Step aside, Superman. Get back, Batman. Make way for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the latest superheroes to make the big leap from comic books to the silver screen. The who?, you say. Then you haven't been paying attention. The Turtles -- four wisecracking, pizza-guzzling reptile masters of the martial arts -- are already the biggest animated adventure act to hit television since Ghostbusters cartoons. Kids adore their hip and slightly naughty sense of humor ("Let's haul shell out of here"). "I like Michaelangelo because he's a smooth dude, a party animal," says Michael Serio, a 7-year-old fan from East Haven, Conn., describing his favorite of the four.
This week, just in time for school break, the tough-shelled quartet makes its feature-film debut in a $12 million movie named, you guessed it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, complete with a rap-music sound track. Turtlemaniacs may be surprised to find their cartoon heroes are portrayed by actors in high-tech ! turtle costumes (their computerized masks, with facial expressions that change by remote control, were designed at Muppeteer Jim Henson's Creature Shop). But the rest is familiar: the jokes are campy, the ninja feats daring if a little silly, and the Turtles still squabble noisily over practically everything.
The producers are betting that the movie will be a hit with the legions of fans who just can't seem to get enough of the shellbacks and their escapades. Their syndicated cartoon series, which debuted two years ago, appears daily on 130 TV stations and is the No. 3 animated show for children. Meanwhile, three videotapes based on the show rank among the Top Ten videos for children. Kids are, literally, so eager to get their hands on the Turtles that Playmates Toys Inc.'s action figures of the heroes were the third biggest-selling toy last Christmas (after Barbie and Nintendo). All told, some 300 Turtle merchandising spin-offs ranging from breakfast cereals to skateboards snapped up more than $100 million in sales last year. "They have just taken over the toy and entertainment industry," says Lynn Hejtmanek, director of marketing for Ultra Software Corp., which has sold more than 1.4 million copies of a Ninja Turtle game for Nintendo.
The unlikely heroes made their debut seven years ago in a black-and-white comic book drawn by Peter Laird, now 36, and Kevin Eastman, 27. Laird had been "scraping out a living" drawing eggplants and such for the gardening page of a newspaper in Northampton, Mass., when the editor of a local comic magazine suggested that he collaborate with Eastman, an amateur cartoonist who was working as a short-order cook. One night in 1983 -- and neither can remember why -- inspiration struck. Eastman drew a humanized turtle wearing a ninja mask and carrying a katana blade. The idea of a slowpokey turtle as a swift and wily ninja cracked them up. By the end of the evening the artists had created four tortoises. Eastman quickly christened them the Ninja Turtles, but then, in an absurdist wink at two of the most popular themes in comic books at the time, Laird lengthened the name to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That night's work was to make them millionaires.