Turtle Power

I Tried To Get My Kid Into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles And Learned That Nostalgia Is A Two-Way Street

Kids these days have no loyalties to franchises. So how do I get my kid to embrace the ooze?

Originally Published: 
A child surrounded by old video game screens in 2023

My five-year-old son knows worrisomely little about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His knowledge of the heroes in a half-shell is a mixture of conjecture and second-hand information and I fret about the cultural touchstones of his childhood. He has seen a commercial or two and has friends who are into the Turtles, so he tells me he knows that they’re “turtles who are teenage and very good at fighting.” And eat pizza? “Oh yeah … They’re in love with pizza? I think.” He’s bluffing. The kid didn’t know about the pizza.

This information gap is understandable. To a rising first grader in 2023, there’s a glut of franchises to glom onto. There are Marvel kids, Minecraft kids, Pokemon kids, Rainbow Ranger kids, Ninjago kids, (still) Star Wars kids, and even the occasional TMNT kid; whose dads are apparently better hype-men. But also, for kids these days, brand loyalties are fickle. You can appreciate a bunch of worlds — and that’s ok. You don’t need to be all in. Identities aren’t all that wrapped up in TV heroes or comic book brands.

To this rising first grader in the 80s (not going to let you do that math), this is jarring. After 1988, to me, there were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans — and everyone else. And what’s not to love? Martial arts! Check. Mutants! Check. Old school weapons Mom will let me fawn over! Yup. Bad guys with throwing stars and the ability to ooze into city-crushing giants! Check. Pizza! Pizza!

So obviously I want to get my kid into TMNT — to introduce him to a franchise with at least one movie coming out soon (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, out August 2) and maybe get into the OG animated series that aired from 1987 to 1996 that Nickelodeon confirmed at Comic-Con it has secured the rights to. But I’m not entirely sure how to even start.

He’s not a huge TV watcher, but he gets enough screen time that just showing him a show isn’t going to guarantee he’ll be into it — or even want to watch more than one. The glut of options has led to a discerning viewer. He may decide the Turtles are too weird — or, worse, not weird enough. That they’re too violent and scary — or just the opposite, silly and unseriousness. It’s hard to tell where he’ll go with it. He could reject it so quickly and casually because he is a kid in a candy store, entertainment-wise. This is the paradox of all the choices our kids have now with streaming: It’s tough to be a dad today looking for a cartoon bonding opportunity. When we were kids, we got into shows and movies, and books because those things were simply there.

But, out of the ooze, an opportunity arose. In Los Angeles and New York City, the city I call home, a TMNT pop-up came to town, marketing the coming Mutant Mayhem movie and giving kids and adults an experience that is custom-built to get their butts in seats. Or so I hoped. Honestly, movie marketing pop-ups like this can be a hit-and-miss kind of thing. You might expect Hollywood Studios, but usually, you get Chuck E. Cheese. Knowing this, I tempered expectations a bit, took him out of summer camp early, and we headed on a northbound train.

Is this the making of a fan? At the least, it’s paving the way for some good bonding.

We talked Turtles on the way and I found he was skittish about the coming movie. Perhaps he was feeling around to see if there were other options. Maybe he knew enough to know that the bad guys can be pretty bad when there are mutant animals involved. “Well, it’s one of the better movies for the two of us to see together in the theaters next month,” I truthfully told. He seemed open to the idea.

So I escorted him to the “sewers” located in the Meatpacking Districts of Manhattan and guided him into the smoke machine-filled hallways that were supposed to represent the home of the four heroes in half shells. He got all wide-eyed and quiet — in that way a 5-year-old does when testing their bravery. He walked past the pipes and through hanging wires, tons of ‘90s detritus he didn’t notice — unspooled cassette tapes, old TVs playing the 1989 side-scrolling TMNT NES game; catnip for this grown kid — when Donatello’s cartoon aperture dove down, projected on a wall. I could see my son jump, then relax. Ah, good guys, his body language said and he moved through these sewers more confidently. I felt he had turned a corner on the whole franchise. He was in.

Remember when Pizza Hut was the most dominant marketing force in our lives?

Long live physical media.


All things told, there was some fun. Punching bags, a throwing star area, and more cartoon baddies but always in fast relief with the turtles. Like a ride at a theme park, it all went remarkably fast and before we knew it, we were at the end, or adventure over.

Did my kid think the Turtles were cool now? He was a little unconvinced, I could tell. It was fun, but confusing to someone who just doesn’t know why this nostalgia is well nostalgic. And as we’re looking to leave, I see the thing that had cemented it all for me: Turtle action figures. That’s it! That will hook him!

My mind dives back to my Donatello — my favorite, always — whose perfect plastic figurine would punch (or chop?) with a squeeze. This guy took a licking and was always a solid protagonist in my basement rec room. The toy that was my real memory, I’m now realizing as I stare at a cornucopia of colorful figures on skateboards, in the plush, riding in the pizza van. More than the show, the movies, the entirely weird world, and limited character arcs of these pizza-loving mutants, the toys were it to this once and future kid. My son looked upon them fondly. Skateboards, pizza mobile, cool outfits, movement, and soft weapons. The toys were solid. Finally, there was a whole fun thing here we both understood.

We left and silently walked up the street to, of course, a pizza joint I had picked out ahead of time. Over a ginger ale and a slice, I asked, “So what do you think?” He took a bite, pondering (or half listening) to my question. “When’s the movie again?” he asked. “Next weekend we can go,” I say. “Cool. Do they have the toys there?” “We’ll see.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Mutant Mayhem hits theaters on August 2, 2023.

This article was originally published on