An Extinct Genre: The ’90s Family Martial Arts Movie [Opinion]

Will RagozzinoGetty Images

So, back in 2010, there was a remake of The Karate Kid. Perhaps this was an attempt to revive a long-dead genre, missing since around the mid-’90s. I refer, of course, to the kid’s martial arts movies we see so little of today.

And by little, I mean zero.

We do have the Kung Fu Panda franchise, and while I love Kung Fu Panda, it’s not the kind of movie I’m referring to. The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, even though I never watched it, is likely closer to the now-extinct genre. Great as Kung Fu Panda is, you can’t replace Rocky, Colt, and Tum-Tum with a panda, it just doesn’t work that way.

So what happened to the genre? I think three things, actually. First, they just went out of style. For a while, martial arts was cool, specifically in the ’90s. While martial arts isn’t exactly uncool today, it’s not the pinnacle of badassery it once was, according to the youth of today.

Truth be told, I don’t know what the youth of today finds cool. I googled it and scrolled through results for about ten seconds before realizing I’d literally just googled what kids today are into. Before I could close out my browser, I received a text message from Trent Reznor’s publicist asking me to never positively review an album of his again, and at the same time, I received an email informing me I was thereby banned from The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina and could never attend another punk show as long as I live (I received no such communications, it’s a joke about feeling old).

So, whatever it is kids find cool today, it isn’t martial arts.

Another reason for the decline and inevitable death of the ’90s martial arts family movie is, well, that was the decade parents started having a serious problem with kids relentlessly beating one another. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, these shows, and movies caught a lot of flack for allegedly causing kids to be violent.

There may have been a correlation between kid-on-kid violence and watching such programming, but to my knowledge, no one ever showed causation. They basically just associated one thing with another because it was easy, assuming there must be a danger present, even absent evidence. It’s kinda like what’s going on now with GMOs.

NEW YORK - APRIL 23: Martial Artist Ernie Reyes Jr. attends a screening of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival at North Cove at World Financial Center Plaza on April 23, 2009 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Will Ragozzino/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Lastly, they probably tried to revive the genre with The Karate Kid remake, but for one reason or another, didn’t see any serious profit potential. Oh well.

Let’s look at three prominent titles of this forgotten genre of the ’90s.

3. 3 Ninjas

In my day, three kids learning ninjutsu from their grandfather, eating pizza, and fist-fighting grown-ups, was just about as cool as anything could get.

Tum-Tum is the youngest and party dude of the group, a rip-off of Michelangelo from Ninja Turtles. Replacing pizza with constantly eating candy and making similar not-so-clever jokes, Tum-Tum is one of the more memorable characters.

Rocky is the mature one, Leonardo and Donatello rolled into one, being realistic and trying to keep everyone from hot-doggin’ it all the time. Leadership qualities and intellect and “cool as planet rock.”

Colt is the whiny middle child who has emotional problems and needs attention, so Raphael. He basically just drags the group down, but they tolerate him because they pretty much have no choice. He’s their brother after all.

They wimp out at the prospect of fighting Snyder, the final boss, and leave their grandfather to do their dirty work for them.

All-in-all it’s good ’90s fun. There are three sequels, all terrible, even the one with Hulk Hogan, and that’s all you need to know about 3 Ninjas.

2. Surf Ninjas

I remember seeing the trailer for this on my VHS copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze. The voice of Michelangelo acted as the trailer announcer. Here’s a YouTube link to that very trailer if you seriously question just how much Ninja Turtles had to do with this genre. It also stars Ernie Reyes, Jr., who plays Keno in the aforementioned Ninja Turtles sequel.

Surf Ninjas was also partially financed by Sega to promote the Game Gear. This movie is a giant commercial, but it was also a lot of fun to watch as a kid. There is a moment of genuine comedy in the movie, featuring Rob Schneider pretending to be a disabled Scottish uncle and threatening to beat people with his non-working leg. It might be funny for reasons other than intended, but funny all the same.

Surf Ninjas still remains Rob Schneider’s single greatest cinematic achievement.

1. Sidekicks

Barry has asthma and wants to learn karate. Everyone makes fun of him. He fantasizes about Chuck Norris. He has decidedly lower chances with Winnie Cooper than Kevin Arnold did.

Sincerely, I love Sidekicks, but I have to come clean about something. Barry Gabrewski is a punk. Daniel Larusso would have made fun of this guy.

Two things, first off, I’m staunchly against any kind of bullying. Second, the way actor Johnathan Brandis died is tragic and I’m not commenting at all on that, I’m speaking solely on a character he played eleven years before he died.

Gary is extremely entitled and acts like he should instantly be a martial arts master simply for having fantasized about being one. I used to fantasize about hanging out with Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I get it. But I drew the line at having conversations with him in class, aloud.

At one point, one of the bullies suggests that Winn— Lauren (Danica McKellar aka Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years) only hangs out with Barry because she pities him. Now, yes the bully is a jerk and needs a good walloping, but he’s also 100 percent correct. It’s painfully obvious that Winnie only hangs out with Barry because she feels sorry for him. He’s completely delusional. You can just tell her parents are behind this, likely having struck up some kind of financial arrangement with Barry’s dad.

Anyway, there’s a tournament, because of course there is. Haven’t you seen The Karate Kid? Barry somehow skips all the red tape and financial requirements, recruits Chuck Norris to his team, and wins the day.

That’s it; that’s Sidekicks, and that’s the extinct genre as expressed by three key films.

In retrospect, perhaps nothing of cinematic value was lost. But our collective childhood wouldn’t have been the same without these wholesome, awful, wonderful ’90s martial arts movies.