Review: Episode 1 - "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" - The Toys The Made Us, Season 3
For toy collectors and pop culture enthusiasts, it really doesn’t get any better than Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us”. What really works about this show specifically is that it is able to weave a high-level narrative about each IP that it covers in a manner that is intriguing and digestible to both informed collectors as well as a more passive audience. I think it would be nice to sit down and watch this show through the lens of somebody who hasn’t thought about TMNT toys in twenty five years. There is no natural high quite as powerful as nostalgia, and for the lapsed fans who actually decided to grow up, it has to be intoxicating to stare at the screen and take a colorful time-trip back into the world world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It’s a little tougher to get me to foam at the mouth over the TMNT Sewer Lair Playset. After all, I am looking at my own pristine and complete Sewer Lair Playset right now. Okay, there’s a little foam. Even though I own it and can look at the thing and play with it any day of the week, I can’t help but get excited about what it was like being a seven year old kid in the 80’s with a Turtles obsession. I was that kid and am proud to say that I still am!
The tale of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s creation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been told many times before the debut episode of season 3 of Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us”, but that doesn’t make it any less riveting, emotional, or heartwarming. Though the toys were specifically covered in pretty great detail, the main focus of this episode was the bond created by these two best friends and their eventual falling out and reconciliation. Kevin Eastman has remained a constant presence in the TMNT fan community, makes convention appearances, still actively consults on modern TMNT projects, and is still heavily involved with the art and writing of IDW’s ongoing Turtles comic series. On the other hand, I wasn’t really sure what was going on with Peter Laird; well not until I watched this episode. (I suggest watching it, no spoilers here folks)
So the story goes that Laird and Eastman created the brooding, ultra violent, and adult-themed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they self published comics, and became indie sensations. Once they established Mirage Studios as a legit outfit, selling thousands of comics on their own, they licensed out the brand to be pitched to toy companies as a line of boys action-figures. I always love these parts of stories about successful properties because this is where every single major toy company or media entity passes on the brand and tells them there’s no money in Turtles toys. Constant rejection is a through-line of most major toy brands. If you have executives telling you that your toys will never sell, prepare to be millionaires!
Playmates, a Hong Kong toy company founded in 1979, was the company that took a chance on TMNT. Known for their production of dolls and sidewalk chalk, a full line of boys action figures was new territory for the small outfit, and they knew that in order to launch this line, they would need some media to propel it forwards. Just like Masters of the Universe and GI Joe before, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be served to children across the country (and eventually world) as an animated series, hopefully supporting a successful line of toys.
The episode does a great job and highlighting just how successful the show and toys were, selling 90 million individual units in 1990 alone, powered by not only the animated series but the first live action TMNT movie, which became the highest grossing independent film of all time. A common theme here was empty store shelves. As a collector in 2019, when you walk into Wal-Mart and the Star Wars section is depleted due to poor distribution and an overall lack of giving a damn by retailers, it can be extremely frustrating. But in 1990, if you walked into Toys R Us and they didn’t have any TMNT product, it was because it was sold out! Gone. Finished! TMNT was such a phenomenon that the stores literally couldn’t keep the product on the shelves.
This turned out to be a good thing for kids and collectors because it put the creatives at Playmates in high gear, churning out new characters, playsets, and vehicles almost monthly! The original Turtles line from Playmates is extensive. There’s hundreds of figures, tons of variations on the four turtles, and dozens of vehicles and playsets as well. Understanding that the show has to cover a lot of ground while being entertaining for hardcore fans as well as casual viewers, I do understand why the format is the way that it is. Selfishly, I would really love to see more in-depth coverage of the individual collections of fans, and more detailed deep-dives into the actual creation of the toys.
The scenes that highlighted concept art with commentary by the design team are easily the most enjoyable, including one funny anecdote on why it was decided early on that the Turtles figures would not have tails. (Thank God for that.)
The episode does cover the TMNT brad past the original toys and series, but the real fun is in the early days. If anything, I think TMNT could best be served with a full documentary, similar to “Power of Grayskull”, the Masters of the Universe doc that’s available on Netflix. Ultimately, this is a great watch, and left be headed to eBay to find a Technodrome.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s falling out and where they are now
Original concept art and character designs
Footage of TMNT craze of the late eighties
Scary original Turtle puppet
“Why does April O’Neil have to look so stupid?”
No focus on modern lines like NECA or Super7
No Coming out of Their Shells segment
Anything having to do with Venus De Milo