The Weird Reason We Almost Never Got A Ninja Turtles Movie

If you're very lucky, you're getting older right now.

There are a lot of ways that it can catch up with you. Maybe one night you'll be out with your buddies at the barcade and suddenly notice that the opening graphics on the Turtles In Time machine list Master Splinter as being 30 years old, and you'll be struck by how unfair it is that, without realizing it was happening, you've outpaced the old man character from the cartoons you watched as a kid.

Or, if you're really getting up there, it could be that you remember what a big deal the 1990's live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was. Per BoxOfficeMojo, on a modest budget of $13.5 million, the story of four color-coded pugilistic pizza-loving terrapins grossed over $200 million. It held the record for highest grossing independent movie of all time for nearly a decade. More than the comics or the cartoon, it cemented the Turtles as a viable pop culture property, launching a motion picture franchise that would see three sequels, a turtle-powered reboot, and over a billion dollars in box office sales.

And it almost didn't happen, thanks to George Lucas and a talking duck.

All ducked up

Yeah, it's weird to think about today, but there was a time when a movie about sentient martial arts lizards hitting people with nunchucks didn't inspire confidence in studio executives. In an oral history of the first Turtles movie published by the Hollywood Reporter, producer Kim Dawson describes the difficulty inherent in finding a studio to back the project in 1988, and points to one magical corner of film history as the offending party.

Says Dawson, "one of my first calls was to Peter Chernin, who went on to run Fox for a long time. But Peter goes, 'Are you guys out of your minds?' Howard the Duck was just released. Nobody felt like a comic book could be converted into a live-action character."

To be fair, he has a point. To this day, 1986's Howard the Duck adaptation is a black mark on Marvel's feature film history. In contrast with today's monolithic juggernaut of Disney-brand spandex success, the George Lucas-produced weirdness factory of a movie received four Golden Raspberry awards and bombed at the box office. Its animatronic anthropomorphized protagonist gave it a superficial common denominator with the proposed Turtles project. It would be like if someone approached Universal in Spring of 2022 pitching a digital fur-powered musical called Ferrets.