When I first began hearing news about the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon–this one produced by Nickelodeon–I wasn’t sure what to think. While I was skeptical of the idea that it would win my heart the way the previous TMNT series did, several of the ideas seemed intriguing, and the direction of the toon didn’t seem like a bad one to go with. Plus, with it being backed by Nickelodeon, there was no way it wasn’t going to have the best production values of any of the series to date.
The show’s two-part pilot “Rise of the Turtles” aired today, introducing the turtles, Splinter, April, and the two groups who appear to be the main antagonists for the immediate future, the Kraang and The Foot. Given that the franchise has historically had very good first episodes, this version had a lot to live up to, and while it doesn’t quite succeed in that regard, it has enough interesting bits to keep me watching, at least for a while.
If we were to measure the series on a scale from A to 10, where A is the original comic book and 10 is the original cartoon, this incarnation probably rates a nine. It takes a lot of liberties with the original material, some of them intriguing—Splinter was a father before he ever met the turtles (*), the Utroms are now The Kraang and have identical-looking human disguises and an amusingly stilted speech patterns—and some which I’m not at all sure work—April is now the turtles’ age. It’s also far more focused on being a funny show than it is in being an exciting or emotionally complex show, although shows like Adventure Time have taught me that initial impressions can be misleading. In any case, what it does it does reasonably well; all in all, it feels like a worthwhile incarnation of the series—moreso than the IDW comics, anyway.
The Look – While the series is mostly CGI, there are aspects of it that are hand-drawn (or at least hand-drawn-looking), such as various backgrounds and flashbacks. The combination works shockingly well. Similarly, the backgrounds are a definitive highlight, particularly the city streets, which are an aesthetic treat—it’s the best New York has ever seen in any of the three series. As for the actual characters, they look alright. Some work better than others—the Kraang look great; April doesn’t—but it’s not making me wish for the death of whomever conceived the series as a CGI one.
The Kraang – One of the things I feel good children’s cartoons share is the ability to be unsettling, and this show’s treatment of the Utroms—now named after one of the original cartoon’s most distinctive villains—is the closest it gets to that so far. There schtick makes it somewhat unintuitive to think of them as viable long-term villains, and I’m very curious to see how the creators make that work.
The voice acting – While there are, unsurprisingly, several cases of characters who sound like characters from other shows–Michelangelo sounds like Beast Boy, Shredder sounds like Kevin Michael Richardson, Donatello sounds like Raphael–everyone is competent and well cast. Jason Biggs as Leonardo, in particular, stands out, because he’s the sort of actor whom I never would have thought of casting and yet works incredibly well. While he probably won’t be my favorite person to ever voice the character–I am irrevocably biased in favor of the 4Kids series–it’s a nice surprise. And while Andrea Romano has always been one of the best in the Voice Directing biz, I kinda wish Susan Blu had been chosen for the job, since I liked the idea of her being the only person involved in all three shows.
Splinter – It’s pretty hard to get Splinter wrong, but I’m surprised at how much I like this version of the character. Less authoritarian than the 4Kids version initially was but more caring than the original toon incarnation, he feels like an actual good parent, which feels somewhat weird. Plus, he’s funny: the best moments in the episodes tend to involve him.
The Humor – While a lot of the jokes feel like the sort that wouldn’t feel out of place in Avatar, rather than humor that feels like TMNT humor (say, for example, the line about cricket in the original movie) a fair amount of them work, which helps keep the show fun throughout.
What I’m ambivalent about:
The turtles – While the turtles are appropriately turtle-like and adhere to their established quirks nicely (although not slavishly so: in the first issue we see Raphael reading horror comic books, and find out that Leo is a Star Trek fan), there are bits that I’m not sure about, such as the fact that they’re being played off as not quite as capable as they usually are, and not having the hang of working as a team: it’s an interesting beat, but I’m not sure if its a good one. Also, Mikey is possibly the dumbest he’s ever been.
The Theme song – Ironically, the part that doesn’t work is the beginning, which references the original song. The rest is pretty all right, and far better than any of the 4Kids efforts. The original is still the best, though.
Snake – TMNT cartoons wouldn’t be TMNT cartoons if they didn’t introduce new characters to the ‘verse, and aside from April’s father (here named Kirby),who had been mentioned in the comics but never actually appeared there, this episode had Snake, a scuzzy-looking human who serves the Kraang in some ambiguous capacity, and who has no distinguishing characteristics other than appearing for more than a second, and was therefore destined to become a mutant. He does, and while he looks rather cool, I don’t see him carrying an episode, which makes me wonder why he wasn’t disposed of here.
What doesn’t work:
April – Due to its set-up, TMNT has never not been a sausagefest. When the core cast as established in the first years of the book consists of seven men and one woman, one needs to create a lot of new characters and places to fit them in before you reach anything resembling gender parity, and since this is unlikely to happen, I’ve just grown to accept that this is one of those properties where women make up 2% of the population, and to just hope that those women who *do* appear aren’t characterized by fail. Since April is the only female character in these episodes, she pretty much had the unenviable task of representing all of them, which means my expectations were especially high.
As debuts for April go, this is probably the worst from both a writing and feminist standpoints. While her debuts have tended to be about her–we follow her around and see what her professional life is like before she met the turtles–here, we see her walking around with her dad, and the first thing we’re told is that Don has immediately fallen for her.
Putting aside the issue that I very much prefer my turtles to be mostly asexual, I hatehatehatehatehatehate the idea of April being presented first and foremost as a love interest. Not only is it sexist as heck, it feels wrong for the particular character. Between that and the age down, I’m left half-wishing they’d used a different character instead.
The gratuitous Japanese – While this isn’t a particularly new thing to the turtles, it feels particularly gratuitous here, and I don’t feel it’s at all necessary. Yes, Splinter is Japanese, and the turtles are ninja; the viewers don’t need to have them say things like 止め and お願いします when they can say “stop” and “please”.
The Humor – While the verbal jokes work half the time, attempts at visual humor usually fall flat. The series can do without without stuff like the teardrops and goofy eyes. Plus, Michelangelo continues to be the official turtle butt-monkey, in a way that is not particularly charming. There’s also bits which feel like they’re sacrificing consistency for humor, which I’m not a big fan of.
The Turtles – Specifically, the way they look, with various physical differences that correspond to their various personality quirks—-Mikey has freckles and a shorter bandanna which make him look younger, Don has a gap tooth and is noticeably thinner, Raph has cracked plastron and a frayed bandanna, etc. While it’s not taken to the extent of say, Sean Galloway’s redesign (which I like artistically but hate conceptually), it makes me suspect that the series is content with taking the easy way out when it suits its purposes. Of course the geekiest turtle also looks the most like one. Of course. Why couldn’t Leo have the gap in his tooth?
Assorted sloppiness – Given how professional the final product is, there are a few bits that feel off. For example, the part where the turtles apparently don’t know what pizza is despite the fact that there’s pizza-themed decorations on their lair. Or the idea that Splinter stepping on a rat with his shoe is apparently enough to get him mutated to one when affected by the ooze (apparently we’re working under original toon rules, basing the mutations on whatever organism those affected last touched).
So yeah: while I really wish it aired at different time—between it and Young Justice, I’m once again going to have to find another moment to watch Melissa Harris-Perry—I’m really glad this series exists, and hope it can carve out its own fandom the way the previous series have done.
If you’re an American, the first two episodes of the series can be seen legally and for free on Nick’s TMNT page.
(*) Yes, this is technically also true of the IDW comics. I do think there’s a difference between raising somebody who wasn’t the turtles and raising the children who eventually became the turtles.