Ninja Turtles Find a New Balance on Nickelodeon
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Peter Laird, who co-created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Kevin Eastman back in the ’80s, once spoke out about what may be the most quintessential difference between the original 1980s Ninja Turtles cartoon, and the 4Kids cartoon that aired during the 2000s. He described the original cartoon as “humor with a little bit of action. In contrast, the second show (which Laird consulted on) was “action with humor.”
This new Nickelodeon CGI series brings a lot of new stuff to the table. But what I came away from this past weekend’s hour-long premiere was how well the show pulled off the action-humor balancing act. The scale tips more toward humor. But the action sequences are so well done that you appreciate them much more. The climax of the “Rise of the Turtles” two-parter featured Donatello dangling from a helicopter while the other Turtles took on a giant mutant insect. It was the most compelling, suspenseful piece of TMNT action I can remember seeing on TV. As a lifelong fan, I was genuinely impressed.
The story we get here is familiar, but with some new twists. For this series, the backstory is that ninja master Hamato Yoshi buys some pet turtles, then got into a scuffle with some thugs, who we later learn were aliens in disguise. During the fight, Yoshi and the turtles get doused with a strange glowing ooze. Suddenly Yoshi finds himself transforming into an anthropomorphic rat, and his turtles have doubled in size and have their own anthropomorphic statures. Going into exile in the sewers of New York City, Yoshi takes the name of Splinter and raises the turtles as his sons, training them in the way of the ninja. He names them after famous renaissance painters: Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael. Fast forward 15 years and our teenage turtles are ready to see the surface world for the first time. They get there just in time to see young April O’Neil and her father, scientist Kirby O’Neil, ambushed by men who sound quite similar to the ones who attacked Hamato Yoshi all those years ago. The Turtles take it upon themselves to save April and her father, not knowing how closely connected this crisis is to their own origins.
The shellhead in me came away from this show not only impressed, but relieved. Based on some of the footage we’d seen leading up to the premiere, it looked like the series was going to be really goofy, i.e. something akin to Spongebob Squarepants. Yes, that goofy humor is there. Most of it comes from Michelangelo, voiced by Greg Cipes. I was afraid the showrunners were turning him into a character akin to Jar Jar Binks, who would constantly jump around and scream in a jazzed up voice to entertain the smaller children. New Mikey does have some Jar Jar tendencies, but they’re fairly few and far between. A lot of the jokes actually hit their mark, which surprised me considering how loud and obnoxious kids TV can be.
I also enjoyed the fact that we meet the Turtles before they’ve ever journeyed above ground, or engaged in any kind of combat with a real enemy. Leonardo has never been a leader before, so he’s prone to rookie mistakes. The boys have never worked as a team before, so they crowd each other during their first fight together. They haven’t even tasted their first pizza yet! They’re very naive, yet still pure of heart. I suspect much of this first season will be about them rising up and becoming a real team, as opposed to bickering brothers.
The show is taking a big step outside the box by portraying Donatello as more of a sensitive character. Typically, he’s portrayed as a pretty one-dimensional gearhead. But he seems to have significantly more depth in this series. They even seem to be driving at a romantic connection between he and April, which is something we’ve never seen before in any medium. The Turtles have always found April attractive, and said things like “She’s a babe!” But it’s never gone any deeper than that. Now, this version of Donny has the hots for her. I like that they made April the same age as the Turtles, because it creates a new kind of connection between them. But I’m curious as to how this story will pan out. Maybe, if it’s done right. They’re off to a good start with Don admiring her from afar.
Speaking of Donatello, it’s incredibly surreal to hear Rob Paulsen, who voiced Raphael on the original cartoon show, voicing Donny on this one. He’s a good fit for this version of the character, just as he was a good fit for the witty, sarcastic Raphael of the ’80s and ’90s. I also particularly enjoyed Hoon Lee’s performance as Splinter. Somehow it seemed fresh, yet still reminiscent of what has come before. The only casting choice I’m not sure about is Kevin Michael Richardson as Shredder. But we haven’t seen enough of Shredhead yet to give him a fair shake at it.
Some of the old school TMNT fans may not appreciate the cartoony look of this show, especially when you compare it to some of the very serious, straight-laced works of Eastman and Laird. But when you consider the network this show is on, the audience they’re shooting for, and style the 4Kids show was done in, this is a natural progression. I don’t always appreciate some of the more zany effects, some of which look rather comic book-like, but they match the tone of the show. At certain key points the CGI animation will be intercut with comic style images, which is interesting. I also liked some of the more subtle traits added to the Turtles, such as Raphael’s scar and Michelangelo’s freckles.
There are some smaller details I can nitpick at, aside from Richardson’s voice, the most notable is the fact that the wonderful character of Krang has been reinterpreted for this series as a race of aliens called the Kraang. But for now, these are minor issues. On the whole, I was very pleased with what I saw. This series is capable of sustaining the franchise, much like the original one did. As a lifelong fan, I can now take comfort in knowing that some of my favorite characters are in good hands.
For more Ninja Turtles, check out these past editions of Blatant Insubordination: “Teenage Alien Ninja Turtles,” “What I Learned From Turtles in Time,” and “What I Learned From the Ninja Turtles Arcade Game.“
Front page image from tv.com. Image 1 from turntherightcorner.com. Image 2 from huffingtonpost.com. Image 3 from nick.com. Image 4 from poptower.com. Image 5 from nickalive.blogspot.com.