The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Are Bad For New York City Tourism

By  · Published on April 25th, 2016

Last week, actress Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) asked her Twitter followers, “Can anyone recommend a film that will persuade me to move to New York?” Most people answered with Woody Allen films, Meg Ryan romantic comedies and Ghostbusters. I personally suggested the recent Frederick Wiseman documentary In Jackson Heights, because why not be truthful in a great way? Some people named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which could have been a joke, or those people could have worked for the city’s tourism board.

NYC & Company, the organization in charge of marketing the Big Apple as a tourist destination, has named the TMNT characters as the “Official NYC Family Ambassadors.” Technically it has nothing to do with the movies, instead being more tied to the current Nickelodeon animated series, but it’s no coincidence that this decision arrives at the same time the “Heroes in a Half Shell” also have a new live-action theatrical feature, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, coming out. Both the show and the movie are mentioned in the press release.

Here are  a handful of reasons the Ninja Turtles immediately came to mind as being bad for wooing visitors of any age to New York City, specifically going by their depiction in films:

1. They live in the greatest city for pizza in the world, but (due to product placement) prefer either Dominos or Pizza Hut.

2. They perpetuate the frightening idea that there are creatures living in the sewers, whether good or bad. At least this is better than the city using C.H.U.D.s?

3. The earlier movies and cartoons give foreigners the impression there is toxic, mutating ooze dumped under the city, producing such creatures.

4. The Ninja Turtles’ mentor, Splinter, reminds people of the rat problem in the city and exaggerates their size.

5. They protect the city from gangs, super villains and aliens, but that just implies there are threats to be regularly concerned about in New York.

It’s the last of those items that may be the most serious for tourists to think on. Compared to past Family Ambassadors Dora the Explorer, Curious George, the Smurfs and The Muppets (including the stars of Sesame Street), the Ninja Turtles are violent characters and represent a crime problem in New York. You could say the same is true of the NYPD, I suppose, but Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael are vigilantes who go above and beyond what the police can, via their martial arts skills, signature Okinawan weapons, and inventive gadgetry.

In the 2014 movie reboot, the Ninja Turtles have to fight off a terrorist attack involving a would-be chemical viral outbreak, and the climax features the collapse of a part of a Manhattan skyscraper. It doesn’t matter that it’s all fiction. It’s still imagery that sticks people’s minds, especially if they’re young and their brains are less developed. There’s a continued idea in cinema that New York City is the place for mass destruction to happen both because it’s iconically recognizable and it’s regarded for many reasons to be a center, if not the center, of the world. It’s a big target for bad guys abroad (real ones included) and from outer space.

NYC & Company going with the Ninja Turtles for this year’s campaign makes me think of how Mayor John Lindsay began a new wave of film production in New York in the late 1960s. Ironically, the majority of memorable movies coming out of the initiative were (as addressed by Pauline Kael back in the day) examples of “nightmare realism,” including The French Connection and numerous other gritty features focused on crime and the seedier sides to the city. But in this case it’s as if Lindsay hand picked Ratso Rizzo (or later Abe Beame, continuing the efforts, chose a cartoon version of Travis Bickle) to appeal to children.

I have nothing against the Ninja Turtles as entertainment for young children. As I’ve written before, there are characters who can be portrayed in various ways depending on whether they’re aimed at kids or adults, and this is yet another case where a property initially made for older audiences was adapted for younger. The littlest ones can appreciate the characters as they would any anthropomorphic animals, it’s just that this quartet also promotes martial arts, which of course can be a recreational activity, not necessarily an encouragement for them to use the skills to fight, but tends to be the latter in all versions of their depiction.

NYC & Company’s new tourism-promoting TMNT comics (some viewable at The Hollywood Reporter) don’t feature fighting nor any negative sides to the city, but the Ninja Turtles are still drawn with weapons in full view. And I doubt their Brooklyn Bridge climbing antics will inspire children to treat the landmark as a jungle gym, but why portray it as such? The characters are being employed for their interests in food and fun, as well as for how they can make stuff like science and history relatable to kids, yet the artwork for the campaign keeps going back to recognizing their skills in action and their purpose as defenders of the city. Meanwhile, there’s strangely no attempt to sell families on the Metropolitan Museum of Art specifically for the paintings by the characters’ namesakes.


At least there is a list on the website tied to the TMNT campaign recommending the 16 best pizza slices in the city, and none of them are national chain junk. Anyway I’m having trouble thinking of an alternative choice for this year’s Family Ambassadors. Surely no other superheroes (though I won’t be surprised if next year they pick Spider-Man). Or Minions. Kids today need a Fievel Mousekewitz, some wholesome animated film character who is also a visitor to NYC yet isn’t awful like the main character of the new movie Norm of the North. Or the city should just go with Sesame Street characters every year.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.