It was 30 years ago that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first appeared on the scene in a Mirage Studios comic book. The heroes on the half shell were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of Daredevil, New Mutants, Cerebus and Ronin comics, which were hot property at the time.
The turtles have appeared in comic books, video games, animated television series and live-action films, as well as a bevy of merchandise that is sure to grow with the release of the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie.
“I was a fan in South Africa watching cartoons,” “Turtles” director Jonathan Liebesman said. “They're so absurd and that makes you want to watch them. The fact that they are teenage mutant ninja turtles, it's a weird combination of things, but the fact that they are actually just normal personality-wise will keep us watching.”
Although special effects have improved since the first three “Turtles” films in the early '90s, and even the most recent release in 2007, Liebesman and his creative team didn't let technology take over the importance of having a story with substance.
“The real challenge of the movie is something we have to give credit to the writers (Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty), because they didn't allow the technology to get in the way of the characters' charm,” Liebesman said.
Liebesman also acknowledged producer Michael Bay for his instincts in guiding the overall design of “Turtles,” giving it the perfect balance of levity and darkness, and also pushing the turtles' personalities.
“It was important to Michael that the turtles were all distinct, which was unlike the cartoons or the previous movie where they just had bandannas. He wanted mums to be able to tell the different characters,” Liebesman said.
The writers admit there have been some other updates and changes made to the original story. For example, the items the brothers have in their sewer home are reflective of those found in a typical teen's room today, and despite the many different tales about the origin of Splinter, the rat who is the turtles' sensei and adoptive father, the writers pushed them aside to create a new background. Lastly, the Foot Clan has been modernized and its evil leader Shredder has been completely revamped.
April O'Neil, the turtles' friend, has been seen in several incarnations over the various turtles franchises. For this film, she comes back to her roots as a Channel 6 news reporter. Played by Megan Fox, O'Neil is flanked by her cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). Both Fox and Arnett have turtle ties.
Growing up, Arnett's younger brother was a big fan of the turtles, and today, Arnett's sons watch the new Nickelodeon cartoon.
“It was pretty remarkable to see an entire new generation respond organically and discover them on their own and fall in love with those characters the same way,” Arnett said.
Fox was a turtles fan as a child, which spurred her to campaign for a role in the film. She had a menagerie of pets over the years, including ferrets, pigs, birds, dogs and a black cat named Candy, but no turtles.
“I didn't have turtles because you have to keep them in cages,” Fox said.
Fox said that although the actors had some kickboxing training prior to hitting the set, they learned the majority of their moves as they worked through the filming process. She was pregnant at the time, in good shape and able to do quite a bit, but wisely left some of the more demanding sequences to a stuntwoman.
And there were other challenges.
When filming, the actors would do two takes of a scene — one with the turtles actors and one without. Invariably, the take with the actors always was the better one, Fox said.
“When we were doing ‘Transformers,' we're just screaming at the sky ... and in this one you have four actors who were perfect for their roles,” Fox said. “They really interacted like brothers.”
Some moviegoers may be on the fence about “Turtles,” but Liebesman and his cast and crew agree it ultimately will be a big box-office draw.
“I think there's a definite place for serious superhero movies — Batman, and more in the middle you have the Iron Man movies — but I do think when you have something like ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' it's a parody ... it's just supposed to be fun,” Liebesman said. “I always err on the side of serious and I'm so happy that (the producers and writers) pulled the movie into the fun zone because it's such a great ride.”
Know your Turtles
Mask color: Blue.
Traits: Oldest and tallest brother, leader of the group, ninjutsu devotee.
Weapon: Katana sword.
Mask color: Red.
Traits: First to fight, hot temper, fearless, extremely loyal to his brothers.
Mask color: Orange.
Traits: Clown of the group, likes cooking strange food combinations, is in love with April.
Mask color: Purple.
Traits: Smartest of the brothers, invents gadgets, hacks computers, cracks security codes.
Weapon: Bo staff.