There are certain things that are an inherent part of the childhoods of an entire generation. For myself and hundreds of other people in Fresno, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those things. What on the surface sounds like one of the most bizarre and and idiotic concepts imaginable, has nevertheless become one of the greatest franchises to emerge out of the 1980s and continues to be a phenomenon to this day.
Originally created as an independent comic book in 1984 by Mirage Studios founders Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was conceived as the ultimate parody of 80s comics. Like the X-Men, the protagonists were mutants, only in this case mutated animals that could walk, talk and thinks as well as any human. Like in Daredevil, they were trained in ninjitsu and in the original comic books were quite ruthless. The Daredevil parody continued with their rat sensei Splinter, a parody of Daredevil’s mentor, a man named Stick, and the their archenemies Foot Clan, a parody of Marvel’s ninja organization the Hand. The four turtles were brothers which distinct personality types that Splinter named after four great Renaissance artists: Leonardo, the duel kanata wielding leader that was most committed to his ninja training and fighting injustice; Michelangelo, the fun-loving, pizza-obsessed party guy with the dual nunchaku; Donatello, the brilliant computer expert and machinist with the bo staff; and Raphael, the rude and angry rebel with the duel sais. At the time, that first issue sold for $1.50; today, a first print edition of that issue can cost you anywhere between $2,500 and $4,000.
As great as the comic books were, the truth is that the main reason the Turtles became the pop culture juggernaut that is was during the 80s and 90s was because of the now classic animated series produced by Fred Wolfe. To say that this show was a hit would be the understatement of the century. Overnight the Turtles became the obsession of every kid all over the world. The market was flooded with Ninja Turtles action figures that sold like hotcakes and today are considered major collectors items. However, in order to be appealing to a child audience, the cartoon was drastically changed from the dark and violent tone of the original comics, and in the end it bore little to no resemblance to Eastman and Laird’s original vision. The show became better known for its humor then for its intense action sequences. Both of the creators have openly expressed their disapproval of the series for that reason. Nevertheless, the show is what we best remember about the Turtles today and it remained popular for ten seasons until its cancellation in 1996. To this day, it remains one of the most popular cartoons in television history.
At the peak of the show’s popularity, the franchise was adapted into a live action movie directed by Steve Barron that was released in 1990. Instead of merely adapting the cartoon that millions of kids were familiar with, the film instead went back to the original comics books for its primary inspiration, while also drafting in some of the best elements from the cartoon. The film was another huge hit and until the release of The Blair Witch Project was the highest-grossing independent film of all time. It was followed by two live-action sequels: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, both of which reverted back to the tone of the cartoon after parents complained about the amount of violence and mature content in the first film, and both films vastly under performed compared to the original. In 2007, an GCI animated film, TMNT, was released to box office success and acclaim by fans, though to mixed to negative reviews from critics.
A short-lived live action TV series, Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, was produced by Saban Entertainment in 1997, but it was cancelled after one season due to poor ratings and reception from fans, particularly over the controversial introduction of a fifth, female turtle, Venus De Milo. After that, the franchise remained off of television until 2003 when 4Kids Entertainment, with insight from Peter Laird, produced a new animated series. This show had a more sophisticated style of animation and was crafted to be far closer to the original comic books, alas still toned down to be appropriate for children’s programming. This show was also a huge hit that rekindled interest in the franchise for a new generation. Because of the notable differences between the two shows, Turtles fans debate over which show was better; one fan named MarkMan2020 even did a multi-part comparison of the two series to determine for himself which show was better, but in the end it really all boils down to personal taste. The 2003 series officially ended in 2009 with Turtles Forever, and epic crossover film made to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the franchise.
My point in all of this is that the Turtles have changed quite a lot in their 28 year history. For every dark and edgy incarnation there is also a fun a lighthearted version, or a version that tries to do both at once. It shows the surprising stability of the concept that it can adapt to and survive so many reinventions. And now, after Peter Laird sold all rights to the franchise in October 2009, Nickelodeon has given their fans their own vision of the characters in their third animated series.
In the two-part premiere episode, “Rise of the Turtles,” the four brothers have reached their 15th birthday (or “mutation day” as they call it) and feel that their training has professed to the point that they are ready to make their first visit to the surface. Master Splinter is initially skeptical, but he agrees that the time has come for them to get their first glimpse of the world above, a world that will not understand them. On their first night, the Turtles come across a teenage girl named April O’Neil, who Donatello instantly develops a crush on, and who, along with her father, are kidnapped by mysterious, emotionless men in black suits. The Turtles try to rescue them, but their lack of experience working together as a team proves their downfall. After the fight, Michelangelo makes a shocking discovery–the men they were fighting were some sort of robots with alien brain-like creatures inside their stomachs. Naturally, none of Mikey’s brothers believe this.
After this defeat, Splinter says that if they are to try and rescue April and her father, they will need a leader and assigns Leonardo the title, despite his misgivings that he may not be up to the task. Raphael voices his dissatisfaction with this decision as well and constantly questions Leo’s decisions. As the Turtles pursue the mysterious kidnappers, they also discover a canister of ooze just like the one that mutated them and Splinter into what they are today. What secrets do these alien lifeforms, known as “The Kraang,” have about the Turtles’ origins? And what about a dark figure from Splinter’s past who is preparing for his chance at long overdue revenge?
Watching this two-part premiere episode, it was impossible not to feel a wave of nostalgic love for these characters. This new series is clearly taking the majority of it’s inspiration from the original 1987 cartoon series, not surprising given Nickelodeon’s target audience. The characters felt largely similar to how I have seen them in other incarnations with just enough tweeks done to them to make them unique. I liked how young, naive and hyperactive Mikey was in this version, and I can already predict that he and Donatello are going to be stand outs in this new light-hearted series.
There were several deviations made to traditional Turtles canon. The Turtle’s obsession with pizza, particularly Mikey’s, is given an origin here instead of it just being something they loved well before the show began, and it was one of the most nostalgic scenes in the episode. Donnie’s new found crush of April was a charming, if odd, change of pace that I never really understood until I watched it for the first time. It does add an extra dorky dimension to his character, and I will admit that I find myself curious about what it will mean if Casey Jones is introduced into this series, Casey being the Turtles’ ally (particularly Raph’s) and April’s traditional love interest. In speaking of April, the network decided to turn her into a teenager in this incarnation because they felt it would be odd seeing a grown women hanging around with four teenagers…But they didn’t think it was awkward to have a giant mutant turtle have a crush of her? She was treated like the same damsel in distress she always was in the classic cartoon, but I’m hoping that future episodes will let her move beyond that like she did in the 2003 series. Mikey is effectively similar to other version, but this time his childish attitude seems more legitimate, thanks mostly to his voice acting. Raph is neither the sarcastic joker from the original cartoon nor the total loose cannon that he was in the comics or the 2003 series. He is shown to be in disagreements with Leonardo throughout the episode, but its not yet the deep rooted anger that we are used to and there are no full-fledged arguments yet. Also, giving Raph his own pet turtle that he speaks to like a pet dog is quite funny. Leo is still the straight arrow leader but there is a simultaneous enthusiasm and discomfort he feels as he is newly burdened with that responsibility. Early on he is shown watching a Star Trek-style TV show starring a Captain Kirk-type character that he wants to be like, both as a hero and as a leader; this is a good insight into his character that gives us a taste of immaturity underneath the strong and confident exterior he always projects.
The origins of the Turtles and Splinter (or at least what amount of it we get in these episodes) is rather unique compared to other versions. Like in the original cartoon series, Splinter and Hamato Yoshi are revealed to be the same person; they neglect to explain why he mutants into a rat in this version, but you never know what will be revealed later. This is in contrast to the original comics, the films, and the 2003 series where Splinter was Yoshi’s pet rat to begin with and from whom he learned martial arts while inside his cage by mimicking Yoshi’s movements. The reason for this change was to avoid the angle of Yoshi being murdered by the Shredder, but the strange thing about it here is that we see that Shredder still killed Yoshi’s wife and daughter anyway. We also see that Yoshi himself was the one who bought the Turtles from the pet shop before the five of them were covered in ooze following a confrontation with “The Kraang,” who in this version exist as a fusion of Krang from the original cartoon and the Utroms from the comics and 2003 cartoon.
I like some of the designs done to the characters, especially the Turtles themselves. A lot of times they have a tendency to look quite alike even when they are wearing multi-color bandanas, but here, great care was make to make each character looks a distinct as possible. Donatello is leaner, has a lime shade of green, and is either missing a tooth or is merely bucktoothed; Michelangelo is shorter than his brothers and has freckles; Raphael has a darker shade of green and has a lightning-shaped cut on his undershell; and Leonardo is the one turtle who has no apparent physical features, which therefore makes him stand out anyway. Splinter’s design intrigues me; I am so used to seeing his as a short old rat with a hunch despite the power and wisdom that lies within, but in this incarnation he stands totally straight and towers above the turtles. Shredder barely makes an appearance in this episode, but already his design is very threatening, the blades on his armor are probably the largest and sharpest I’ve ever seen them.
The animation is obviously computer generated for this show and I am surprised at how effectively it works. The look captures the feel of a comic book in a visually stylistic way, but more just for cartoonish visual flare than the grittier look of the TMNT movie. It does an effective job of almost tricking the viewer into forgetting that it is not a traditional hand-drawn animated cartoon. Throughout the show there were moments where exaggerated cartoon images and expressions popped onto the screen such as throbbing veins to suggest irritation; it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I noticed that during really stylish and serious action sequences the Turtle’s eyes turn pale white like in the comic books instead of the big colorful eyeballs we see every other time…So cool! Still, this being the first episode, I have to suspect that the show is still in the beginnings of defining their look as evidenced by the limited number of character models and backgrounds. I’m hoping that, like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the CGI models become more sophisticated as the show goes on.
The action sequences are of course what Ninja Turtles are best known for, and is this version the choreography is very stylized. I appreciated how in their first night out the Turtles did more harm to each other than to their enemies, just to show us how green they really are as superheroes (no pun intended). Although, I do have to admit that is seems really odd that Splinter would spend fifteen years training each of the turtles to fight individually and never as a team. The use of robots allowed for the Turtles to chop people in half with their weapons, the same excuse they were forced to use in the original cartoon series, but I noticed that this time there were splashes of glowing ooze that spilled when they did so, which I assume was meant to represent blood. I am curious to see what the creators will do when the Turtles face the human Foot Clan ninjas in future episodes.
This series is clearly aimed more at a younger crowd than at generations that grew up with the franchise and are now adults. As a member of the latter group, that is disappointing. This show seems a bit more mature and focused than the 1987 cartoon but far less mature than the 2003 cartoon, which in a way I expected. The show has a heavy emphasis on comedy as well as action, but fortunately the comedy does not come from lame one-liners but from character moments mixed with a tasteful amount of slapstick. I would have appreciated it is more of the darkness and maturity of the comics books were maintained, but I cannot blame them for going in the direction they did.
Having said that, there are subtle hints that there will be some level of darkness to this series. As I said earlier, the murder of Yoshi’s family by the Shredder was maintained despite Yoshi himself being turned into Splinter. April’s father remains in the Kraang’s clutches ever though the Turtles succeed in saving her. The animosity between Leo and Raph is teased and may develop further as the show progresses or may not. Shredder is suggested to be a villain who has a real point-of-views and sees himself as a victim out for revenge against his former friends turned (in his eyes) archenemy rather than the purely evil-yet-bumbling megalomaniac he was in the classic cartoon.
The voice cast of this show is fascinating. Among the Turtles themselves we have a mix of two veteran voice actors with impressive resumes to their credit, and two established feature film stars, one of which has done some voice acting before and the other making their voice acting debut. Jason Biggs brings a different energy and inexperience to Leonardo than I am used to, but he still sells the character for what he is. I liked the unsure authority he is trying to get across despite having a tactician’s brain and a warrior’s spirit. Greg Cipes has a fun, youthful quality that works great as Michelangelo. Somehow even his most obnoxious and immature moments are given credence just from his voice. Rob Paulson has previously voice Raphael in the original cartoon series (in addition to countless other roles in his incredible voice over career), so at first it was hard to shake that nostalgia factor hearing him as the voice of Donatello in this show. But his voice succeeds in madding to that charming nerd quality that the character is supposed to have and makes him instantly likable among the other Turtles. Sean Astin is a lovable jerk as Raphael, not as angry as in other versions but definitely has a toughness and an attitude. But you can also recognize a softer side that lies just underneath that exterior that comes out whether he likes it or not. Hoon Lee is strong and assertive ans Master Splinter, even compared to other versions. His plays the role more as a father figure with a tragic past than as a teacher overseeing his students. Mae Whitman voices April O’Neil and gives her a youthful attitude and feminine strength that is just waiting to be unleashed. As a huge fan of her work as Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was disappointed that she did not get more dialogue in this episode, but I am confident that in her hands that she will make April a fun and likable female protagonist. Nolan North provides the robotic voices of “The Kraang” and I have to say that his delivery of their very bizarrely phrased dialogue was on of the best running gags in the show even in spite of how creepy he made it. Kevin Michael Richardson is briefly introduced as The Shredder but his voice succeeds in making the characters what he should be–cold, ruthless and dangerous. Other voice actors set to appear in later episodes include Phil LaMarr as Baxter Stockman and Kelly Hu as Karai.
Overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2012 is a welcome return of our favorite heroes in a half shell for a new generation. It may target itself at too young a demographic for the old school fans, but for the kids of today they will no doubt get the same excitement that we had when we were kids, and older fans will still be able to enjoy it for the nostalgia factor alone. This is not trying to be anything more than a fun reinvention of iconic characters and it doesn’t try to hide that fact. For that, I give the show three out of five stars.