I wasn’t going to take my young son to see the blockbuster kids’ movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’d read that it glorified violence and was sexist and uncreative. My son (unlike many of his peers) had asked only offhandedly whether he could see it. ”We don’t have time right now,” I told him, truthfully. ”Maybe we’ll go someday.” That seemed to satisfy him; the national passion for heroes-on-the-half-shell didn’t appear to be an issue.
Despite my misgivings about the Turtles, it’s my job to see as much children’s entertainment as I can.
I was asked to review the Turtles movie from a parent’s perspective and so I took my son, Reid, age 6, along. He was thrilled at the prospect. He owns no Turtle paraphernalia (items from pajamas to skateboards grossed more than $100 million last year), but he’s clearly a fan of the Turtles’ TV cartoon show. He seems drawn to the Turtles’ adventuresome spirit and, I think, to the idea that in fantasy he can defend himself. As we sat down in the theater, Reid patiently and authoritatively explained who the characters were. For the moment, I was happy I had brought him.
The movie takes off directly into a simple good-guys-vs.-bad-guys plot: A rat named Splinter and four turtles are accidentally drenched with radioactive waste and mutate into big, intelligent creatures. They live in the Manhattan / sewer system. Splinter acts as the Ninja master, teaching the Turtles the discipline of martial arts (”Ultimate mastery comes not of the body, but of the mind,” he advises). Splinter’s archenemy is Shredder, a Ninja master who recruits unhappy teenage boys into The Foot, a criminal organization.
The Foot does battle with the Valley-speaking Turtles (”Let’s party, dudes!”), who are befriended by April, a TV reporter they refer to as ”bodacious,” and Danny, her boss’ teenage son.
April is self-sufficient — except when attacked by The Foot. Maybe that’s why her incredibly short skirts seem so incongruous — her attire is nothing more than a lure for the adolescent-boy audience. A friend who is the mother of two young boys and an active campaigner for women’s rights said, ”Of course the movie’s sexist. But at least the female isn’t totally passive. She’s got a good job and she gets what she wants.”
But it’s not the sexism that has generated the most objections — it’s the violence. In the first five minutes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there is a mugging, and one turtle is hurled around, rolled over the hood of a car, and dumped head-first into a wire garbage can. The National Coalition on Television Violence claims there are more than 190 acts of violence in this movie; it seemed to me there were at least that many in the opening scene.
Though the violence continues nonstop, a lot of it is obscured: You can hear the THWACK of a hit, but most of the contact happens so fast you can’t see it. Even so, there’s no question the movie glorifies violence as a way of resolving conflict.
I have spent the past six years telling my son that hitting is not a good way to solve problems, that it hurts people’s feelings and their bodies, and that when we are angry we should try to use words. Was this movie going to undermine all that I’d taught him? Well, no. Because the violence was so exaggerated, it was easy to use the film as a backdrop against which I could reiterate my beliefs. ”They’re doing some really bad stuff in there,” Reid said as he watched two Foot members fight. ”That’s right,” I told him, leaning close. ”They could have tried to work out their problems in a less violent way.”
Because scenes of violence dominate Ninja Turtles, other aspects of storytelling suffer. There is practically no character development — the only way my son seemed to be able to tell the turtles apart was by the color of their headbands, and I couldn’t distinguish them at all. The characterizations are superficial, either pure good or pure evil. There are some positive messages, though: Anger clouds the mind, and love is a powerful, uniting force. And I got a kick out of some of the dialogue, like the Turtles’ high-five expression, ”Give me three.” But most of the talking seems a rather rickety support device for the violence.
So should you take your kid to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? I’m not recommending that you do — this movie will not enrich your child’s worldview. But if you do give in to the marketing blitz, seeing the movie isn’t likely to cause your child any lasting damage, either. If something in the movie is a concern, you and your child can talk about it.