That last batch of 5 episodes from season 4, representing the “season premier” for Saturday morning cartoon audiences, had a diverse selection of popular recurring or one-off personalities. It was a good selection of episodes!
This batch of the next 5 episodes? Well… There’s a Rat King episode in the mix somewhere, so they’ve got that going for them. Let’s just get through these. Quickly.
“Leonardo Lightens Up” (written by Dan DiStefano)
When Leonardo’s bossiness starts to get on everybody’s nerves, Donatello zaps him with a “personality modifier ray” that turns Leo into a wise-cracking slacker. Bad timing, as the evil Maestro G. Clef has begun using his high-frequency soundwave stereo to trash the city. Without one of Leo’s battle plans, the Turtles find they can’t get anywhere near him.
By the looks of it, this one was done by the Japanese animation studio utilized by Fred Wolf (again, animation studios weren’t named in the credits, so I can’t identify them). And with that in mind, “Leonardo Lightens Up” is a great example of how competent animation can really elevate a mediocre script.
DiStefano’s script isn’t bad per se, at least not by this show’s standards, but it would be one of the more forgettable episodes if the animation weren’t so enjoyable. The studio adds all these little flourishes to character expressions (particularly G. Clef) and small action sequences (the tiny burst of energy when Michelangelo’s sound-cancelling helmet explodes) and it makes moments that would otherwise be listless into something more visually stimulating.
Just the competency of animation in general helps the story along, as the third act focuses on Leonardo’s skateboarding prowess (ending in a skateboarding competition between him and Master Splinter) and you needed to be able to buy that Leo was a skilled skateboarder. The animators get the fluidity of his movements down and they sell the moment in a way sloppy animation would have utterly blown it. Likewise, Leonardo’s surfing in the second act looks pretty good.
There are a couple sequences where some animation screw-ups stick out, like when Raph hands Don a “socket wrench” but it’s drawn like an adjustable open-end wrench, or when all of April’s neutral poses are clearly traced from her model sheet art (arms akimbo, hips swayed). But jeez, most of the time these episodes are so packed with errors you just sort of tune them out. The fact that I’m actually noticing the handful of times the episode makes a mistake means that everything ELSE was competently done.
The script isn’t much to discuss, though G. Clef actually comes across as a fairly formidable foe for a one-shot bad guy. The skateboard match between Leo and Splinter was a fun surprise (particularly how Splinter wins it) and I rather liked Leo’s obvious solution for getting past the destructive soundwaves of Clef’s stereo (the cotton in earmuffs can’t break).
“Were-Rats from Channel 6” (written by David Wise)
After finding a canister of mutagen left behind by the Technodrome, the Rat King uses it to mutate Vernon and Irma into his were-rat slaves. Meanwhile, Bebop and Rocksteady come to Earth in order to steal explosives hidden in cheese crates.
If the previous episode was an example of how competent animation can elevate a mediocre script, then this episode is an example of how lousy animation can tank a pretty decent script. Because man, this one looks rough.
I give David Wise a hard time in these reviews (especially in this one; just you wait), but the guy really liked writing episodes with the Rat King. And for that, I’m grateful. Most guest villains in this show were lucky if they made a second or third appearance, so I can’t help but feel that if Wise hadn’t liked the guy so much, we’d have barely ever seen him.
Wise’s script is actually pretty solid and full of sly references to werewolf movies. There’s a gypsy woman who spouts a variation of the poem from Universal’s The Wolf Man and the scene where Vernon transforms into a were-rat while reading the news I can’t help but suspect was an homage to the conclusion of The Howling. Being a Wise script, he does overload it with an unnecessary secondary plot (Bebop and Rocksteady and the explosives), but it winds up connecting with the A-plot well-enough by the end of the third act, so it’s not the worst example of Wise over-stuffing a script.
In case you’re confused, it isn’t explained in the episode, but Bebop and Rocksteady are trying to steal the explosives so they can blast the Technodrome free from the lava it’s trapped in. Unfortunately, the episode where the volcano erupts, trapping the Technodrome (“The Dimension X Story”) won’t air until near the end of the season. So the script simply expects the audience to divine via context that Bebop and Rocksteady need the explosives because of the ongoing plot involving the Technodrome being trapped… but the episode that actually established that ongoing plot hasn’t aired yet.
Cartoon scheduling. Like anybody ever gave a fuck.
Anyway, what really hurts this episode is just how crude the animation is. There are cels that don’t lineup with the background paintings, so you get moments like where Donatello is supposed to be turning the knob of the TV but is instead jiggling the corner of the box. There are overlay screw-ups that lead to objects passing through other objects like they were intangible, such as near the end of the episode where the plane’s wing just phases through another plane. And then there’s just a ton of cases of badly drawn… everything. It can get perplexing. I mean, there’s a scene where one of the gangsters is at a restaurant and he’s eating his dinner with, I don’t know, a can-opener? I think it was supposed to be a fork, but it’s the worst fork I’ve ever seen. And how hard is it to draw a fork, anyway? I mean come on, people.
There’s a lot I like about this episode and it’s one of Wise’s better scripts, but the blundering animation really takes it down a peg.
“Funny, They Shrunk Michelangelo” (written by Michael Edens)
When diminutive crackpot Talbot Breech begins shrinking ships for his collection, he accidentally zaps a surfing Michelangelo with his miniaturization ray. Before Michelangelo can return to his normal size and save the ships, he has to deal with a hungry cat.
A shrinking episode? But we already HAD one of these! Back in season 2! Are the writers so fresh out of ideas that they’re going back to the same well already?
The shrinking episode is a staple of Saturday morning cartoons. It is the most generic, simple, clichéd conflict and it’s one that nearly EVERY kid’s cartoon does. It’s at the point where the shrinking episode is such a foregone conclusion that you can’t really hold it against a cartoon for doing it. We all know the shrinking episode is going to happen eventually, so let’s just get it out of the way and be done with it.
But we already got it out of the way in the second season with “The Incredible Shrinking Turtles”. Now we’re doing it all over again? And it’s not even a *good*shrinking episode, either. The entire second act consists of Michelangelo being chased around by a cat in a gutless spoof of Tom & Jerry cartoons. Jeez, if you’re going to do an homage to Tom & Jerry and not even bother with the violence, then why bother? Much of the third act also involves the stupid cat, though April and Vernon also get shrunk and join in the antics for a couple minutes.
While the animation is consistent, other elements of production still find a way to screw things up. Early after getting shrunk, Michelangelo finds that his Turtlecom won’t work. In the third act, however, he uses it to contact the other Turtles to come to his rescue. The idea might have been that once he was in closer range to the other Turtlecoms he could get a signal, but it’s never explained and comes across like the writers just forgot about the conflict they setup. Also, when the characters are shrunk, they all talk with pitched-up voices like chipmunks. Except when they don’t. The sound mixer failed to process some of April’s and Vernon’s dialogue, so the pitch of their voices keep shifting back and forth between sounding like Alvin and sounding like they’re speaking into a coffee can.
I harped on this in an earlier review, but for much of this and the next season, the writers noticeably begin running out of ideas and start recycling some of their older plotlines. So we’re going to get a lot of conflicts and situations we’ve already seen before.
But redoing the shrinking episode is just unheard of. A shrinking episode by definition is already bottom of the barrel, lazy writing. Doing it all over again is like, what, writing on your lunch break?
“The Big Zipp Attack” (written by David Wise)
While Shredder steals the rigidium spire off a skyscraper to repair the Technodrome’s busted axel, a metal munching menace from Dimension X called a “Zipp” escapes to Earth. The Turtles have their hands full with the hungry devil and the more it eats, the more it multiplies.
This is David Wise’s most shameless hour. I’ve mentioned in the past that he was notorious for recycling his older scripts between series, but this… this one got around. It started out as an episode of The Transformers called “Kremzeek”. It hit all the same notes; a “cute” little monster starts wreaking havoc on Earth, the heroes try to stop it, the thing multiplies out of control, the heroes fuse it together into one giant monster, then when they think they’ve destroyed it at the very end, one turns out to have survived and they go chasing it into the distance, cue iris out.
“The Big Zipp Attack” was recycled wholesale from “Kremzeek”, but that wouldn’t be the last Saturday morning animation would see of it. Wise recycled it one final time for Disney’s Mighty Ducks cartoon. And how good of a job did he do at covering his tracks? Well, that episode was titled “Zap Attack”. Yeah. “Zap Attack”.
Wise got paid three times for the same script and all it cost him was every ounce of creative integrity. But hey, it’s a small price to pay for a sweet gig like the Mighty Ducks cartoon, right?
Anyway, if you ignore the fact that “The Big Zipp Attack” was another one of Wise’s script recycling jobs, it still doesn’t bring anything new to the table. A mischievous creature from Dimension X using its wacky powers to cause trouble for the Turtles? We’ve already seen that before in “The Grybyx”, “Mr. Ogg Goes to Town” and “Four Turtles and a Baby”. Wise recycled the script for a plot concept the show had already done three times over by now. And HE was the story editor!
…So I guess I have to say something nice about this episode, huh? Okay, let me think for a second.
Alright, it opens with a parody of “The Heidi Bowl” which is a pretty obscure thing to spoof, so I’ll give Wise credit for that. Also, it has some pretty good animation which feels like a bit of a waste, considering the material.
Incidentally, there’s some continuity to talk about with this episode. It features the recurring season 4 character Donald J. Lofty (who owns the skyscraper with the rigidium spire). He made his first appearance in “Slash, the Evil Turtle from Dimension X” where he mentioned that the Turtles had helped him out in the past. So I guess that means that “Slash…” was supposed to take place after this episode. Not surprising, since the continuity of this season is all over the freakin’ place. Lofty will make one final appearance in “Rebel Without a Fin”.
“Donatello Makes Time” (written by Dennis Marks)
Donatello builds a device which can stop time and it’s immediately stolen by the mad Professor Lloyd Cycloid. The Turtles have to get it back before Cycloid uses it to gather parts for a machine to conquer the world, but every time they try, he freezes them in their tracks.
Well, at least this batch ends on a pretty okay note. “Donatello Makes Time” features a conflict that’s actually fresh to this series, and after the last few episodes, that’s something to be grateful for. Professor Cycloid is another one of those one-shot villains and he isn’t particularly interesting, especially considering how dime-a-dozen mad scientist bad guys are in this series. On the plus side, he has a lot of energy in his voice over performance, which makes him pretty fun to listen to even if he’s just babbling on with the usual “take over the world” shtick. He sounds familiar, though I’m loathe to admit I can’t quite place who his actor is (and the credits don’t list most of the guest actors). So hey, if anybody recognizes his voice, leave a comment. This is driving me crazy.
I think what bums me out about this episode is that when the first act concludes, it looks like the story is going to go in a really interesting direction. Cycloid freezes the Turtles and Splinter gasps that they’ll be trapped that way forever unless HE does something to save them. So as we break for a commercial, this actually looks like it’s going to be a “Splinter saves the day” episode with him getting the spotlight for the last two acts; something we’ve rarely seen. When the break ends and the second act opens, the effects of the ray simply wear off, the Turtles rally and Splinter fades back into the scenery. Another day, Sensei. Another day.
On the subject of scenery, the studio in charge of photography seemed to have some trouble with the background paintings. There’s a bizarre moment where Donatello is standing outside the door to Cycloid’s lab and the background painting is accidentally on its side, making the whole room look topsy-turvy.
Another oddity is a moment where they recycle a background from “The Big Zipp Attack”. In that episode, the background represented a museum of natural history. In this episode, it’s identified as a museum of ancient history. Same background, two different museums. The actual name over the entrance to the building says “Hall of Space”, thus making me think this same background was probably used to represent an air and space museum in another episode, too. Hey, whatever saves money.
The actual animation in the episode is, again, by the Japanese studio and it’s pretty nice to look at. Some of the less exciting moments are done at a choppier frame rate while the budget is spent on the more action-oriented sequences (like the Turtles on their jet skis, which look pretty good), but that’s just your standard Japanese animating philosophy at work. I’m starting to notice that the Japanese studio draws the Turtles with these weird neutral faces where their eyes are wide and their mouths are always making a curious “o” shape. Watch a few of the Japanese-animated episodes in a row; you’ll see what I mean.
So like I said in the intro, this batch wasn’t especially good. On the bright side, the next batch of five features a number of popular characters, either recurring faces or tie-ins with the toyline. Lotus Blossom will make her second and final appearance, Bugman will make his first appearance, Rhino-Man and Mighty Hog will show up (they got action figures, if you remember), and we’ll even get an appearance from not-quite-Ray Fillet (there’s a story behind that; I’ll tell you about it next time). Also, David Wise recycling another Transformers script because man, writing is haaaaaaaaaard.
Pick up the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Fred Wolf Original Series – Season 4 DVD from Amazon today and save 26% off the purchase price.
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