the industry’s best-seller list, exceeded only by Barbie and Nintendo. “They became hot so fast, nobody was ready for it,” admits Taylor, whose stores, to the dismay of wailing children, are constantly running out of turtle merchandise.
Parents, meanwhile, are running out of patience. “My son is always throwing tantrums in front of turtle toy stands, begging me to buy yet another,” says a New York City mother. “It’s completely out of control.” The question, of course, is why? Why should a goofy tale of turtles trained in the martial arts by a sage old rat have so completely seduced America’s—and the world’s—teen-and-under crowd? “They took seriousness out of superheroes and brought wackiness and zaniness in,” says Playmates Executive Vice President of Marketing Richard Sallis. Far from displaying superhuman sternness, the Ninja Turtles, like human teenagers, squabble with their siblings, live for pizza (no anchovies, natch), understand life through TV (“Gosh, it’s kinda like Moonlighting, isn’t it?” Donatello observes when the two human heroes have a romantic spat) and fawn somewhat crudely over unattainable “babes.”
Sure, they’re silly—but they’re also less scary, says Michael Marsden, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. “The film has a much more romantic tone than Batman, which has that dark underside.” Dr. Joyce Brothers points a finger at Ninja Turtle talk: “They use passwords, like ‘cowabunga,’ that kids can say to other kids and no one else can understand.” In White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., horse breeder Pam Blankenship, mother of Joshua, 8, can attest: “He’s always holding his fist in the air, shouting ‘awesome’ and ‘excellent.’ ” Blankenship sees it as innocent fun, but other parents do not. “I discourage my daughter from saying ‘cowabunga, dude,’ and ‘awesome,’ ” says Falls Church, Va., government worker Marie Edwartoski, mother of 4-year-old Stephanie. “I hate ‘awesome.’ I don’t want a little Valley girl.” Actually, says Brothers, bugging the ‘rents is key to the Mutant Ninjas’ appeal: “In order for something to become a big fad, it has to make mothers and fathers feel a little disgusted, a little uncomfortable.”
Touché, Turtles! “I think they should have a new rating: PU—not recommended for adult audiences,” says the Rev. F. Forrester Church, pastor of Manhattan’s All Souls Unitarian Church, who took his 11-year-old son to see the movie the weekend it opened. And yet, there are signs that even the Reverend Dr. Church may be converted. “I did everything possible not to enjoy the movie,” he adds, “but I have to admit I liked it.” Well, if you can’t beat ’em … you know what they say. COWABUNGA!
—Karen S. Schneider, Maria Eftimiades in New York City, John Griffiths in Los Angeles, Janine di Giovanni in London, Champ Clark in Chicago