I have to hand it to Nickelodeon: The attitude and approach of their 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon came at just the right time. The 2003 TMNT cartoon produced by 4Kids was right for its time, too; eschewing all elements from the 1987 Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon and instead adapting concepts exclusively from the original Mirage comics. It was a necessary break from the Fred Wolf era and introduced audiences to classic stories, characters and ideas from the source material they might otherwise have never been aware of.
But after 6 years and 156 episodes, I think many of us were ready to see some of the familiar characters and elements from the Fred Wolf cartoon again. Even more so after the TV movie Turtles Forever reminded us how fun and weird the old ‘80s cartoon could be.
Nickelodeon’s TMNT series, while reintroducing many characters and elements from the old Fred Wolf days of Turtlemania (such as Metalhead, Traag, Dimension X and Hamato Yoshi being Splinter), isn’t necessarily a straight recreation of that old cartoon, either. Nor is it a straight adaptation of the Mirage comics like the 4Kids series was.
Instead, the Nick cartoon is its own completely unique animal, borrowing ideas from every incarnation of the franchise, making it something of an “Ultimate TMNT”. The IDW comic had taken that approach a year before this series aired and its one I find very exciting. Because as big a fan as I am of the Mirage comics, I grew up with the old cartoon and toyline first.
So let’s take a look at the first three episodes of season 1 and see just how show runner Ciro Nieli went about recreating the Ninja Turtles.
Rise of the Turtles, Part 1 (written by Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia)
It’s their 15th birthday and as a gift, Splinter allows the Turtles to visit the surface world for the first time. During their first night out, they spot teenager April O’Neil and her father getting kidnapped by weird alien brains in robot bodies.
This is the first episode, so I’m going to have more to say on it than any of the others. Bear with me.
“Rise of the Turtles, Part 1” takes a cue from the first episode of the 4Kids TMNT series in that it wastes no time going straight to the Turtles. Kids all over the world already know who they are so why drag things out, building up to their introduction? We already saw the title sequence, we aren’t gonna be surprised by talking turtles. Likewise, this introductory episode expects a certain level of familiarity with the characters and their origins on behalf of the audience. They breeze through the story of their mutation and let a few set pieces establish things at the getgo, then jump straight into the fun. This series is coming only 3 years off the end of the 4Kids cartoon; no need to presume the kids at home have no clue who the Turtles are or where they came from.
To make comparisons, the Nick TMNT series is in many ways, tonally and in execution, an antithesis to the previous 4Kids TMNT series. The 4Kids cartoon, enjoyable as it was, prided lengthy story arcs over most everything else (how often were plots padded out into tediously serialized 3 or 5-parters?). It was an epic series and the direction worked for it, but you know what it never handled well? Humor. Jokes didn’t just die in the 4Kids series, they died screaming in agony as we all watched in awkward, uncomfortable torment. 4Kids Michelangelo is probably the worst incarnation of the character in franchise history and I’d chalk that up to his being burdened with all the “comedy relief.” A gruesome fate when the writers couldn’t pen jokes to save their lives.
But the humor in the Nick TMNT series is incredibly sharp. The jokes are relentless, but they’re fast paced, witty and actually enhance the characters and their relationships. No one is boring in this show, even the characters who are most well known for being tiresome sticks in the mud.
Splinter’s ponderous lectures are dotted with self-aware gags as he weaves confusing, contradictory nonsense that creates the illusion of wisdom (when he’s really just winging it). The writers also strike a great balance between his being a teacher and a father. I think the best example is when he permits the Turtles to go to the surface. He begins by lecturing them on the ways of the ninja, but gradually devolves into overprotective parental rhetoric about avoiding strangers and looking both ways before crossing the street. Hoon Lee’s performance adds a lot to the humor and man, it’s just nice not to have to hear an American actor struggling to fake a generic “Asian” accent; this Splinter sounds very natural.
But this show’s crowning achievement has to be Leonardo. He has NEVER been this much fun before (well, he’s never been fun before PERIOD, but that’s beside the point). Leonardo is still a 15 year-old kid and wants to be a good leader, so he has to look for role models wherever he can find them in the sewers. There’s Splinter, of course, but there’s also the show’s best running gag in the form of “Space Heroes”, a faux-vintage cartoon in the vein of Star Trek the Animated Series which Leonardo watches religiously. Leo patterns himself after the cartoon’s Captain Ryan and tends to act like a dork whenever he tries to copy his fictional idol in combat (delivering lame speeches and quips, for instance). The writers are careful not to overuse the gag, but again, it’s impressive to have a goofy, entertaining Leonardo for a change who still feels like Leonardo. Jason Biggs deserves a lot of credit in the delivery, trying his hardest to keep Leo “serious” while keeping him from being a freakin’ robot.
I was incredulous about Greg Cipes being cast as Michelangelo and the first few episodes of the Nick series didn’t exactly sell me on the portrayal. However, this Mikey has a weird way of growing on you and I gradually began to get used to hearing Cipes’s voice out of the orange bandana. Mikey is an idiot spaz more-so than ever before, but again, the sharp writing does wonders in endearing him to the audience and making his antics work on screen. Playing him as the youngest sibling in appearance, voice and personality is a nice touch. But damn if it didn’t take me a while to stop loathing “Booyakasha”.
Donatello’s big gimmick in this new series is that he’s in love with April (who doesn’t get much screen time in this episode). I’m not normally a fan of Turtle/human romance plots, but that’s usually because they’ve never been done well in the past. The writers kind of drag it out in the series in the form of endless gags centered around awkward flirting on Don’s part, but it’s cute and they don’t pigeon-hole Don into being “April’s stalker” or anything. It’s more subdued than I thought it would be and Don is perfectly capable of interacting with April for entire episodes without creeping on her. Also, Rob Paulsen voices Don, and while it may sound a little weird hearing ‘80s Raphael’s voice coming out of Donatello’s mouth, he delivers a great performance.
Lastly, this version of Raph also benefits from the increase in humor. It lightens him up so that his rebellious shenanigans are more amusing than angsty. I’ll save that commentary for “Turtle Temper”, though. Sean Astin gives him a tough voice without going overboard into Brooklyn accent territory like the movies and 4Kids cartoon. He also actually sounds suitably young for a change and not like he’s 40 while his brothers are still teens.
The series is produced by Nickelodeon Animation Studios while, according to the credits, the actual animation is provided by a studio called Technicolor India. Wow, we outsource our animation to India, now? That’s a new one on me. Anyhow, they do really good work. When I heard this series was going to be CG, I was anticipating something grotesquely fugly like Penguins of Madagascar, so I was pleasantly surprised with how well the show wound up looking. Lots of great camerawork you can’t get in traditional cel animation (at least without spending a fortune) and the characters never fail to emote. There are the usual drawbacks inherent in made-on-a-TV-budget CG animation, such as a major metropolitan city being completely devoid of life (because character models are expensive to produce), but that just goes with the territory (and it isn’t nearly as awful as in Transformers: Prime).
One of the show runners is Ciro Nieli, whose name might be familiar if you’ve seen Teen Titans or Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go. Essentially, the guy is a colossal weeaboo/otaku/Japanophile/whatever and all his shows have the same visual style of mimicking anime clichés to the breaking point. I think this is where the limits of CG animation and the expense in modeling characters actually came to the rescue. While loathsome “anime style” visual gags are still ever-present (characters morphing into big-headed “super deformed” midgets when excited or giant sweat drops and veins hovering over their heads to let us know they’re angry), they aren’t done up to even a fraction of the excess seen in Nieli’s previous shows. I actually find myself not especially bothered with them in the Nick TMNT cartoon because they’re utilized with restraint instead of trotted out every couple of seconds.
Anyhow, there are some moments in the script that don’t exactly hold up under scrutiny (how can the Turtles have a TV but not know what pizza is?), and some dodgy moments in the animation (said pizza is remarkably symmetrical to the point where it doesn’t look like food), but if I keep talking about the first episode this article is never going to end. So let’s move on.
Rise of the Turtles, Part 2 (written by Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia)
After April gets kidnapped by the Kraang aliens, the Turtles come to her rescue. Before they can get to her, however, they’ll have to fight their way past the mutant plant Snakeweed.
Hey, I didn’t know Gumby was gonna be in this show!
Sorry. With his green complexion, lopsided head, big blocky feet and general malleability, Snakeweed just reminds me of Gumby, that’s all.
Speaking of Snakeweed, he’s the first of many evil mutants introduced in this first season. While it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this TMNT cartoon would be featuring mutant adversaries, the quantity across 26 episodes is rather striking. People often chide the old Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon for being “mutant of the week”, but it didn’t introduce mutant bad guys nearly as flippantly as this show.
This second half of “Rise of the Turtles” is your typical April-rescuing scenario. They try to get a little more progressive by showing April vainly trying to escape on her own before the Turtles come to her aid, but it’s sort of an empty gesture. But again, I’ll repeat that even when the plots are rather lackluster, the episodes are pepped up with the sharp sense of humor and strong character chemistry. Even if Mikey can get a little obnoxious, it’s really fun to watch these Turtles play off each other. They all have their own distinct relationships with one another and none of the dialogue ever feels bland or interchangeable; it’s all specifically tailored to each personality.
I remarked earlier about the positive qualities CG animation brings to the table, namely the freedom to move the camera, and there’s a great sequence near the end of this episode that illustrates why CG animation can be so cool. When Donatello rescues April from the helicopter, the camera follows him as he swings around underneath the chopper, then tracks ahead of him as he falls from the sky, catches April and jumps and tumbles down rooftop levels and around corners until he sticks the landing on the ground. It looks fantastic and is a sequence that just isn’t as feasible in traditional animation.
We also get the obligatory Oroku Saki/Hamato Yoshi backstory dump; their rivalry over Tang Shen, Yoshi’s exile to America, etc. A new character, Yoshi’s infant daughter Miwa is tossed into the mix and that’ll throw a nice wrench into things later this season. Kevin Michael Richardson makes for a good Shredder, too. A very ominous baritone.
Turtle Temper (written by Jeremy Shipp)
When a big fat obnoxious slob gets footage of the Turtles fighting the Kraang, the TMNT have to convince him to hand over the video instead of selling it. Meanwhile, Raph’s temper is constantly jeopardizing their missions, which may see him grounded from any further adventures unless he shapes up.
Oh boy, the mandatory “Raph deals with his anger issues” episode. Here we go agai—Wait, what? This was actually really funny and entertaining? Well, I’ll be damned.
Much like Leonardo, Raphael is a character constantly stuck in his niche. He has to always be the angry rebel and he can never grow or change because then he just wouldn’t “Raph” anymore. But again like Leo, the writers for the Nick cartoon managed to make Raph’s anger only an aspect of his character rather than the whole damn thing. It doesn’t consume him or singularly define him and by the third episode they’re already past it, setting him free to do other things as the series progresses. Thank God.
But what I enjoyed more was the *way* they addressed Raph’s temper. Splinter doesn’t coddle him like he did in the 4Kids series. Or before that, the first live-action movie. Or before *that*, the Mirage comics. Raph screwed up big time thanks to his attitude and rather than give him a soothing lecture about control or whatever, he basically tells him to man-up and stop being such a crybaby about things. It was a totally different approach to the mandatory “Raph deals with anger issues” story and all the better for it. The Nickelodeon writers are great at taking aspects of the TMNT mythology done a hundred times over and finding new angles.
The fat slob was a great character and an excellent foil for Raph. A loudmouth, greedy, rude nobody with absolutely no sense of empathy or tact. And to top it all off, he’s voiced by Lewis Black. Black has a very distinct voice and a lot of energy, so I’ve always wondered why he’s done so little voice acting over the years; he’s a natural fit. Duck Dodgers and Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated are the only other cartoons I recall hearing him in and he was superb in both.
So yeah, the character was great… And then he gets mutated into Spider Bytez.
This show is VERY preoccupied with selling toys and, I dunno, I just can’t cut it the same slack that I did for the Fred Wolf or 4Kids cartoons. I think it’s because this show is written so much better than either of them that I hold it to a higher standard. But fact of the matter is, the fat slob becomes Spider Bytez in the last minutes of the episode and it’s entirely random and meaningless (other than to promote the action figure, of course). What’s worse is that it happens the same way Snakeweed got mutated and we’ll witness this uninspired tactic several more times as the first season progresses (human bad guy stumbles, ooze accidentally spills on them, rinse and repeat for 3 or 4 more toys). And with this being Spider Bytez’s only appearance this season, it doesn’t lead to any narrative payoff, either. Maybe he’ll show up next season… if Nick can afford to get Lewis Black back, I guess.
As for Spider Bytez, I really hate the name and I really hate the design. I’ll give the artists credit for going a very atypical route for an anthropomorphic spider, but he basically just looks like a tennis ball with a mouth and sticks coming out of his head. And the name doesn’t even make sense. Why “Bytez”? Like, “byte”… a unit of computer memory? That would work if he was maybe a cyborg mutant or something, but nah, he’s just a spider. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and presume that Playmates had intended him to be “Spider Bites”, but after failing to secure the trademark, changed it to the nonsense name “Spider Bytez”.
Anyway, the episode is strong for the first 2/3. Basically, everything until the fat slob becomes Spider Bytez, then it’s all downhill. The storyboarders, directors and animators do their best to make the fight scene as exciting as possible and Spider Bytez does admittedly show off some decent moves for such a stupid-looking character, but it’s mostly just a whole lot of spitting (his main power isn’t so much web-related as it is acidic loogies for some reason).
So that’s the first three episodes of season 1. Aside from the aforementioned overuse of ooze to create action figures, the series only proceeds to get better and better. A strong start, to say the least.