DVDanger: Of Teenage Turtles and Grown-Up Bronies
Two documentaries tackle Eighties cults that won't die
By Richard Whittaker, 9:01AM, Sat. Aug. 16
Answer honestly. Were you a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kid, or a My Little Pony fan? And which are you now?
The turtles and the ponies are, in many ways, siblings. The half-shelled heroes started in 1984 as a comic and in 1987 became a merchandising leviathan. The ponies started as a toy line in 1982, and got their first animated special, Rescue at Midnight Castle, two years later. But both have an almost unprecedented longevity and power for reinvention. The elasticity of the shared underlying idea – anthropomorphized animals – has seen the Turtles re-emerge last week as the No. 1 movie at the box office, and the ponies to be riding stronger than ever on the wave of their latest redesign, My Little Pony: Friendship in Magic.
So why have two franchises, seemingly so wedded to the Eighties, had such astounding longevity? Ask Randall Lobb, writer-director of Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it's about timing. He puts it down to "a specific appliance that was put in the home that had never been there before, and it's the VCR. It was a delivery mechanism for culture in a way that TV had been before, but now it was a repeatable structure. You could buy a tape and play it until you had every single line of it memorized. You're not making an appointment, You own the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
The franchises have undergone astonishing reinventions over time. This results in a huge amount of material for any documentarian to tackle, everything from the original comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, through multiple TV, film, comic, and toy iterations. In selecting his story, Lobb says, "Structurally, we went with firsts. First inception, first comic book, first toys, first television, first animation."
The story he tells is of the meteoric rise from self-publishing a 3,000-unit run of a black-and-white comic to producing 100 million toys in a year. "It got so out of hand so quickly. It took more time for us to make this movie than it took for them to see millions of these things be sold." Those firsts became a deluge for the original duo and the army of creatives and professionals who saw their cottage industry become a global brand. "If you go back and look at the number of things they did before it became successful, you realize this outpaced their ability to keep up from a creative and comic perspective. 'Guys, look at all these toys.' 'We're still trying to make a comic.' 'Oh, by the way, there's this animation.' 'We're still trying to figure out the toys.' 'Now there's a movie.'"
That happy but determined accident is kind of how director Brent Hodge ended up making A Brony Tale (Virgil Films). He said, "Woody Allen said it. 80% of film making is showing up and 20% is magic. With this film, it was 99.999% showing up."
If Lobb looks at key Turtle moments, then Hodge focuses on one moment – or rather, movement – in pony fandom. He was inspired by voiceover artist Ashleigh Ball (famous to fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as the voice of Applejack and Rainbow Dash). For Hodge, it's just his friend Ashleigh. "We grew up in our 20s together," he said, and now she's dealing with becoming a superstar within a specific scene. "She's completely shell-shocked, and still kind of is, but I knew she always had it in her."
Both the Turtles and the Ponies have evolved and broadened their fanbases. In the case of the ponies, there's a new adult fanbase, drawn almost solely to the Friendship Is Magic iteration. The women are called pegasisters, the guys bronies, and that's where some eyebrows get raised. "It's weird, 30-year-old dudes liking a little kids' show about female ponies that fly," explains David Beckingham, Ball's bandmate in the indie trio Hey Ocean! during the film, "but that said, weird can be really rad."
Hodge first became aware of bronies when Ball told him that, after years of providing voices for shows aimed at young girls like Bratz and Strawberry Shortcake's Berry Bitty Adventures, she was getting fan mail from grown men. "I just started emailing these guys back, saying, 'Hey, I'm Ashleigh's friend, I'm a film maker. Maybe next time I'm in town we can chat.'"
There have been My Little Pony fans since the first plastic hoof left the first packaging, but the bronies are a whole new addition. Hodge explains, "The old generation, it started to get really cheesy. They were putting them straight to DVD, just trying to sell toys." He credits the change to the hiring of Lauren Faust, who had worked on such gently subversive and multilayered animated shows as the Atomic-Era spoofing The Powerpuff Girls, and the emotionally rich Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. "That's what brought in the bronies. They don't like the old version. They really just care about this new generation."
Like Lobb, Hodge sees fans attracted to a twist on nostalgia in the franchise. "It's almost like we don't want to reinvent anything," he says. "Why are we listening to records? We have a digital way to listening to music, but we've gone back to an even older way of listening, past CDs. I don't understand exactly why, but My Little Pony has gotten on that train as well."
If Hodge (who has just started filming a documentary about another cult figure – the late comedian Chris Farley) has an aim, it's to dismantle the idea that bronies are fat, lonely losers living in their moms' basements while challenging 200-ft. restraining orders. "Whether you're in a family or you're in high school, or you like DJing, or you're an older guy who works on motorbikes, whatever you are, you might for a second watch this and think, 'I'm not that far from being that guy.'"
Sometimes fandoms can be hard communities for documentarians to access. Not the bronies, however, who were, by and large, eager and happy to talk to Hodge about why they loved the show. "Then Fox News and Howard Stern and Stephen Colbert really got onto the bronies. A lot of vicious media came out about them, and it got much harder. Guys would really question what my intentions were, what show was this for. Is this for Jerry Springer?" Fortunately, he still had Ball to vouch for him, "The idea that she's a celebrity among them, and that I was with her, and I could show them a few clips, really helped."
The only real tension is about where the term brony even comes from (a melding of bros and ponies, or a portmanteau emanating from 4chan's bulletin boards.) That makes sense, as the resident talking heads from academia describe it as a show about conflict resolution (friendship is magic, after all) as a cultural reaction to the psychic trauma of 9/11, like the beatniks were to Korea or hippies to Vietnam. Wait, brony academics? Actually, it's academics who also happen to be a brony or a pegasister, and Hodge thanks the brony community for leading him to them. "I'd say, 'I really want a musician brony,' and they'd say, 'You've got to go to Atlanta to see this guy.' So I'd go to Atlanta and say, 'I wish I could find a brony into statistics, and they'd say, 'There's these brony professors, you should go see them.'"
Ultimately, both Hodge and Lobb tell stories about playthings, so there is always some lightness. But neither film can avoid moments of sadness and pathos. For A Brony Tale it's when one of the fans, a military veteran, explains how the show helped him deal with his PTSD. For Lobb, it's when Eastman touches briefly on his fractured relationship with his former creative partner, and how he missed talking to to him about those early, wild days. Lobb said, "I entered into these conversations with them knowing I wasn't going to talk about dark moments [but] When Kevin said that, that's a beautiful moment, because it indicates the loss of a certain something."
Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Paramount) is out now on DVD; A Brony Tale (Virgil Films) is available on VOD now, and will be released on DVD on Aug. 19.