Review: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles": Back Again To Raise Some Shell
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a property I have definite nostalgia for. In nursery and into my formative years of school I have strong memories of watching the original animated series on afternoon kids TV, Christmases where my mother had tracked down such treasures as the Turtle Blimp and Party Wagon toys, and even sampling oddities such as the cylinder shaped Turtle Shell bread loaves. This of course means that I’ll view newer incarnations of the brand more intently then some. It’s been a mixed ride, with the likes of the live action movies and their comedic ‘Next Mutation’ TV spin off, and most recently a series by 4Kids that stuck closer to the original Mirage comic books. We’re now on the eve of a brand new revival of the four brothers, helmed by Nickelodeon.
At its core, this is the Turtle story that many will be familiar with. In the sewers of New York a mysterious mutagen transforms four baby turtles into anthropomorphised mutants and likewise turns their human care-giver into a mutant rat. Hiding under the city streets, the rat (who assumes the name Splinter) trains his adopted sons in the ninja tradition of his homeland of Japan. On their fifteenth birthday the brothers request to be allowed to finally visit the surface at night, which Splinter begrudgingly allows. Once there, it doesn’t take long for trouble to find them.
One of the most striking factors of this new series is the focus on character and humour. We’re first introduced to the Turtles as they engage in one-on-one sparring matches, each showing clear personality and quirks. It’d be a lie to say different personalities hadn’t existed in previous incarnations, but I feel they’ve never been this intentionally pronounced. A perfect example of this is the conflict between Leonardo and Raphael, something that has played out in many past Turtles stories. Many of these opted to make Leo clearly superior, with Raph blinded by his anger and ego. Here, although they still butt heads, they seem to be on more equal footing, and it suggests we might get some interesting exploration of who is truly fit to lead. Indeed, Leo nurses some bad ideas himself about the role of a leader.
The comedy is equally distinctive. The patron saint of this element is Michelangelo. It’s pretty common to depict Mikey as the most light hearted of the brothers, but here he’s really carrying a lot of the gags due to having a boundless energy. Although sometimes this makes him come off as an idiot (he needs certain things explained to him that are obvious to the other three), it’s usually the result of his sheer enthusiasm or a well-timed comment that had me laughing. For instance when Raph complains he’s tired of them sitting around ‘with our thumbs up our noses’, Mikey’s response is to compare digit to nostril and comment “I don’t think they’ll fit”. Most uniquely, the comedy duties are not left solely to Mikey. The producers have commented they were inspired by the sight gags of the Teen Titans animated series, and this means everyone gets in on the action to some degree. One memorable sequence involves the brothers’ first tasting of ‘pizah’ after decades of sewer algae. I can also see this version of Splinter going memetic enough to compete with the My Little Pony fan’s ‘Trollestia’.
One plotline that crosses both characterisation and comedic is Donatello’s smitten affection for April. Falling for her instantly, he becomes desperate to protect and impress her as her family becomes a target for the forces of darkness. April herself doesn’t really get much to do in this opener. The decision to make her a teenage girl instead of a 20-something has raised a few eyebrows, and admittedly we don’t see too much here to make her a unique character. Independent young girls in ‘boys’ action shows seem to be on the rise, and hopefully April will go on to be vindicated as a strong and enjoyable character rather then an executive misstep (I’m looking at you, Miko Nakadai). It’s fun to see Donny swoon over her (we’ve all done it to someone) but it’s the story opportunities offered that most intrigue me.
This first episode clearly acts as the opener for an ongoing story, with situations left unresolved and the clear promise of even more exciting ones to come. I’ve seen plenty of action cartoon pilots which use all their most thrilling ideas in the first episode and then get bogged down in filler until the season finale, but the new TMNT looks to be offering a more structured pacing. There’s enough going on here to draw viewers in but not too much to be daunting.
Most importantly, I think this is a show that kids will love. TMNT has often gone out its way to acknowledge the now twenty- to thirty-year-old fans who remember it from their childhood. While the new series remains aware of this loyalty, it’s primarily and correctly putting a new generation of fans first. In the last decade there have been numerous attempts to reboot 80s animation icons, and I think many of them failed because they targeted too much the imaginations of older fans. Nickelodeon’s TMNT is going for an approach that respects the history but is trying to make these characters relevant to kids today. They’re fun and engaging in all the ways a show for the next generation should be. One of the most obvious signs of development to come is that the turtles aren’t yet amazing fighters. Many adaptations opt to have their public debut be a showcase for how skilled they are, but here the brothers completely fail to work as a team, colliding with one another as they attempt to rescue April. We do of course get to see some great action later, but the show appears to be making good on the producer’s claims that the initial story arc will be about the Turtles’ journey to becoming heroes.
The voice acting is another sai in the show’s belt. When I first heard that so many big names had been cast I was doubtful they’d work in the roles but everyone shines. Legend Rob Paulsen will likely receive a lot of attention for having been one of the stars of the original show, switching out Raph for Don. I’m perhaps too male to use the phrase ‘adorkable’ but if anyone could make the team nerd into this it’s Paulsen. Greg Cipes delivers a brilliantly frantic performance as Mikey, a welcome return to the likes of Beast Boy as opposed to Kevin Levin from the melodramatic Ben 10 sequels. After getting used to his Samwise in The Lord of the Rings I was really surprised how well Sean Astin embodied Raph, portraying everyone’s favourite hot-headed proud New Yorker with just a bit less of the antisocial rage seen in the movie adaptations. Jason Biggs manages to imbue Leo with the presence of someone who might just be a leader once he resolves his aspirations with reality.
Although I enjoyed this premiere, not everything sat well with me. There are some parts of both the writing and animation that felt poor and sometimes overlapped. The show’s animation brings to mind two of the network’s other shows: Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and Fanboy & Chum Chum, using a mix of CGI and 2D animation for flashbacks. The Turtles themselves are well done and beautifully expressive, both when being comedic and when fighting (in a wonderful touch, their eyes go pure white like the old Playmates toys during their most badass fights). However, human characters come off as noticeably less impressive in a way that crosses into issues I’ve discussed with titles such as Transformers: Prime and Planzet. Maybe this can be excused as intentional for the robo-human bodies of the Kraang, but characters such as April’s father look really dated and awkward. The CGI issues extend to locales. New York is surprisingly empty for such a bustling city and the Kraang’s base has a bold metallic sheen to it that makes it look like an unfinished render. The overlap occurs when one locale is suspiciously arranged so that an element is noticeably present in a distracting way and is ultimately only there to allow for one character’s fate. The resulting situation does later allow for some wonderful meta humour at the expense of the audience, but the prior staging seems very uninspired, especially for a professionally made CGI show in 2012.
Along the same lines, this version of the mutagen accident that creates the main cast might be the most awkward I’ve heard, with the writers seemingly settling on ‘It has to happen somehow, doesn’t really matter much’. It’s also worth noting that the Kraang’s speech style is a joke that stops being funny after its first use. They have a drawn out and redundant speech pattern which makes Mojo Jojo seem brisk. I’m sure kids will have great fun mimicking it but it’s more annoying then amusing.
An audio treat however is the new theme tune. Much like likewise legacy property Power Rangers Samurai, the show opts to make the theme tune an updating of the original. It’s not quite as catchy but it’s great to hear ‘Heroes in a half shell!’ back on the box.
So, is it worth a watch? I’d say so. There are some missteps, but I think much like the Turtles themselves are shown here it’s early days and as this incarnation builds up steam it’ll only get better. It’s not taking itself far too seriously and the characters are key. I’m looking forward to this becoming one of the most entertaining and developed incarnations. After all, teenagers mature.