Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuts tonight on Nickelodeon at 8 p.m. Eastern, before moving to its regular timeslot, Saturdays at 11 a.m. Eastern, tomorrow.
Children of the ‘80s tend to grow up into adults that are hostile toward efforts to change the sacred things they loved as kids. Maybe even that’s too specific, though we’re the generation that (unfortunately) coined the phrase “raped my childhood.” Maybe everyone wants his or her memories of happy times preserved under glass. It’s always seemed to me that the level of fury sparked by, say, the Star Wars prequels or Michael Bay declaring that the Ninja Turtles are actually aliens seems to tap the same deep well of… something that gave the Tea Party movement so much early energy. I don’t mean that as an insult to either side, just that both seem to be screaming “IT WAS FINE BEFORE!”
This is to say that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot that debuts on Nickelodeon tomorrow morning didn’t look very promising.
As a child of the ‘80s who was incredibly obsessed with the Ninja Turtles for a few years—I can’t even get into the extent of it, but let’s just say no matter how hard I try, I still remember most of the words and all of the tune of “Skipping Stones,” a song off the 1990 Ninja Turtles live concert album Coming Out Of Our Shells—I was naturally skeptical about attempts to bring them back. Particularly since the early visuals looked, frankly, like they might have come from cutscenes in a mid-2000s video game. (A pretty well-done mid-2000s video game, but… still.)
However, I also was fool enough to revisit my beloved original Ninja Turtles as an adult. Take my advice, at least when it comes to the 1987 cartoon and series of movies: Do not do this. No amount of mind-altering substances or nostalgia can mask the stench of blatant marketing and half-assery that rolls off everything involved with the franchise in its prime: the constant catchphrases, the obvious toy tie-ins, the cheap animation, the godawful punny jokes, the awkward realization that cartoon April O’Neil sometimes (but not always) had freaky huge cans. The realization will creep that your 7-year-old self had the worst taste in the world, and that you need to buy your parents several dozen drinks as soon as possible for accompanying you to the movie theater to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze barely a year after taking you to see the first movie.
But if you’ve already ruined the original for yourself, you’ll probably appreciate the reboot a lot more. The producers (who’ve worked on Animaniacs and Dr. Katz, among other things) seem to have thought about the things that make rewatching the ‘80s show as an adult so unpleasant and tried to come up with a show that wouldn’t make stoned teenagers on an ill-considered nostalgia binge blush for their younger selves.
While there certainly is a lot of kid-aimed humor, it blessedly avoids the feel of a 55-year-old guy in a suit saying, “Whatever, kids are dumb! They’ll laugh at anything, don’t wear yourself out!” so present in the original. It also seems to be operating on the assumption that kids are quick enough to catch jokes if they aren’t preceded by a flashing neon JOKE light and followed by a rim shot. Plot points aren’t hugely complicated, but don’t hinge on nobody’s-that-stupid suspension of disbelief. There’s undoubtedly a lot of toy-selling opportunities built in — including a new villain — but they seem to be byproducts of a story rather than vice versa. And the Gretchen Weiner-esque attempts to make catchphrases happen by repeating them over and over are minimal. (No cowabungas here.)
The show also ditches a lot the marketing thing of making the four leads very, very different and distinct archetypes, so that any kid can identify with at least one. (Well, any male kid, but I've already talked too much about that already.) In some iterations of the show, this got to the point where four siblings who supposedly grew up with no contact with the outside world somehow selectively developed surfer-dude and Brooklyn accents. Here, they seem more like legit teenage brothers who squabble and tease and bend each others’ fingers back in reprisal.
That 3D animation, though. It definitely was jarring at first. While it looks better in motion than it does in stills, it still gives the initial impression of cutscenes from a video game off the sale rack at Wal-Mart. (Admittedly, The Legend Of Korra, which had an insane animation budget, is likely to spoil a girl.) And the couple of flashbacks aren’t even animated, as if the past were a place where people moved from position to position like Powerpoint slides. However, the visuals grow on you as it becomes clear that there was actually some thought put into working with what was possible. The word “cheap” fades a bit more with each interesting framing shot, gradually being replaced by “made by people who are smart, but have a very small budget.”
Another animation thing that starts out jarring is the incorporation of the visual launguage of manga and anime, which looks particularly weird in 3D. There’s more of a focus on the national origins of the “N” in TMNT — the turtles move more like anime characters than American superheroes, doing the head-forward arms-behind ninja-run and popping 3D grawlix and manga-looking emotion marks when perturbed or shocked. Raphael seems to be holding his sai in a more professional manner than the ping-pong-paddle grip he has had until this point, and Leonardo even says “onegai shimasu” very early on, as if the writers are planting a flag.
In summary: Definitely a kid’s show; we won’t be covering it week to week. However, it is recommended as a palliative for adults who accidentally ruined the turtles of their childhoods, or who want to get their franchise nostalgia on without destroying their self-image of having been born with pretty good taste.
- Can’t resist doing this with voice actors sometimes:
- Rob Paulsen = Donatello = Pinky from Pinky and the Brain = Raphael in the original cartoon.
- James Avery = Shredder in the original cartoon = Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Cannot be unheard.)
- Mae Whitman = April O’Neil = Egg (uh, Ann Veal) on Arrested Development = Katara (for all the Avatar people out there) = Ramona’s fourth evil ex in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
- Speaking of April, in this version she’s a teenager rather than a career woman — I cannot justify this logically even a little bit, but somehow a 15-year-old having a crush on a teenager of another species seems way, way less weird than a 15-year-old having a crush on a twentysomething woman of another species.
- April’s old employer, Channel 6 News, makes a genuinely funny cameo via a newscaster with a kind of great name — one of those rim-shot-less moments.
- The hip-hop-inflected theme song is a little cringe-y, but… forget it, Jake. It’s elementary school.