Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Shell Game

This weekend, what could be the best test yet of how strong a pull nostalgia has on the 80s Generation will take place. If successful, it could open the floodgates for a pop culture blast of retro-activity that will shake you down to your Pac-Man socks. On the other hand, if it fails ... we may wave bye-bye to rebirths from that gloriously geeky decade for good.

I'm talking about the cinematic return of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This time out, its called "TMNT" and CGI animation replaces the rubbery costumes of the original trilogy of Turtle flicks that unspooled in theaters starting in 1990. Most people may think this movie's coming out of nowhere. I mean, the Turtles haven't been spotted on the pop cult radar for years. But their return has been a few years in the making, with a new animated tv series, new comic books .. plus, the slow release of the classic 80s cartoon on DVD, which is the easiest way to stir those warm, fuzzy feelings of 'the good old days' that tend to lead to projects like this happening.

I'm actually surprised it took this long to for a new Turtles project to drop. You have to keep in mind, for most kids who grew up in the 80s, the names Michaelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Ralphael don't recall the great masters of Art. They're Turtles, dude!

I mean, these guys were huge -- SpongeBob huge, a billion-dollar franchise when that number still meant a BILLION DOLLARS!! And they were multi-platform. They began as an indie comic book, then came the cartoon series (which is what really launched Turtle-Mania), then the merchandise, THEN the films. After awhile, like every other pop phenom, after it was milked dry by the string-pullers behind the scenes, it faded away, stored away like old blankets in the attics of the minds of its maturing fan base.

But with comic book movies so big in Hollywood lately, this makes perfect sense. I haven't seen the film yet, but I must admit I'm curious. I was a casual Turtles fan -- I was in Junior High when they first broke so the cartoons were what I enjoyed when I took the occasional break from my juvenile delinquency -- but I'm always interested in seeing how comic book characters are translated to the screen. As long as they stay true to the wise-cracking, brothers-in-arms personalities the Turtles are known for, I think this could do OK.

What will be very interesting will be who turns out for the film. Will it just be aging fanboys looking to see their 80s favorites again? There's still a very strong collectors market for Turtles stuff - check out what this eBay auction for the original art from the first Turtles comic is going for.

But will the original Turtle fans come alone or with their kids? If I were the studio execs behind this project, I would hope younger kids turn out for it. If the crowds are full of overweight, toy-collecting moviegoers, that won't bode well for the rebuilding of a once-lucrative franchise. Because once they've had their nostalgic fill, those fans will lose interest and wait for the next blast from the past (which is coming in July with the Transformers movie, BTW).

And that's why TMNT's opening is crucial. Whether it does well at the box office is one thing. WHO turns out to see it could help determine if 80s nostalgia is a rich mine with much more left to be tapped, or if its running dry. So if you still have dreams of seeing the 21st Century reboot of the Smurfs like I do, keep your fingers crossed and hope lots of kids go Cowabunga at the theater this weekend.

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