More Than Your Average Cartoon

BEING thirtysomething and childless, I only know about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from what I read in the magazines. Which means that I know they have names like Raphael and Michelangelo, and that they eat pizza and talk surfboard jargon and behave like a cross between Bruce Lee and the Three Musketeers. If I ever get trapped in an elevator with a bunch of 10-year-olds, I've got just enough information to keep from embarrassing myself. Gleaning popular culture from news magazines also means I've been introduced to these pudgy characters through intellectualized, disapproving (read: grown-up) eyes. How shallow, how inane, the stories all say. And how sad, that kids today will grow up thinking Donatello and Leonardo were just cool names for cartoon characters, without any notion about where the names came from.

It's an easy lament to get pulled into: Oh, ye with such little minds, how will you ever realize the irony that the only thing your cartoon turtles have in common with their Renaissance namesakes is a love of Italian food? What new lows is society reaching, that our kids watch drivel like this, five hours a day? Isn't it sad, this silly cartoon void, where reality is determined by toy manufacturers' sales strategies?

Then I remember my Elmer Fudd epiphany - the day I realized how much Saturday morning TV taught me.

I was alone in a movie theater. The film was ``Apocalypse Now,'' and the scene was the one where Robert Duvall, playing Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, the man who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, leads his troops into battle. With helicopters in formation and targets sited, Duvall makes his final preparation for the attack, broadcasting Wagner's ``Ride of the Valkyries'' for all to hear. Music to bomb Vietnamese villages by, if ever there was. Da, di-da, DA, da. Da, di-da DA, da.

So why was I giggling? Because nothing could get the merry voice of Elmer Fudd singing, ``Who killed the WABbit? I killed the WABbit!'' out of my head. A silly figment of bygone Saturday mornings spoiled Francis Ford Coppola's dramatic moment for me entirely.

Thinking back, I realize that Wagner's wasn't the only music I learned from Saturday morning TV. Whistle a little ``Blue Danube'' to yourself and you'll see what I mean. Hum a few bars of ``Carmen'' - am I alone when I see Porky Pig in a red dress? Think of the ``William Tell Overture,'' and tell me you don't see the Lone Ranger shouting, ``Hi-ho, Silver, Away!''

Classical music wasn't the only thing TV made familiar. There were classic stories and faraway places in the cartoons I watched. I learned about Venice's canals from trips Tweety took with Grandma. I learned legends of Ali Baba in Bagdad and Mad Ludwig in the Black Forest. My geography always improved when Bugs Bunny took a wrong turn in Albuquerque.

I learned famous lines from Shakespeare - like, ``Eye of newt and toe of frog.'' Who grew up on Looney Tunes and read ``Macbeth'' in high school without wondering why the recipe for the stuff in that bubbling cauldron didn't call for a daffy duck as well as ``wool of bat and tongue of dog?''

As far as these ninja reptiles go, I have to believe that there's more at work than the magazines are letting on. There has to be - after all, the people who dreamed up these characters and gave them their high-art names must have watched the same Saturday morning stuff that I watched way back when. They must be sticking in some highbrow fun in Ninja land.

But just to make sure, I picked up a copy of ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; A Novelization,'' at the newsstand yesterday. I didn't have to read far. Chapter one, page one, the story begins, ``It was the worst of times.''

Just wait 'til those 10-year-olds get to Dickens in high school. I bet they'll remember where they first heard those words. I'll even bet there's more to Don and Mike and Raph and Leo than the grown-ups writing about them in the big magazines know.

And if not, there's always Bugs Bunny reruns.

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