LOS ANGELES — Jim Farrelly is a pop culture expert at the University of Dayton, where he teaches courses titled “Fantasy and Magic" and “Apocalyptic Films." As a person who thinks seriously about silly topics, he would seem like an ideal candidate to field this question: What was it about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" back in the 1980s that made boys go gaga?
His answer: “There’s no accounting for taste." All right then!
Nickelodeon, however, not only thinks the answer is much more complex, it believes the question should be asked in the present tense. What young viewers first found charming in the ’80s worked again in the 1990s, and, most important, Nickelodeon thinks the magic remains: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a slick new computer-animated series, which arrived on the children’s cable network this weekend.
Nickelodeon sees the Turtles — Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo — as potential heart paddles for its schedule. Over the last year, the channel’s audience has dropped more than 20 percent, creating a code blue for its executives and corporate overlords. But for people who never understood the appeal of these characters, it seems like a long shot.
Ninja turtles? With Renaissance names? Who live in sewers? The franchise, just to jog your memory, centers on four humanoid turtles and their sensei, a rat named Master Splinter. Splinter was once human and the turtles were just pet turtles until they were transformed by a weird green ooze. Splinter retreated to the sewers, raising the four turtles and training them as ninjas.
The first TV series hit the air in 1987. Boys in particular responded to this reptilian rowdiness. The Turtles wielded weird weapons like nunchuks, had a street style (they’re all dressed like break dancers in early episodes), and used a colorful argot: “Cowabunga!" It didn’t hurt that the cartoon had a stick-in-your-ears theme song. (Fun fact: Chuck Lorre, the force behind “Two and a Half Men," co-composed the “heroes in a half shell" tune.)
Now comes Nickelodeon’s back-to-basics remake. The same DNA may still be there, but the franchise has been reworked — “updated" — in ways large and small. For starters, the Turtles spend a lot more time above ground. Cowabunga? No longer cool. The new catch phrase is “booyakasha," described by the show’s creator, Ciro Nieli, as Jamaican patois meaning “to give praise." April is no longer a busty 20-something in distress; now, she’s a feisty teenager, an attempt to deepen the show’s appeal to girls.
Quirky humor remains a hallmark of the franchise, but some of the silliness is gone. For instance, the Turtles eat pizza, but at least in early episodes it is plain old pepperoni — not pepperoni and ice cream or anchovy and peanut butter as in the old days. Nieli’s lavishly animated, cinematic series is aggressive, action-packed and dark. The Turtles can look menacing and the villains are creepier.