With a name like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you’d be hardpressed to find anyone who didn’t know what they were getting into when presented with a comic book, cartoon, or movie with the title attached. The surprising thing is that the Turtles have gone through their own evolution since their comic book introduction in 1984. Starting off as a parody of popular comics from Marvel and DC, their origin specifically tied to Daredevil, the Turtles became a merchandising force to be reckoned with after the debut of the original cartoon in 1987. The live action films that followed from 1990 to 1993 ensured their place in our collective nostalgic brains, making future projects such as the 2003 cartoon and the 2007 CGI film difficult to find favorable audiences who weren’t constantly comparing one version of TMNT to another. It’s no surprise that when a new movie was announced with Michael Bay attached as director that fans were outraged. We hold our nostalgia sacred even if the premise is as silly as robots that transform into cars or turtles who practice ninjitsu.
That being said, the new TMNT gets everything right about our love for the Turtles. The opening sequence speaks clearly to the audience that this cartoon is determined to borrow and blend from the properties that came before, but also move forward and carve out its own place in the cartoon landscape. The first minute is a beautifully artistic transition from a comic book style New York cityscape, to an animated alleyway, to the CGI sewer dojo where the turtles begin their practice routine. It’s an instant love letter to the turtles and to the fans.
The one hour premier, Rise of the Turtles, accomplishes the tasks of retelling the turtles’ origin and setting up the series’ overarching plot, but does so without overwhelming the viewer by throwing everything at them at once. While The Shredder is and always has been their main antagonist, we don’t even see him until the end of the episode. The plot is primarily focused on the turtles’ first foray above ground in New York City and their formation as a team. While jumping around on the rooftops and experiencing pizza for the first time, they happen to witness the kidnapping of a teenage April O’Neil (Mae Whitman) and her father by the same mystery men who attacked Splinter 15 years ago. Failing to stop the kidnapping, the turtles, Donnie especially, are determined to rescue April and her father. It’s only by sheer coincidence that they happen to uncover a secret alien laboratory run by the Kraangs.
The straight forward plot allows the creators to really focus on what matters most in the longrun of the series: the characters. The turtles are especially well known for having distinct personalities, which is why they’re always included in the theme song. The show doesn’t disappoint. Leo (Jason Biggs) is determined to be a good leader and finds excitement in the possibility of adventure. Raph (Sean Astin) is the tough guy with a soft side, but revels in scaring pizza delivery boys and making fun of his brothers. Donnie (Rob Paulsen) squeals excitedly over technology, but he’s also a hopeless romantic. And Mikey (Greg Cipes)…Mikey’s just a big ball of joy that won’t stop bouncing. There’s also an extreme attention to detail that sets this show apart from past versions in regards to the turtles. Everything from their body types (Donnie’s lanky build versus Raph’s stockiness) to minor features like Mikey’s freckles, Donnie’s tooth gap, and the scars and dings on Raph and Leo’s shells tells a story.
The episode itself is full of energy that makes the hour fly by, but there’s also room for quiet moments. They aren’t afraid to go dark either, specifically when Mikey discovers the Kraang in the robot body suit. I spoke about the animation a bit before, but it’s worth noting that the show doesn’t shy away from using different styles of animation to tell the story. CGI is used primarily, but there’s also rotoscope, comic book art, and anime accentuation reminiscent of Teen Titans. It’s funny as hell, too. Humor in a cartoon can be difficult when you’re trying to attract not only a younger audience, but also the nostalgic generation of 20-30 year-olds. But the episode pulls it off in spades. The steady stream of sarcasm between the brothers really sells that they’re a family, adding another layer to the characters.
- For a series premier, I’m freakin’ excited to see where they go with this.
- Shredder’s heading to America to settle some unfinished business with Splinter.
- Do you think Splinter’s daughter survived?
- Was that possibly a young Casey Jones delivering the pizza?
- Based on some of the character designs I’ve seen for The Rat King, Leatherhead, and General Traag, it’s going to be well worth viewing.
- Leo quoting Captain Ryan’s lines from his favorite show, Space Heroes, in the lair and again when the guys are about to rescue April. Leo likes sci-fi, who knew?
- Raph stabbing the lock on April’s cell and his delight in being called “twisted” by Leo.
- Donnie’s helicopter rescue and his constant crushing on April.
- Mikey’s first taste of pizza. Mind blown!
- The series of dangers Splinter lists before the boys head up to the surface. He’s such a worried father.
Fun Fact: Rob Paulsen voiced Raphael in the original 1987 cartoon. He also has a podcast called Talkin’ Toons, which I highly recommend.
And just for fun: Who’s your favorite turtle and why?