In the right format, the Ninja Turtles are pretty damn incredible. There’s just something about anthropomorphic human sized mutant turtles that are ninjas and know Ninjitsu that is just so darn appealing. What’s more is that there’s just something about the concept that is just so entertaining. Even when Eastman and Laird never intended for the series to be for kids, the Ninja Turtles always seemed destined to become icons for childhood superheroes who fought bad guys while entertaining tweens and all audiences alike. The eighties was the golden age of the Ninja Turtles where they were household names. There was just nothing but an avalanche of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise and clothing that you couldn’t fit it all in one giant warehouse.
If you want a clear example or two of how they worked well just visit their eighties animated series. It’s a mélange of action, humor, and adventure that made thousands of kids fall in love with them over the course a decade. Watch the 1989 live action movie, which not only got the turtles right, but turned them in to gritty action heroes in the process.
Raphael screams “damn,” Casey Jones kicks the crap out of Raphael in a park, a foot soldier tries to drown Michelangelo in a fish tank, a random foot soldier is electrocuted, kids are filmed smoking and stealing, and in one of the most gut wrenching moments of my childhood, Raphael is beaten near death on a roof top by an endless horde of foot soldiers who mercilessly beat the hero until he can barely breath without the aid of someone at his side. And let’s not forget Shredder being crushed to death in a trash compactor.
Hell even the second film in the series has its highs, even though the turtles are drastically watered down to avoid the more violent counterparts from the first film. But that’s okay, because the turtles showed that they could be interesting characters.
And yet, in the wrong format, they’re utterly awful. And that’s where the line is fuzzy. While the concept of the Ninja Turtles is fun and entertaining, it’s so easy to get it all wrong and screw up this great idea. Take for example the Ninja Turtles going on a music concert across America. I mean seriously, who the hell thought that was a good idea? Me. I owned the VHS and my brother and I watched it about three times a day.
Plus, let’s not forget the embarrassing third “Ninja Turtles” film that featured an unusual time travel plot that made no sense and was just too goofy to enjoy. It only got worse from thereon in. When the Power Rangers stormed the scene as the new color coordinated superheroes fighting mutants and bad guys in the nineties, Saban tried re-inventing the Ninja Turtles in 1997 with their own live action show. And, as all marketing moguls do, the series even gave the four brothers a new turtle gal pal to fight alongside.
While I never actually saw the show, I recall fondly how badly it bombed. I even remember reading often how the first season had a clip show. How that’s remotely possible, one only knows. The Ninja Turtles lay low for the better part of the late nineties and early aughts, fading in to obscurity for a while as fodder for Archie Comics and syndicated Saturday Morning cartoons. I do remember watching the woefully bland 2003 animated series, which was so utterly convoluted and vanilla that I could never actually keep up with it.
Shredder was missing for a better portion of the series, there were stories about time travel, inter-dimensional travel, dinosaurs, and the like. None of it ever felt genuine. But it lasted for seven seasons, so they accomplished something. Just not with this Turtles fan.
With the cyclical nature of pop culture Michael Bay has sought out to re-invent the turtles after a failed animated attempt in 2007 with the terribly underrated “TMNT,” and of course, to refresh us on the characters there’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Headed up by Nickelodeon and garnering an all new cast, this is not only just a return to form for the turtle foursome, but it’s exactly what I hope the live action film ends up being, when it inevitably storms in to theaters.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” mixed old school Turtle mythos with contemporary re-invention, classic kung fu grit with all ages comedy, and some grade A voice work to form one of the most entertaining variations of the group I’ve seen in a very long time. With a mix of computer animation and hand drawn animation, the group is back in what is a pseudo-reboot that doesn’t entirely seek to re-invent the wheel. It backtracks to the beginning of the Turtles, but not to much where we have to sit through their origins yet again.
This series is more like a “Year One” concept where we view the Turtles on the verge of breaking out as the heroes of New York City. Around the time the Turtles show their faces, there’s the slow introduction of the Kraang, as well as the Purple Dragon, all of whom are being led by the mysterious Shredder. Meanwhile the turtles help a young girl named April O’Neill, who quickly becomes their ally and their most trusted friend.
As expected, April is retconed from a buxom red head in to a more humble and geeky teenage sidekick who thankfully never annoys. She can make mistakes, but quite often she proves to be more mature and focused than the four turtles whom are trained as ninjas by their master Splinter. The new April is a mix of Nancy Drew and Lois Lane, a young go getter who often teams with the group to uncover mysteries and fight enemies, and is also on the path to find out where her father was taken to, after being kidnapped by the Kraang.
It also helps that April is voiced by the wonderful Mae Whitman. Most recently heard voicing Kitara in another Nickelodeon hit “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” she returns in full force as the voice of reason and love for the four brothers. What the series aces above all else that was most anxious for them to re-visit is the relationships between the brothers and master Splinter.
The series strongest point in terms of writing is the character chemistry, and the relationships between the four brothers is fantastic with moments of heart ache, growing, and pure hysterics. Once again Leonardo is the oldest brother tasked with leading his brothers due to he being the most noble ninja, while Raphael is a brutal no nonsense ninja anxiously trying to become the leader. Donatello is once again the lovable tech geek who advances the group’s weaponry over the course of the series and forms an adorable infatuation for April.
The best redo of the series is Michelangelo. Still the surfer dude with bubble brain, actor Greg Cipes takes over as the goofy hipster who approaches life with laughs and quick one-liners, but is always there to take on evil when it threatens his family. Michelangelo’s focus has been a highlight of the series. While the other three brothers are excellent, Mikey’s growth has been entertaining as he’s learned about humanity, the benefits of friendship, and often sees things about the world that his other three siblings don’t or refuse to. In one episode he bonds with a violent half man half alligator and intends on turning the beast in to an ally and friend when everyone else insists he’s being foolish.
Jason Biggs and Sean Astin are wonderful as Leonardo and Raphael, often bickering and battling for leadership of the group, while the great Rob Paulsen returns to the Turtle legacy playing Donatello this time around, instead of Raphael. There’s also some fine touches in the animation department where the turtles are characters and not so much similar turtles with color coded masks. Donatello has a hilarious gap between his teeth that often shows when he grins, Raphael has a lightning shaped crack in his shell that signals many battles, and Michelangelo has freckles. Leo for the most part is defined by his katanas, and garners much of his leading tactics by a cheesy sci-fi show reminiscent of “Star Trek” which is a consistent gag I love.
Splinter, now a black rat with spots of white, is still the wise old warrior intent on teaching the foursome how to become valiant ninja warriors, while facing his own personal demons. Most times he is never above rough love with the siblings in order to show them what they can learn and have to learn, and others times he stands back allowing them to take their hits and learn their own mistakes. Splinter is haunted by memories of Shredder, and is frequently plagued by nightmares of losing his family, especially after the foursome fight Shredder on a roof top and are forced to retreat when the clawed villain beats them without breaking a sweat. Of course, the series is leading in to the inevitable where forces will collide and the show will just continue to get more intense as the episodes continue. Shredder and The Kraang are working without knowledge of one another at the moment, but soon I predict they will team to form a union against their common ally of the turtles and makes things oh so much more difficult, and I predict big things now that Splinter is training April to be a Kunoichi allowing her to contribute more to the group.
Also, Leonardo has found a kindred spirit in a vicious kunoichi working under Shredder named Karai who has a mysterious infatuation with Leonardo. I’d also love to eventually see Casey Jones make an appearance and provide friction between Donatello and April.
Whether he’s too violent, or the writers are biding their time, one only knows, but I’d love it if Casey Jones appeared as an agent for Shredder who eventually becomes an ally with the Turtles to take down the Foot, and Kraang altogether. But for now, the show is about the Turtles and their fight against two very powerful enemies, and it’s managed to be a narrative success on every conceivable level. Thankfully, the show is a hit on Nickelodeon and is returning for a second season Here’s hoping we get a complete saga that will lead the way in to the live action feature currently being engineered by Michael Bay and his genius brigade.
Until that day, I welcome more exploits of the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And while I won’t accept Mikey screaming “Booyakasha!” instead of “Cowabunga!” that’s a small consolation in a darn great resurrection.