When I was younger I don’t think I ever expected the shows and properties I was into at the time to still be popular when I was an adult. I had a similar conversation with a cousin of mine who happens to be the father of a five-year-old boy. We were talking about how it was kind of funny you could replace one of our childhood birthday or Christmas gift wish lists with one of his and not notice. His list was full of Transformers, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and so on. Some things are expected to stand the test of time, like Spider-Man and Star Wars, but intellectual properties like the Transformers and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Those were kind of unexpected.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have sometimes struggled to stay relevant. After the bubble burst on the 80’s and early 90’s hysteria they kind of went away. There was a television show on Fox Kids called The Next Mutation that only last one season and that show was the first attempt at bringing them back. It was live action and since the budget was so low compared to the popular films it wasn’t received too well by older fans and the younger kids who had missed out didn’t seem to care for it. After that failure, TMNT co-creator Peter Laird kept the franchise on life support with hopes of bringing the boys into the world of CGI. I was unable to find anything on the internet, but I recall seeing some rather ugly mock-ups for it on ninjaturtles.com (now owned by Nick) back around 2000 or so.
The CG proposal was never picked up, but the Turtles did resurface in 2003 with a new traditionally animated show put out by Fox and 4 Kids Entertainment. Much like the first film, the new show combined the origins of the comic Turtles with the cartoon series adored by millions to create something that was both respectful to the origins but kept the kids in mind. I only watched the first season but remember it being a fairly entertaining show. Certainly if I were a parent I wouldn’t mind sitting thru it with my kid. It kept the tone some-what serious with comedic breaks to liven the mood, most involving Michelangelo. From what I could gather from a distance, the show would eventually splinter off away from any of the older versions of the Turtles and establish its own sense of self. There was even a series titled Flash Forward that took place in the future. The success of the show, though never approaching the height of Turtle-Mania, probably helped get the 2007 film, TMNT, made. That’s when the Turtles finally got their CG debut and the results were mixed. Financially, it did all right but the plot was rather poor and the Turtles looked more like frogs than turtles. It did have its moments, but no new films in the series (TMNT was a sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III) were planned and if a Turtles film is ever produced expect it to be a reboot.
Anyone who has kept up with the Turtles knows by now that a new film was in the works. Titled Ninja Turtles, it was going to be a Michael Bay production and was likely to be a major reboot for the franchise with the Turtles actually being aliens or something. Intense negative reactions on the internet and a reportedly terrible script got the project put on indefinite hold. Alongside it, a new television show and comic book series have been in the works. The various mediums are not related other than the source material, but it was likely hoped that all of this cross-promotion would really help invigorate the franchise. The comic has been out for about a year now and is okay, from what I’ve heard, and the television show premiered this morning.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Nick Turtles?) is the CG series that never was from the past. The Turtles have been given a modified look and the show is separate from other incarnation of the Turtles. One of the larger changes resides in the April O’Neil character who is now a teenaged ally of the Turtles. For the most part, it’s pretty standard. We have four teenaged turtles living in the sewer with their sensei, Splinter, who once was a man named Hamato Yoshi. The Shredder is back as the main villain, and so is Krang who hasn’t been heard from in a long time. The tone of the show is definitely reminiscent of the old cartoon as this is aimed primarily at kids new to the property. One actual throwback to the old show for older viewers is the use of voice actor Rob Paulsen who was the original voice of Raphael but will now be handling the Donatello duties.
Visually these turtles look a lot like the ones from the 2003 cartoon. Each turtle retains his trademarked mask but features brown pads everywhere else. Their skin tone varies slightly from turtle to turtle and some have freckles while Don even sports a gap in his teeth. Each one has extra bandages for some reason, I guess to make them look edgier, and retains their standard weapons. In comparison to the CG film, these turtles are less frog-like but since it’s television the quality is lower. They’re kind of blocky looking and sometimes they get these weird flat “panels” on their skin that seems inconsistent from shot to shot. It makes me think of the old 32 bit video games when developers were first getting their feet wet with 3D. The overall design is fine, but does leave something to be desired. Splinter has often been portrayed either gray or brown, but in this one he’s multi-colored. He’s also much taller than the Turtles this time around, which is a departure for the character, and he’s less feeble looking.
The first episode, which was an hour long, serves as the introduction for the Turtles. Right from the start we’re shown who the dominant turtle is (Raph) and also given a glimpse of their individual personalities. Nothing surprising here, though each turtle is a little sillier than how they’re usually portrayed, including Mike who’s not only the party dude but also a moron. Their origin is relayed and it’s fairly close to the one from the old animated series only this time it was Hamato Yoshi carrying the bowl full of turtles and he got into a scuffle with the holders of the ooze, or mutagen, that would come into contact with our protagonists. The flashback, and others in this episode, are told via hand drawn stills with minimal animation which was kind of a fun break from the CG. Later in the episode we’re told that Yoshi had a wife and daughter and lost both to the Shredder. He confirms his wife is dead but uses the word “lost” when speaking of his daughter so expect her to surface at some point (perhaps as Kiara?).
The animation is better than I expected. The Turtles and other inhabitants of the world move well enough and it’s on par with the best CG one can find on television. There is a bit of a disconnect between the Turtles and their environment that may or may not be apparent to all viewers. Most of the backgrounds are fairly dark as well to probably make it easier on the artists. Sometimes this leads to backgrounds that are mostly black which doesn’t look good on TV. The music is mostly a collection of electronic instruments, the only notable moment for me was the chase sequence about halfway thru. The new theme song is basically a hip hop remake of the original television theme. The less said the better.
The tone of the show reminds me more of the ’07 film than the animated series. It’s light on one-liners but definitely aims to keep things upbeat. When the fighting starts the Turtles do get serious, to a point, and a visual cue kicks in where their eyes become completely white. It’s kind of interesting, but also kind of odd. They’ll still pause during battle though at inappropriate times to make a humorous observation. At first the Turtles appear to subsist on traditional turtle food, but early on in the episode are introduced to pizza and are hooked instantly. They’re shown to have a television (and Leonardo appears to model himself after a Captain Kirk like TV character) but appear mostly ignorant to the outside world. Either they don’t watch much TV or they just don’t pay attention.
The show itself introduces us to the Utroms of this universe. When I said Krang was coming back I may have spoke too soon as the Utroms are now called Krangs. They operate in the same way but are depicted as villains. They kidnap April and her scientist father, which is how the Turtles meet her. Donatello is instantly smitten with her, so we’ll have to see where that goes, but the Krangs are the primary antagonist for this hour of the show. Shredder is only shown in a cameo, but we can see he’s still the leader of the Foot (unless they choose to rename it) and it appears his head and face has been severely burnt (probably as a result of his last encounter with Yoshi).
This is definitely a kid’s show and older viewers should not expect this program to elevate itself beyond that. I kind of wish I had watched it with a kid to see how they would have reacted to the jokes and visual gags, most of which are standard kids show clichés. For me, none of it was very funny but the plot surprised me in that it kept me interested for an hour. I expected worse, but it seems like the Turtles have a legitimate chance to recapture the hearts of kids once again. I’ll probably tune in to a couple more of the episodes just to see what other characters from the past return but it’s not something I plan on sticking with.
Post script: I would categorize my early impressions of this show as tempered enthusiasm. I expected it would succeed at hitting its target audience but probably not those who grew up with the original cartoon series. I may have been wrong. I watched the first few episodes out of sheer curiosity, but now find myself watching them out of sheer enjoyment. The show is a lot wittier than I could have ever expected. Some of the Mikey humor is still a little much for adult tastes, but a lot of it is pretty clever and dialogue driven. The action pieces have also exceeded expectations. And the many nods to the old series (such as the ringtone on each turtle’s cell phone) is much appreciated. A lot of my early criticisms about the show’s visuals still remain and it’s become obvious the show doesn’t have the budget to create a thriving New York (seriously, there’s almost no traffic in the city when the turtles are out and about) but that should be expected given this is television and not a feature film. In short, this show is genuinely enjoyable and I have yet to view an episode that I did not enjoy on some level. That may not always be the case, but so far so good.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs at 11 AM Saturdays on Nick.