As a dyed in the shell Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan, I knew I wasn’t going to like the 2014 movie reboot. Yet for some strange reason I wasn’t frothing at the mouth in paroxysms of nerd rage over it. That reason is Nickelodeon’s 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Why should I waste my time with a bastardized movie when the perfect adaptation of TMNT is already on my TV?
It’s not that I expected to love the current cartoon either. It had huge shoes to fill since the 2003 cartoon series was so great. The new turtles’ three-toed elephant feet didn’t fill me with confidence either, though having the same number of toes as fingers makes sense after the initial shock wears off.) But the new series won me over after just the pilot. Now it’s become my preferred iteration of the TMNT; it’s just a shame Playmates’s toyline cuts so many corners or I’d be spending all my daily list income on it. If you’ve been ignoring it for superficial reasons, here are ten semi-SPOILERY reasons why you should give it a shot. If you only only experience one experience one version of the many varieties of TMNT, make it this one. (The original live-action movie is probably a better jumping on point for newbies because it’s both excellent and a smaller time commitment, but work with me here.) It’s in its third season now, but you’ll marathon through the episodes quickly; I must warn you that the current TMNT series is as addictive to humans as pizza is to terrapin teenagers.
10) It References all the Things
Like most geeky meda these days, this cartoon is chock full of Easter Eggs. These are the kind that add depth to the world-building without bogging the show down or confusing you if you don’t catch them all. Each episode has plenty of rewatch value for finding all the obscure in-jokes. Here’s a smattering:
The ringtone for the shellphones is the 1987 cartoon theme. Casey Jones uses East-Man sporting equipment named for co-creator Kevin Eastman. Mutagen Man’s voice box is branded with “Laird” in reference to the other co-creator, Peter Laird. The classic form of Mutagen Man appears on the cover of one of Michelangelo’s comic books. The source of Mutagen is similar to the source of Melange in Dune. The Kraang conspiracy theorist looks like Kolchak but shares Jack Kirby’s real name. Baxter Stockman has saucy photos of Ace Duck. April’s dad who looks like Joss Whedon was once called Wingnut, although I’m holding out for an appearance by the real deal. The Squirrelanoids are shameless riffs on Xenomorphs. Mondo Gecko’s shirt says Tokay, which is a type of gecko. “In Dreams” homaged A Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Tales From The Crypt, Evil Dead II, Meteor Man, the original Mirage comics, and the old TMNT RPG. Ray Fillet appears on a can of fish. The Kraang use gorilla bots with cannons in their butts like Astro Boy. Mr. Murakami is named after animator Glen Murakami. There are even a few sly references to the universally reviled NinjaTurtles: The Next Mutation like Venus painted on the side of the Party Wagon.
Although “teenage” is one of the four main components of the title, how the ages of the turtles are handled varies from one incarnation to the next. Sometimes they feel like they’re written like someone’s idea of teens who don’t actually know any. Other times their behavior doesn’t stand out from that of older heroes. The current cartoon, however, manages to get it just right. De-aging April, Karai, & Casey to be teens as well also change the story dynamic for the better. It’s much more understandable for inexperienced teens to goof up and more impressive when they succeed.
These turtles definitely come off as teenagers. Leonardo, for instance, takes leadership cues from cartoons to stifle his insecurities. Raphael’s grouchiness belies how much he loves hanging with his family. Michelangelo’s air-headedness is more acceptable when he’s literally immature. Donatello is frequently exasperated over everyone relying on him for scientific quick fixes. Writing the turtles as juveniles makes it much easier to buy their frequent lapses in good judgment. They specialize in getting on each others’ nerves, so Splinter’s strict discipline makes more sense when he’s played as a harried single dad trying to protect his adopted kids. It’s basically the best family sitcom you didn’t realize was a family sitcom, although what sitcom couldn’t be improved with copious amounts of ninja violence?
8) The Relationships Are Compelling
It’s not all zany humor and brutal violence, though. You also grow invested in the characters. The evolution of Raph’s relationship with Slash is quite interesting, but I’ll leave that unspoiled to focus on some more central bonds.
One of the best-written relationships is probably between April and Donatello. Each iteration of the TMNT tends to have some degree of romance between April and one or more of the turtles, but it runs the gamut between chaste flirting to hardcore offscreen bestiality, depending on who you ask. Here, Donatello’s unrequited crush on April feels most realistic because she’s also a nerdy teen. (Leonardo has a similar relationship with Karai too.) Although his crush is sometimes overbearing, particularly once Casey Jones becomes a vertex of the love triangle, he always treats her with respect. Eventually he understands April doesn’t love him, but they’re still able to stay friends. Donatello isn’t thrown under the bus for lusting after a human woman, nor is April for not reciprocating. This arc is solid relationship advice that never gets preachy. There are tons of shows aimed at adults that don’t handle relationships with half the maturity or delicacy.
Meanwhile, on the negative side of the emotional spectrum, the rivalry between Shredder and Splinter has been maximized to Greek tragedy proportions. The two were raised as brothers (Splinter starts off as the human Hamato Yoshi instead of his pet rat in this adaptation) until they had a falling out over the same woman, Teng Shen. Shredder killed her and got half his face burnt whilst destroying Splinter’s home. He also kidnapped their daughter, Karai, and raised her to loathe Splinter, who spent years believing she perished in the fire. Karai became Shredder’s most ironic weapon against Splinter until she learned of her true parentage, and Shredder took Karai’s change of heart as yet another personal affront by Splinter. The Shredder is so delusional that he projects his own failings onto Splinter to fuel his obsessive vendetta like a less-justified Dr. Doom. (Mr. Fantastic really is The Worst.) The psychological manipulation he puts Karai through earns him a spot among the top bad dads like Fire Lord Ozai, Malcolm Merlyn, and Green Goblin.
7) The Action Scenes Kick Shell
When you see “Ninja” in a title (unless you’re watching in a country where it’s called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles) you expect plenty of ninjutsu. This cartoon does not disappoint. The martial arts action in this series look terrific. A favorite move is when Raphael charges with his sais spinning at ridiculous speeds, which makes you wonder how much more effective Quicksilver (either the Fox or Disney version) would be if he was armed. Casey Jones compensates for his lack of ninja training with more kitbashed weapons than before. Even April is being trained to be a kunoichi by Splinter, so she’s not completely helpless anymore.
The fight staging is energetic, and the array of opponents presents varied obstacles including a gigantic General Traag with projectile lava vomit. It hits the sweet spot, where the attacks have weight to them but they’re not too graphic to be censored by Broadcast Standards & Practices. Because they’re fighting Foot-Bots (it started off with human Foot Ninjas recruited by Chuck Norris impersonator Chris Bradford) and Kraang Droids, the turtles are able to unleash lots of gratuitous ninja violence on flimsy robots!
6) The Voice Cast Sounds Great
Andrea Romano is involved in the voice work, which you’ve previously heard on such cartoons as Animaniacs, Pinky & the Brain, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, the Thundercats reboot, and basically every DC cartoon since Batman: The Animated Series. She does damn fine work, so it should go without saying that the voice acting is top notch in this TMNT toon. I wouldn’t have associated Jason Biggs or Seth Green with Leonardo, but they make it work. Sean Astin’s voice acting keeps Raphael’s constant irritability from becoming obnoxious. Greg Cipes is charmingly goofy as Michelangelo. Hoon Lee instills Splinter with a deeply authoitative timbre that makes for a great juxtaposition when he says something droll. Mae Whitman and Kelly Hu bring their usual A-games to voicing the only important women (I’m uncertain whether Kraang Prime is female, or even has a gender).
The voicework is also notable for giving roles to previous parts of the TMNT legacy. Fans were puzzled when Rob Paulsen was announced as Donatello after voicing Raphael in the original cartoon, but his highstrung take on Donatello made the character a fan favorite. Paulsen, Cam Clarke, Townsend Coleman, and Barry Gordon also reprised their roles for a cameo by the original cartoon turtles (unlike Turtles Forever). Corey Feldman, who voiced Donatello in two of the live-action TMNT movies, is the new Slash. The original voice of April O’Neil, Renae Jacobs, voices April’s mother. Mondo Gecko is voiced by Robbie Rist, who’d previously voiced Michelangelo in the TMNT trilogy. Even Kevin Eastman was allowed in on the action as Ice Cream Kitty!
5) The CGI Animation Looks Spectacular
I’m a fan of the dying breed of traditional 2-D animation so the news that the new cartoon would be CGI animated didn’t wow me. After all, the CGI animation for Green Lantern and Beware The Batman made everything look like bland rubber balloons. Fortunately, TMNT’s animators remembered to include artistry in their computer graphics.
Ciro Nieli’s characters skew closer to geometric shapes than photo-realism like most cartoons, but these go a step further. The characters, props, and backgrounds are covered in texture and details to give them personality. It’s the kind of attention to detail that you’d only expect in a theatrical animated film. In fact, it’s better than the CGI that the turtles had in their 2007 film! The turtle designs are more individualized than before, plus they don’t look like ‘roided-out giants with creepy nostrils wearing junk. Its color palette is vibrant, and although its NYC streets are often underpopulated, the environments are rendered so well and the movement so fluid it doesn’t matter. The show further capitalizes on its animated nature with dynamic framing, cuts, and frequent 2-D sequences within the cartoon. This show quickly became one I want poured into my eyes all the time.
4) It’s Consistently Funny
The TMNT franchise has always been humorous (yes, even when it was a gory Daredevil parody), but this may be the funniest iteration. The jokes feel organic instead of tacked on afterthoughts. Most of the humor is rooted in character, so Splinter is funny because they play up his stern demeanor rather than having him make awkward funnies. Michelangelo is allowed to naturally be the biggest provider of comedy relief. It helps that the show has an anything-goes approach to comedy so even the weirdest jokes fit. In that regard, it’s close to Teen Titans. There’s something in each episode to put a smile on your face.
My favorite running gag is that each season the turtles watch a different retro cartoon homage (Star Trek, Voltron, and Thundarr the Barbarian so far) that acts as a funhouse mirror to each episode’s plot. Another is the Kraang (their species is no longer called Utrom) always speaking circuitously in the third person like Mojo Jojo’s Mo’ Linguish. It starts off cute and then gets irritiating but the show commits to it so hard that it loops around to being funny again. Even Kraang Sub-Prime hangs a lampshade on it. It’s the kind of gag written specifically to troll Liz Lemon.
3) … But The Consequences Are Steep
Although it’s a hilarious show, that doesn’t mean it’s completely low stakes. The comedy serves as an effective counterbalance to its serious consequences. The best instance is the second series finale, in which the turtles unequivocally fail. The Kraang annex NYC and Shredder thrashes Leonardo so hard he changes voice actors. They have to abandon a wounded Splinter to recuperate in Northampton. The loss packed a huge sucker punch, because the humor concealed how dire things could get. It was the perfect event to show that that the series isn’t set on easy mode for the heroes.
Speaking of which, the Shredder has yet to lose his edge. Even though he’s a human with only one good eye, he’s capable of trouncing several mutants at once. His robot ninjas and competent mutated enforcers are actually less formidable and scary than him. He’s had some setbacks, but the turtles haven’t really had a decisive victory over him yet. He’s a far cry from the guy who used to go into conniptions after being defeated at the end of each episode in the original cartoon.
2) Mutant Madness!
My biggest complaint about the otherwise great 2003 TMNT cartoon was its dearth of mutants. (Replacing the lovable Rocksteady and Bebop with the charisma-free Hun was an unpardonable error.) The parade of kooky mutated animals was a highlight in the 1987 cartoon, the classic toy line, the TMNT Advntures comics, & now the IDW comics. Fortunately, the new cartoon realizes this. Instead of cramming in as many mutants as possible without any context like an X-Men movie, however, this cartoon does a good job introducing the characters before they mutate so they stand out beyond their appearances. The mutation sequences lean toward body horror, like Muckman’s own eye popping out of his head becoming autonomous as Joe Eyeball to acts as his Jimminy Cricket. Many of them have additional unique attributes to make them more challenenging adversaries. (it was a missed opportunity not to name the cyborg snakehead “Fishlegs.”) Speaking of which, there’s fantastic range in the designwork from “that’s what I expect a humanoid animal to look like,” as in Leatherhead; and “Lovecraftian nightmare fuel” like Ice Cream Kitty.
I can finally recommend the Nick toon without reservation now that it officially has Rocksteady & Bebop in it. They’re not identical to the bumbling duo from the original cartoon, but they’ve been updated in a way that’s fun rather than groanworthy. As Rocksteady, Ivan Steranko is a boorish Soviet stereotype (is it still okay to laugh at those?) wielding a giant golden hammer and sickle. In becoming Bebop, thief Anton Zeck saw his high tech Tron-suit merge with him during the mutation, giving him a versatile array of powers. (The duo are named after comic artists Jim Steranko and Mike Zeck.) They’re not as endearingly bumbling as their original incarnations, but it’s still fun to watch a rhinocerous and warthog throw down with turtles. (The IDW revamp has a more traditional take on them, if you prefer.) Let’s hope the next TMNT movie doesn’t tarnish the good names of Rocksteady and Bebop (the main inducement to see the sequel) either.
The secret of the Ooze is that it makes spectacular monstrosities! Mutate all the things! I give these mutants a “10/10: Would Rocksteady & Bebop again!”
1) It’s Made By People Who Love TMNT
The Michael Bay-produced movie was going to star alien turtles that weren’t actually mutants. Then it was going to whitewash the Shredder until the Internet pressured it into eleventh-hour reshoots. Clearly, it was not made by people that understand the property. I don’t get that impression from Nickelodeon’s cartoon. It feels like a love letter to the franchise by its fans. There’s so much care infused into every aspect of the series.
The new show borrows elements from the previous versions and blends them together into something delightful. Being able to pick and choose the best bits gives it an advantage, but it’s also humble enough not to try and pass itself off as the only TMNT that counts. No continuity erasing time travel paradoxes here! It even had a surprise guest appearance by the 1987 cartoon universe to offhandedly validate alternate takes on the franchise. While I’d like to see more characters from TMNT Adventures like the rest of The Mighty Mutanimals, Ninjara (or Alopex if there’s a rights issue), and Armaggon, but it’s doing a great job covering bases. Even the new additions to the mythos, like the Kraang-eating Newtralizer who looks like a Rob Liefeld parody, feel like they belong. It’s perfectly blends action, drama, and humor so that you can’t be bored. This is the platonic ideal of what a reboot should be. It has the Turtle Power!