Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Slice of Nostalgic Heaven: TMNT Coming Out of Their Shells

I don't think it's any secret that I'm a nostalgia fiend. I just love to look back on my childhood and revel in the things that so easily entertained me and made me happy. Take a gander at my DVD shelf and you'd know it right away: The Land Before Time? Got it. Short Circuit? Bought it the day it streeted. The Brave Little Toaster? Can't remember a time without it. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie? Still have the VHS, top that! The Wizard? Displayed prominently in a place of honor in my entertainment center, soon to be enshrined under the theatrical poster (vintage, no reproductions allowed here!). I worship these movies because my childhood is the closest thing I have to a God. I love it that much.

One of the biggest components of my childhood was undoubtedly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The cartoon series was at the height of its popularity when I was a wee tot, and I fell in love with those unavoidable heroes on the halfshell just like every other kid on Earth did. I watched the cartoon, I had the action figures, I had the Halloween costumes. The only thing I didn't have was the movies, ironically. Having seen them as an adult, I guess I understand why my parents drew the line there. The first one – a shockingly excellent entry in the superhero movie genre, I'd like to add – is too dark and scary for the littlest kids to see (and they swear a little, which probably didn't help). The second one was tripe that no one would want to suffer through and the third one is dead to me so let's not discuss it. The point is, my Turtles love was strong, but incomplete. It wasn't until this very week that I realized it was actually even more incomplete than I used to think.

I'm sure most anyone who reads me has probably discovered the joys of The Nostalgia Critic, a very funny man who puts all other retro-reviewers to shame with his gut-buster videos. I've been a fan of his for a long time and never miss an episode of his show. Lo and behold, one of his latest reviews – a crossover with The Angry Video Game Nerd (also a great man), was TMNT-related. It was also utterly baffling, as they reviewed The Making of Coming Out of Their Shells. Coming out of Their Shells being a Ninja Turtles concert tour, of all things, that seemingly was lost like dust in the wind for two decades until these two dedicated geeks dug it up. I had never heard of this thing before, but after glimpsing the Spinal Tap-like fake documentary about it, I knew I needed to see it NOW. And through the magic of internet piracy, I was able to. I downloaded that baby and watched the whole thing through straight away.

The background on Coming Out of Their Shells is thus: The Turtles love pizza. Pizza Hut makes pizza. Pizza Hut spent a whole lot of money to put together a Ninja Turtles live show to plug their pizza. Simple as that. Why they made it a concert is beyond me (other than so they could sell cassette tapes at the restaurants, I guess), but then again I've never understood Pizza Hut's tie-in promotions. They did a tie-in with The Land Before Time for God's sake, and what do dinosaurs have to do with pizza? All I know is that my VHS copy of that movie has a Pizza Hut ad instead of trailers and I saw it so many times as a kid that I can pretty much recite it from memory if I want to. Also, the LBT hand puppets they handed out with the kid meals were atrocious.

But I digress. Point is, Pizza Hut commanded a Ninja Turtles concert tour, and so it came to pass. To launch the tour, they simulcasted the kick-off performance from Radio City Music Hall (yes) on PPV, and to make it extra special for the kiddies, they added a PLOT to the concert. This wasn't any old song and dance show, it was an EVENT and more or less an episode of the cartoon show, except live action and way, way cheesier if you can imagine it.

So the turtles take the stage and bust right into their first song, appropriately titled “Coming Out of Our Shells”. An unmistakably early-nineties pre-packaged bit of pop fluff, this catchy little ditty is basically an explanation of how in the blue fuck four freakishly mutated ninjitsu-practicing turtles got into music. That explanation is the simplistic, but typical, “everyone has the music in them”. They just let it out and noticed that their sewer has lovely acoustics and now they're a rockin' band. And they brought the sewer with them, as the set seems to suggest. Got to have the acoustics. Yeah, it's pedestrian but like I said, it's oddly catchy and it's harmless so I can't complain about it. The kids eat it up and give a thunderous cheer at song's end, which leads to Michelangelo uttering his signature line of the night: “Thank You! We love you! Thank you!” They repeat this over and over and over throughout the show and it's the exact same recording every time. It's the one thing in this show that annoys me because he says it so weirdly. He emphasizes the word “you” so much and it doesn't even sound the least bit right. I'm nitpicky like that.

I like how Raphael chooses this point in the show to say he's “having a great time so far”. You're three minutes in, dude. I'm sure The Rolling Stones were having a great time three minutes into Altamont... Mike chimes in with another round of “We love you”s, and even Leonardo is already sick of it. And then...the bantering. Minutes upon minutes of bantering. They explain how the big video screens work, they talk about how music is a better way to express yourself than fighting (so shouldn't the cartoon have switched over to something like a “Josie and the Pussycats” model?), they hype the shit out of their instruments, they remind us that they love us, thank you. You'd think they'd lose the kids with this stuff, but they don't. I find it funny that they go to the trouble of discussing the instruments, crediting Donatello for making them, and talking about how they're cooler than weapons AND they tell us to check them out with the next song...and then they don't even use the instruments in that next song. There's music, alright, but the turtles are too busy dancing to touch their instruments. Whacky with an H.

During this interlude there's a flashback (of all things) to Splinter telling the turtles (who suddenly look completely different, because they're now being portrayed by hokey costumes from a Halloween shop instead of the way better-looking and more detailed suits used in the concert. Was there no continuity editor to check this kind of shit? And why did they bring along two sets of costumes anyway?) that music can touch people and spread good messages better than weapons and violence can. I have to wonder...were they parents' groups filing complaints about violence in the cartoon show? They go out of their way to discourage fighting and encourage the arts throughout this show and while that certainly is noble, it goes against everything the turtles are about (with the exception, perhaps, of Donatello). Anyway, flashback ends and we immediately transition into a song about, what else, “Pizza Power”! They don't actually use the words “Pizza Hut”, but the shilling is so thick you can cut it with a chainsaw nonetheless. The gentle reminder that pizza power “can be delivered to your door”, in particular just screams “buy this shit!”. Oh yeah, and there are dancing Pizza Hut delivery boys. So I guess they did kinda use the name.

With the end of this song comes the arrival of Splinter and by far the most baffling thing to ever happen in the Ninja Turtles universe. After giving a zen-like speech about how everything we do is like a skipped stone making rings on the surface of water (yeah, I'll bet five year olds really grasp the significance of the parable), SPLINTER SINGS. And I'm almost certain his singing voice was provided by John Stamos because it has not the slightest hint of Splinter's Asian accent, and it can't carry a tune to save it's life and attempts to compensate by doing that hushed whisper style of singing that earned Stamos a spot in the Beach Boys for that pathetic “Kokomo” comeback. The mind boggles at the experience of watching and listening as Master Splinter, the wise-old rat of few words being moved to sing a really, really goofy ballad about “Skipping Stones” as the children in the crowd are confused into a bewildered stupor. What in the hell is happening here? Also, I have to note that this singing ratman doesn't even look like Splinter. He looks like a rejected raccoon character from the Chuck E. Cheese jamboree wearing some rags. They're not even purple for Christ's sake. Couldn't they have dragged the costume from the movies out of the mothballs? It's not like it was being used for anything else. And what is the deal with his choreography? I know Splinter is supposed to be old and crippled with arthritis, but was “crouch into a fetal position and then stand up again...and walk a little bit” all they could think of within those limitations?

Well, apparently the badness of this song simply could not go unnoticed, as Splinter and the turtles are frozen in time as Baxter Stockman takes the stage and The Shredder makes a grandiose evil speech on the video screens, talking about how Baxter's latest invention – the Deharmonic Convergence Controller (you know, something simple and easy for children to remember) – will allow them to STEAL THE MUSIC and thusly (somehow or other) render the turtles completely powerless. Whacky. And also the most cornball thing I think I've ever seen, as this is easily the cheapest Shredder there's ever been. Tin foil helmet. Check. Bed sheet tied around neck as a cape. Check. Mascara oddly reminiscent of Sam Jackson playing The Octopus. Check. Two-dollar voice distorter mic. Check.

I've seen costume characters at flea-bitten traveling carnivals that more closely resembled their cartoon counterparts than this actor in a CORPORATE-SPONSORED MULTIMEDIA EVENT resembles The Shredder. I mean, I'll forgive the costume for argument's sake, but couldn't you be bothered to get James Avery to record the voice? I mean, come on, James Avery IS The Shredder for anyone who loves the cartoon show. We want Uncle Phil, dammit! Anyway, Baxter and some Foot soldiers start laying down parts of the music sucker doohickey and generally being evil in the most delightfully pandering way. This guy playing Baxter Stockman is gold. He knows it's dumb, he knows he's not better than this, he gives it all his heart and soul. I know the mutated Human Fly Stockman in the cartoon is classic and all, but this human dweeb version is aces. And you know what? Despite my complaints, The Shredder is pretty funny, too. Putting aside all the many, many things that are wrong with him, his gleeful evilness is so amusing. I especially love when he tells the kids not to tell the turtles that he was there “because I'll be watching!” Yeah, not “I'll get you” or “I'll take your toys” or any other threat. He'll just be watchin'. Oh no, not that! But that's awesome because it's so goofy! The kids don't listen to him, either, because as soon as Baxter and the Foot run off and the good guys unfreeze, the building erupts with shouts of “Shredder!”. The turtles don't believe it and laugh the notion off, even when April shows up in the audience and insists it's true. Poor April is utterly ignored – the turtles never even address her directly – and I guess she just leaves with her head hung low and her tail tucked between her legs because her mic gets cut off and she just vanishes, presumably consumed by the sea of children that flocked to her the instant the spotlight hit her.

So rather than taking the word of thousands of children and the best friend they've ever had, the turtles instead break into another song, a rap about keeping it straight up funky fresh dope and real. IS that how Vanilla Ice-ese goes? I think so. I think it's supposed to be about being yourself or something but it's really just gibberish if you think about it too hard. Obviously, a crowd of kids isn't thinking at all, so it goes over like gangbusters. I've got to mention something, here. Watching the dancing in this number brings my attention to a rather unfortunate aspect of these turtle costumes: every time they bust a move, their crotch flaps come up and reveal a part of their shell that happens to look decidedly vagina-like...which is just so weird on a turtle. I mean, really, they couldn't design those flaps to stay down or just make those shells look a little less...poontangy? Oh, and another thing: the turtles look stupid with those big, floppy tails on their masks flopping all over when they shake their heads. It's like they have Hulk Hogan haircuts, all bald on top and a pony tail in the back. It doesn't work for The Hulkster, it ain't working for these guys.

Well, after the DJ Lameass hour ends, it's time for the seemingly inevitable Beach Boys knock-off as they sing a pop/rock ditty about surfing in the sewers. At least they went for “Surfin' USA” Beach Boys and not “Kokomo” Beach Boys. The most notable aspect of this number is the presence of dancing crocodiles in grass skirts and men riding on roller skates, things which have nothing to do with surfing! There is a bit with surf boards, but it's the silliest excuse for choreography I've ever seen. It's like the person planning this show just said “stand on those surf boards and, uh...spasm a little”.

And after that song, and an impromptu game of Jeopardy, April pops up on the video screen and tries once again to warn the turtles only to have her feed cut off by a sinister laugh that the suddenly pussified turtles try to convince themselves was just “ground hum”. Yeah, that's what ground hum would sound like: A Snidely Whiplash cackle.

And hey, let's go back to rappin'! Inspired by the Jeopardy answer (What's a turtles favorite word? Cowabunga!), Michelangelo breaks into a rap called, wouldn't ya know it, “Cowabunga”. Again, I have no idea what this song is about. All I know is I really appreciate the definition of “Cowabunga” being splashed across the screen for the benefit of anyone here who somehow hasn't seen an episode of TMNT. I'm pretty sure even the parents must have known what Cowafuckingbunga means. This is probably the one real stinker of the show because even the kids don't give much of a reaction. Indeed, they seem more interested in what follows, as the turtles freeze once again so Baxter Stockman and the Foot can finish building the Decombobulatory Converging Crapper or whatever it's called while The Shredder makes another grandiose speech, revealing that the next piece of music played will activate the machine and turn the stage into an auditory black hole, sucking all the music out of the whole wide world. So, of course, when the bad guys vanish and the turtles unfreeze, Michelangelo has to go and start doing his impressions of Dean Martin and Elvis.

And this is where this show takes a turn down Ed Wood Lane. As the machine turns on and makes the instruments blow-up (if Fourth of July sparklers can be called “blowing up”) while the turtles battle the Foot in the single lamest fight scene this side of an Uncle Elmer match in the WWF. You know, fight scene choreographers will tell you that what they do is really just an elaborate dance that happens to look like it's painful. So why then, if we know these people can dance just fine despite being covered in these goofy costumes, does this fight scene look so goofy? Everyone moves at Mae West speed and whiffs their kicks and punches by a country mile. They don't even try to make this look good.

And the children love it. So fuck it, I'll shut up. The Foot are entirely ineffectual, giving the turtles ample time to make quips as they dispatch of their foes. “This is one thing Bo don't know! Get it?” Actually, I don't, but I think we just had a Ghosts Can't Do It reference and that alone is a ten on the “How to Amuse Redunbeck” scale. Ooh, ooh, make a Cru Jones joke, next! April comes up on stage in the midst of this fight for no other reason than to get chased about. So...she was in a remote location the last time we saw her...and she heard there was a brawl going on on stage and she thought “Well, the best thing to do is to go up there and clutch at my heart and swoon for my heroes until a Foot soldier notices me and makes me scurry”? OK. She gets saved rather quickly, throws a high five and then retreats to a balcony, where a Foot soldier scoops her up. This causes instantaneous coma for the poor lass. So the turtles get rid of the Foot and it is at this point that The Shredder finally takes the stage. Left-field strategizing...yes, it's crazy enough to work for forty-five minutes or so...

Despite standing on the balcony, cackling loudly, and HAVING A SPOTLIGHT ON HIM, The Shredder is still invisible to the turtles for a couple of minutes, even when they look right at him. This, of course, is just to whip the kids into a frenzy, which it does, so it's actually really great. Eventually spotting the evil interdimensional-traveling time lord who's right there, the turtles make a rush for him only to be repelled by the Deharmonic doohickey, which looks to all the world like three industrial fans and a long string of Christmas lights shrouded behind a light mist. So the turtles are all becoming powerless, The Shredder's plot is falling into place, great tragedy is befalling the world...and HBO cameramen choose this point in the show to walk on stage and get into the long shot. Way to break the tension guys, and way to make the turtles look like wusses. They collapse and die at the sight of this machine, but Ralphus is just fine and dandy tooling around in the background. The turtles run away down their man holes and The Shredder heads front and center to thunderous boos. This guy has what pro wrestlers call Monster Heat. He's like Andre the Giant right after tearing Hulk Hogan's shirt off on Piper's Pit: people want his head served up NOW. So. Fucking. GREAT. This guy in a tin foil and polyester suit has earned the profound hatred of thousands of children and their endlessly amused parents by erecting three fans and some tinsel and chasing four turtles down holes. Think about that.

So The Shredder has Baxter tie April up and then he announces (in perfect Dick Dastardly style) that all the doors are locked tight and no one can escape! And while the baddies are busy completing construction of their evil devices, they're going to herd all the crowd into the lobby so they can't see how it works. Or, in other words, intermission time.

TO THE CONCESSION STAN-erm, I mean, to the lobby to cower in fear. Yeah, that's what this is really about. Just ignore all the vendors peddling t-shirts and toys in the background as TV newsman Kip (I swear he's played by the guy who hosted Shop 'til You Drop or some other 90's game show...God it drives me nuts because his name is on the tip of my tongue. Help me out here!) asks the kids what they should do. The answer is a resounding “Let the turtles save us”.

Borrowing a light-up sword (only $9.95, Mom and Dad. Little Timmy would love one!), Kip heads to the basement to look for the turtles. He acts all afraid of the dark, which is funny seeing as his crew has the place lit up brighter than Hiroshima the day the bomb dropped. After a lot of wandering and cowering, Kip eventually finds the turtles sitting around like dopes doing nothing to formulate a plan. In fact, all they're talking about is how upset they are that they didn't get to sing more songs. Um, hello? MUSIC BEING DESTROYED. WORLD FALLING INTO DESPAIR, LEADING TO ENSLAVEMENT. YOUR WOMAN IS TIED UP. And why are you referencing Barry Manilow lyrics (“She came and she gave without taking or something...”). After a lot of pointless prattling and a horrendously confusing attempt at compressing The Shredder's backstory into one whole sentence, Kip determines that the turtles are weenies.

Back in the theater, the baddies take the stage once more to tie April and some random...technicians, I guess, to the Deharmonic whatsit (April helpfully wiggling her way into her bindings. Good timing on that zoom-in, cameraman). April's bindings are basically a harness and a rope with enough slack for her to freely wander the entire stage. Wow, that'll keep her from interfering. So, with a literal captive audience, a giant machine that allows him to rule the world, and the turtles on the run, The Shredder embarks upon...

AN INSULT COMEDY ROUTINE. He just starts picking on the people in the front row. “Who's that? Your cousin? What, couldn't get a real date? BWAHAHAHAHA!!”. Apparently the role of The Shredder is being played by Don Rickles this particular evening. And he goes on, and on, and on, and on. Like someone missed their cue and he had to fill time or something. Not that that's the case. Eventually, he starts showing off the Deharmonic thingy. Here's how it works: you toss an album, sheet music, a cassette, or anything else music related into a trash can with a “No music” logo on it, and the music gets transformed into fanciful confetti which the foot spray over the crowd with big air guns. Whee!!! I like it! Confetti easily distracts and amuses me. The point of this whole scene is, shockingly, that The Shredder hates music. Hates it so much that...he sings a song about it. Uh, OK.

This is where the show reaches yet another new level of transcendent surreality, the sight of this man in a two-dollar Shredder costume prancing about all fancifully and crooning a song...It's like watching a Salvador Dali movie or something. No, scratch that. Dali wasn't nearly this weird. Appropriately, this song is really, really bad. I'm saddened, though, that it doesn't end with The Shredder pulling out a tape recorder and confetti-izing a recording of his own song. That would have really driven the point home. Next best thing: he destroys New Kids on the Block. Thank you, Shredder.

But now back to April. Not only does she have free range to wander the stage, she also has a working microphone. That's just dumb plot-wise, but she's only here to work the kids up into a frenzy anyway, so we need her back there shouting “Boo!” I guess. Kip pops up on the video screens, and The Shredder pushes a button to ZAP HEEM (I can make Ghosts Can't Do It references, too, by God), and I guess Kip dies because this is his last appearance on the sh-DAVE RUPRECHT. That's who it was. Supermarket Sweep, not Shop 'til You Drop. I can't believe he doesn't list this on his resume. You might not be so shocked, but once you know that he DOES list five episodes of Small Wonder, it's surprising. This is so much better than that piece of shit ever was. Anyway, Kip bites it. And then some turtles appear on screen. I say “some” turtles because they look nothing like the ones we've been watching all night.

What we see on stage:

What we see in this video insert:Uh, yeah. So anyway, The Shredder goes off to scheme or something, and April's buddies start lamenting their inevitable deaths, prompting April to sing them an inspirational song. This song...

This SONG.

THIS song.

THIS SONG IS SO FUCKING GREAT. Never mind the appearance of musical accompaniment from thin air (awesome enough in it's own right), just listen to it. There hasn't been something this bombastic and magnificently overwrought since the heyday of Wilson Phillips. Actually, this was made during the heyday of Wilson Phillips...but you know what I mean. Wilson. Phillips. I mean, seriously, do you get that “Hold On” vibe off of this, or is it just me? And I mean that as a great compliment, because the overwrought cheesiness of Wilson Phillips is rare magic indeed. I want an MP3 of this NOW. NOW DAMMIT. And I'm not the only one: there are people waving lighters in the crowd like it's Stairway to Heaven. This...this is the stuff dreams are made of. My dreams, at least. After that majestic bit, the turtles and Splinter pop up to peek at the scene and notice that April's singing made the machine's power fluctuate. And then they run away again.

The Shredder, having heard the impossible power ballad, runs in to shut April up with a round of Barry Manilow puns followed by ZAPPEENG HURR (Beat that horse 'til it's dead) with a ray gun that steals her voice. I have to say, kudos to this chick playing April for selling so strongly for a “ray gun” that's essentially shining a flashlight on her. It's so whacky. Also whacky is the TV news insert showing how The Shredder's evil machine is already affecting most of the country.

So The Shredder and Baxter Stockman wander off to do other evil things, giving the good guys the chance to come up on stage finally. So they can banter. April tries to explain her predicament through a game of charades, but the turtles are retards so they think she's going for “Gone with the Wind”. When they figure out what's wrong, they get all sad and that gives the Deharmonic thingy it's power back. Splinter figures that the machine only works when no one has faith in the music. So the turtles figure, hey, let's sing a song (they have some wonky cloaking devices to keep the machine from working on them). And the song they sing is, uh, kinda heavy, actually. “No treaties/After the wall!”. Is that a Berlin Wall reference? Dude! Raphael brings some levity to this, as his mouth animatronics are suddenly broken and his mouth has stopped moving. You thought Mill Vanilli were bad lipsynchers? The song doesn't work and the turtles all flip out and start bickering, giving the machine even more strength. Raph realizes they just need to follow their hearts...and sings a song about it. THAT DOESN'T DO ANYTHING. Except provide more comedy from the slack-jawed mouth just hanging wide open as he sings.

With their cloaking doohickey's losing power, the turtles turn to the audience to save the day and teach the kiddies an easy song that they can sing to mess up the machine. And then they vanish backstage and shape shift into those other turtles again for another appearance on the video screen. And then they run out on stage in the other costumes...and no one notices the difference. They lead the audience in the song to shut the machine down and then they engage the Foot soldiers in another slow-mo fight. Quickly dispatching of those dweebs, they give The Shredder a whacky beat down until he jumps into an escape pod to get away. But the turtles plug the pod into the deharmonic thingamajigger and ZAP HEEM to another dimension and righteously save the day. And then they rock. And they rock. And they rock. They really want us to know that we can count on them.

Upon my first viewing, by the time the show was over my soul was glowing and I was misty-eyed like a housewife watching a Rock Hudson movie. This concert is utterly terrible, but it's terrible in the best way imaginable; a rickety, cheap, cornball carny attraction all gussied up trying to look like more than it was, designed solely to make money off impressionable children, and yet still somehow a sweethearted and earnestly entertaining spectacle in a “Golly gee whiz”kinda way. I mean, yeah, it was the product of greedy corporations to turn a profit, but dammit the kids in the audience loved it so much that I could care less about the motives for making it. They made those kids happy, by God, and that's a good thing. They also produced something that, twenty years later, serves as a perfect time capsule of everything it was to be a little Turtles-freak; a time machine to my innocent days. For that, it has earned itself a place of honor on the shelf, just as soon as I buy a blank DVD and burn it.

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