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Turtle Essay:

Synopsis of communications artifact:

Four brother find themselves separated from their mentor/father.  For the first time in their lives, they must survive without him, relying on each other as family.  In doing so, they come up against a “Fagin”-figure and his band of child-thieves, a dark version of their own family.

The brothers just happen to be giant turtles, and their father a four-foot tall rat.  “Fagin” is the leader of a ninja clan, and his children are the run-aways of New York City, trying to find a family and refuge form the world and people who have rejected them and cast them away.

Take away the costumes, and the story of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is a definition of family values and love.


Let me explain my choice of topics a bit.  A couple of evenings ago, we did a “cattle-run” of about twenty of us to go see the second Turtle movie.  WE all agreed that it was terrible and spent the drive home arguing LOUDLY _why_ we thought it was terrible.  Most of it came down to bad directing, writing, and mismanaging of the characterizations, but it wasn’t until I was trying to describe the extent of “terrible” to a friend who hadn’t gone with us that evening, that I realized what the real difference between the two movies was.

The second movie was a series of unemotional comedic skits strung together through a plot-line.

The first movie was about family love; what made a family and what didn’t.  That whole element was what made the first movie for me, and what was completely missing in the second movie.

That started me thinking about how similar the first movie was to other fairy tales that I had loved as a child.  At the same time, there was this persistent little nag running around inside my head that I still had to choose a topic for my next paper.  Suddenly, the two thoughts collided together.

At some time in Life, everyone steps outside of his own life and defines what he thinks a “family” should be.  Based on that definition, he decides whether his own family meets up to his expectations, and if they don’t, whether he should simply make do with what he already has, or go find a new family that seems more appealing, perhaps of friends and associates.


The movie is about the definition of what makes a family.

The Shredder’s ninja-theives clan was a haven for out-cast runaways, where they were taken in, fed, and taught new skills.  The whole time, they were told that “this is your new family” and the Shredder “is your new father”.  It was NeverNever Land, and they were the Lost Boys who never had to grow up.  It was a feeling of belonging that they had never felt before.  And after all, the fighting and intimidation never _hurt_ them, as long as it wasn’t directed _at_ them.  And if they were “true” family members, there wouldn’t be any need for them to be intimidated.

The turtles act as brothers do.  They play jokes and tease each other, argue and occasionally fight between themselves, but not matter what the situation, when one of them is in trouble, the others immediately go to his aid.  Although, they sometimes resent their “father’s” pensive and mystical ways, there is no mistaking their love for him, and his for them, even if he has to put up with teenage-fetishes for loud rock music and occasionally pick pizza cheese out of his fur.  Their love is not based on conditions or reinforced by threats.  It is simply there, to be accepted and returned.

After Danny, a young run-away, witnesses both families, he chooses to return to his own father.  By the simple exchange when they meet again, by the clutching hug given in relief, by his father’s agreement to call him “Dan” instead of “Danny,” we were assured that this time, their own definition of “family” had been cemented, and that they would team together to make it work.


Every child (or adult) sees his family as being less than perfect.  How often have we heard about young children who pack a bad and announce to their family that “I’m going to run away and find a new family!”  A few hours later, when they are hungry, they return, deciding that their own family isn’t so bad after all.

We also hear the horror stories of the ones who don’t, or can’t, return at all.

The movie brings back memories of those stories.  The run-away children are representatives of our wishes that we could leave the undesirable traits of our lives behind in the quest to find Something Better, our own NeverNever Land.  Sometimes we find it.  Sometimes we decide to stay where we are.  Sometimes we find something worse.

Splinter and the turtles represent the ideal family.  Shredder is the other extreme, the dream-turned-nightmare that one can’t wake up from.  Danny and his father are the where-I-was-is-better, the compromise, the normal family.

The family values are consistent.  The turtles and their friends risk their lives to save their mentor.  In turn, although ill and injured, their mentor rescues his “sons” when the Shredder’s skills and treachery prove to be too much for them to overpower on their own.  There are no indications that they would act differently.

In comparison, the ninja-clan begins to fall apart when the children find that exploding tempers (usually ending with broken furniture and bruises), do not meet their expectation of what they thought a family should be.  For them, like for Wendy, NeverNever Land turned out not to be what she longed for.  She wanted her parents.


The medium distracts from the effectiveness of the message.  This was obvious from the controversy that quickly stemmed after the movie’s release.  Many people took a surface look at the concept of turtles with weapons and completely missed what was behind it.  There was a large fuss raised about the “level of violence” in the move, followed by articles published in which groups of parents sat down and “counted” each act of violence that occurred.  That was all they saw.  None of those articles mentioned anything about the emphasis on family or on the love that the characters shared.  They completely missed what the entire message of the movie was.

Instructors response:

“You certainly get more of out TMNT that I ever imagined possible... perhaps more than the artifact deserves.  Nevertheless I like your use of imagination here... letting insight move to implication to insight.  Your consistancy is good also.  Nice work.”  

April 1991

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