Terrence Faulkner on The Focused Filmographer mentioned this on his blog a few days ago (thanks, T!), but I’m still sufficiently irked that I feel the need to weigh in on it a bit more than I did there (at the time I was mostly in the sputtering with amazement stage.) Michael Bay, who has helmed the live-action Transformers films, is now tackling another beloved 1980s action cartoon franchise. This time, it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Only there’s a teensy little change in the origin story: “These turtles are from an alien race, and they’re going to be tough, edgy, funny, and completely lovable.”
Aliens. Right. Of course, fans on the internet have already blown up a bit, and Bay is already trying to spin it into something positive. IGN has a comment from him as well as some responses from other people who have been associated with TMNT in the past. Bay essentially tells people to “chill” and that “we are including everything that made you become fans in the first place. We are just building a richer world.” Well, if I can be permitted to join in on the internet bandwagon — and I think I can — Mr. Bay, you are a bald-faced liar. One of the things that made us fans in the first place was the origin story, which you are not including. That’s what has people upset. Now, Peter Laird, co-creator of the characters, notes that having them be aliens does allow for the possibility of lots of turtles… but it eliminates a more interesting possibility, one that was an intrinsic part of the original franchise. To wit, other mutants. Part of the fun was that it was always possible that there could be a new mutant created from some Earth creature, either to aid or oppose the Turtles. That’s where Bebop and Rocksteady and Leatherhead and all the rest came from. So, now what? Are they just gone, never to be a part of this new envisioning of the franchise? Or are they aliens, too? Going to have a whole planet of animaloid people of different species? (It’s been done, incidentally; it was called ThunderCats).
Here’s the thing. As silly and fantasy-based as the mutagenic ooze origin was, it had its own consistent internal logic. It worked, and it got the premise going, kept creating possible plots, and never required anything extra in the way of explanation. With aliens, you always have to explain why they come to Earth and why they stay. I’ll grant that Transformers pulled this off successfully in every incarnation, even in Michael Bay’s version. But it’s hard to do, and it’s harder to do in a unique manner, and when you’ve got an 80s action cartoon property being adapted to film by Michael Bay, the last thing you want is to make people think he’s rehashing plot lines from his other 80s action cartoon property he adapted to film. And it’s going to be very hard to do an aliens plot with TMNT that has them come to Earth and not seem like it’s aping Transformers just a little bit. The mutagenic ooze, though? That’s not really present in other franchises. It’s part of what made the series unique in the first place.
And not to put to fine a point on it, the franchise is called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Aliens are not mutants. This isn’t quibbling, or nitpicking, or even being a fanboy (I’ll admit to being a fanboy, but I wouldn’t have to be in order to object to this). It’s just simple accuracy. Whatever else we can say about the live-action Transformers films, Michael Bay at least made sure things transformed in them. When an attribute of the characters is spelled out in the very name of the franchise, it is not something that can be discarded without disrespecting the source material. And once you start doing that, you’ve guaranteed you won’t have a great movie — and you’ll have to work very hard to avoid having a terrible one. Right now, Mr. Bay, it doesn’t sound like you’re making the next great movie franchise. It sounds like you’re going to make Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen look good by comparison. And that shouldn’t be something I would even consider.