The House of Mouse made a generational blunder when they decided to pass on distributing the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in 1990.
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film was a massive worldwide hit in 1990, but the franchise could have gone in a much different direction under the guidance of Disney. What began as a parody of superhero comic books in 1984, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would eventually grow into one of the biggest franchises of the 1990s, as the four turtles became household names and the face of everything from bed sheets to breakfast cereal.
The Ninja Turtles craze was already well underway by 1990, with a popular animated series and toy line in full bloom. A big screen adaptation may seem like a no-brainer now, but it was a decidedly dicier prospect in 1990. Plenty of kids franchises – from Transformers to G.I. Joe to My Little Pony – had attempted to make the jump to theaters with disastrous financial results in the 1980s. The failure of the live action Masters of the Universe film – based on the popular He-Man toys and cartoon – gave Disney considerable pause when weighing whether or not to distribute the Turtles’ first foray into live action movies. The fact that the Masters of the Universe movie jettisoned almost everything that made the cartoon and toy line work probably should have tipped Disney off to what is an obvious fact now: toy properties can be successfully adapted if taken seriously.
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Disney’s ultimate decision to not release the Ninja Turtles movie was one of the studio’s bigger blunders. The original Ninja Turtles movie would be released by the then-modest B-movie studio New Line Cinema, and would go on to earn over $200 million against a $13.5 million budget, making it one of the most profitable independent releases of all time.
Yet beyond the short-term misstep, it seems obvious Disney and the Turtles would have been a match made in heaven. While still almost universally recognized, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have never again approached the popularity they enjoyed in the early 90s. Mismanagement by their modest production company, the decline of the once wildly popular Playmates toy line, and more than a few dodgy movies led the Turtles into a 21st century purgatory they’ve never fully exited. Currently owned by Nickelodeon, the Turtles remain on toy shelves and kids’ televisions, but at a decidedly lower wattage than their peak.
It’s easy to imagine the modern day Disney machine flexing its franchise muscles on behalf of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to restore them to the cultural behemoth they once were; no doubt a Disney executive has daydreamed about Leonardo and Raphael meeting the likes of Captain America and Iron Man in a box office bonanza. It’s a shame Disney didn’t have the foresight to realize what a treasure Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could have been for decades to come.
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