Sunday, January 18, 2015

On the first season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012)

It's ironic that the most effort to distinguish the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from one another is always put into the media where it is least needed. In their black-and-white comic, the characters were only differentiated by the weapons they were holding or wearing and in the dialogue. Even when they did appear in color—as on the covers, or the First colorized collections—they all wore identical red bandana masks. It wasn't until they made the jump to animation—when each spoke with a different voice, and it was thus abundantly clear who was who—that they started wearing their own color-coded masks and, in that first 1987 cartoon series, accessories and belts bearing their initials.

The current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, the characters' third, goes farther still. In addition to the differently-colored masks, the Turtles no longer look like identical quadruplets. Donatello is much taller and thinner than the others, has brown eyes and a gap in his teeth. Leonardo has blue eyes, and seems to be "standard issue" in design. Raphael has green eyes, is slightly shorter than Leonardo, and slightly thicker; he also bears a jagged scar on the front of his shell. And, finally, Michelangelo (his name here spelled identically to that of his namesake), has blue eyes, is significantly shorter than all of his brothers and even has freckles (2013's feature film went farther still; keeping the same basic proportions of the four in relation to one another seen in this show, but positively festooning them in a thick layer of accessories).

Even if they were completely naked, weaponless and silent, it shouldn't prove too difficult for any viewer to pick out which Turtle was which once they've seen a few episodes.

This series, which launched in 2012 and is currently on its third season, marks the characters' first time on television in 3D computer animation...although that was the style of their fourth (and best) feature film, 2007's TMNT (Well, it's all 3D computer animation save for occasional forays into more traditional 2D animation or images, as in flashback sequences and sequences taken from show-within-the-show Space Heroes, a Star Trek by way of Sealab 2020 from which Leonardo takes tips on leadership).

While the general aesthetic does share quite a bit in common with the 2007 film, the Turtles are quite markedly different in appearance, all rounder and buliker; more turtle and less lizard. The biggest innovation to their design may be in their toes, though. Rather than having just two big toes and an elongated heel that can look like a third and opposing toe, they have flatter, more tortoise-like feet, with three distinguishable toes right where one would expect a toe to be. They are very stylized in design, and very different than all of their previous forebearerss in multi-media; even thinking of all of the many artists to draw the characters over the decades, I'm hard-pressed to think of one whose version of the Turtles closely matches those of these Turtles.

As for the commonalities with the previous 3D, CGI TMNT adventure, the series similarly presents a now-fantasy, playground version of New York City, all rooftops, fire escapes and alleyways. Every rooftop they seem to land on has either a peaked glass skylight, a water tower, a billboard or, incongruously enough, a TV antenna—some have all four. It's a remarkably empty city, too, which of course saves money—less characters means less animation, and the human characters are, as is always the case with 3D computer animation, the least convincing in appearance (although this is somewhat explained by the fact that almost every scene that takes place in the city is at night and either in a remote location—the top of a building, a warehouse, the docks—or a shady part of town).

The theme song (and its accompanying opening sequence), which "samples" the 1987 theme drilled into the heads of a generation, tells the basic set-up: Four turtles, mutated by mysterious ooze, trained to be ninjas by their master Splinter, a mutant rat. It similarly defines each character in the same basic way as the original theme (Previously "Donatello did machines," whereas now "Donatello is a fellow, has a way with machines," for example; "Raphael is cool but rude" vs. "Raphael has the most attitude on the team.")

That mysterious ooze is here an alien mutagen brought to Earth by a race of vaguely brain-shaped, tentacled aliens who move around in the stomach's of humanoid robots (as in the original comics), and Splinter was a human being and ninja named Hamato Yoshi who was mutated into a rat man (as in the original cartoon; in the comics, Splinter was Yoshi's pet rat).

One notable innovation of this series is the emphasis it puts on the "Teenage" part of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles;" moreso than any previous incarnation of the characters in any media, this series treats them as teenagers. All four of them have a level of immaturity and teen angst generally absent from any other versions (although, I suppose, the argument could be made the original cartoon series and first three films depicted them as the 1990s, media understanding of "teenage," meaning simply that they spoke in catch-phrase lingo and liked extreme sports, pizza and "partying" in the abstract).

Physically, this is denoted by their awkwardness when not ninja-ing, particularly in things like Donatello's gangly form or Michelangelo's awaiting-a-growth-spurt size and even the way the haven't seemed to have grown into their hands and feet, like the way puppies often don't quite fit their paws). Additionally, they are all significantly smaller than their adopted father Splinter, who towers above them in size and posture.

In terms of drama, this immaturity is evidenced in Raphael's temper, which ranges from irritated and bullying of the others to out-and-out outbursts of anger almost on par with that seen in Eastman and Laird's 1985 Raphael #1 "micro-series") and Michelangelo's entire personality (as with the last two feature films, Mikey becomes the repository for everything silly and goofy about the franchise and, most amusingly here, he is generally portrayed as pretty damn dumb, made fun of by his whole family, up to and including Splinter—there's a pretty neat scene where Leonardo asks Splinter why he made him the leader, and Splinter says he chose him at random, and that it could have been any of his brothers. Except Michelangelo).

Additionally, Donatello sports an immediate and completely doomed crush on April, and Leonardo a similarly doomed crush on Karai. Both of the human females are here also teenagers, something which took some getting used to, but ultimately makes sense; if April is portrayed as a peer of the Turtles, it stands to reason she should be their age (As I noted, they are generally called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but are everywhere else portrayed more like adult Mutant Nunja Turtles). Like all of the humans in the series, April never, ever changes her clothes, and looks less convincingly animated than the mutants—I think it's the hair as much as the herky-jerky movements that makes the human beings seem like possessed dolls—but she trains with Splinter and gets her own weapon (a fan, maybe the girliest of all possible martial arts weapons), but has a more active and participatory role than she usually does in TMNT stories in any media.

The other great innovation of the show is just how damn action-packed it is. While TMNT is probably the only film—or cartoon—to previously contain much in the way of martial arts action (and that mainly in its teaser trailer and a spectacular pre-climax fight between Leonardo and Raphael), every episode of this series is full of martial arts battles and ninja-ing: Rooftop-running parkour scenes (the Turtles all run like ninja all the time too, which is cool), training against each other and the seemingly invincible Splinter, fighting mutants, Foot ninja and, most often in this series, alien robots. While the Turtles in this series have clearly visible eye-balls when their masks are on, their eyeballs disappear, and their eyes go pure white when they're in action.

The amped-up action includes pretty great sound-effects—their weapons sound like they're made of metal and wood—and I suppose it's worth noting that Donatello has a blade concealed in his bo staff, and Michelangelo's nunchucks can transform into a...damn, I'm not as into ninjas as I was as a teenager. One of those things that's like a hand-held scythe, but with a long chain with a wait at the end...? It makes both more versatile, and for an interesting allusion to other weapons Michelangelo has wielded over the decades.

Well, there's the action, and then there's the comedy. The show is actually very funny, but in a truly all-ages way. The comedy is almost always in the form of organic, character-driven comedy. Some comes in the form of Teen Titans Go!-like, anime-inspired, visually exaggerated portrayals of emotion or weird call-backs to previous media (The ringtones on their cell-phones, called tPhones instead of iPhones, are the 1987 theme song), but most of it is an honestly engaging, character-driven humor.

The storyline for the first season is a pretty great remix of a reboot. Almost immediately after finally prevailing upon Splinter to let them leave the sewers, the Turtles encounter The Kraang, who bear the name of a villain originated in the 1987 cartoon show (albeit with an extra "a" in the middle) and his evil alignment and home dimension of Dimension X, but are more like the benevolent Utrom aliens from the original Mirage comics in all other respects. That is, they are brain-and-tentacled aliens that ride around in the stomach cavity of android robot disguises. Their completed disguises are of identical men in black suits, but there are a few other forms, one of which is a simple metal skeleton, and another of which is the metal frame covered in a blue, gelatinous, transparent flesh (Whenever a suit is destroyed, they wake up, scream and scamper off...never to be followed by the Turtles, which was a little frustrating at first).

The Kraang share a hive-mind, and thus talk in the third-person in a weird, halted version of English that recalls old-school men in black lore (while also being funny, particularly as the episodes pile up and variations get greater).

They are attempting to invade and conquer Earth, terraforming it into a place they can comfortably live. This plot takes plenty of permutations, but begins with the kidnapping of various scientists, including Kirby O'Neil, April's father (which is how the Turtles meet her, and how she comes to live with them for most of this first season; his first name is the first of a couple of nods toward Jack Kirby, a huge influence on Eastman and Laird).

Between the two-part season opener "Rise of The Turtles" and the two-part conclusion "The Showdown," the Turtles meet various characters from the comics, the cartoons and more still that are original to this show, including their usual archenemies, The Foot Clan. The Foot ninja are here the black-clad versions of the bug-eyed ninja of the comics (and the 2007 TMNT film). The Shredder, an imposing figure with a badly burned face hidden behind his mask, leaves most of the action to his lieutenants, only fighting the Turtles once early after his first appearance, and then later at season's climax when he fights Splinter.

These lieutenants are Bradford, a celebrity karate teacher who is essentially Chuck Norris; Xever, a butterfly knife wielding New York criminal who fights capoeira style; and Shredder's own daughter Karai (She's designed here with some serious eye make-up and two-tone hair; to completely spoil one of the major, ongoing conflicts of the series—so stop reading here if you care—she's actually Yoshi/Splinter's thought-dead daughter Miya, who Oroku Saki/The Shredder kidnapped and raised as his own to hate and kill Yoshi...pretty Shakespearean planning on Shredder's part, huh?). The first two get mutated fairly quickly; the former into a gigantic dog-man who has one arm much larger than the others and weird, Doomsday-like spikes and the latter into a fish-man who can only locomote on land thanks to robot legs. Michelangelo, who insists on naming all their villains—similar to the way Johnny Storm insisted on naming all of the Fantastic Four's villains in their one good cartoon) calls them Dogpound and Fishface, respectively.

Other familiar character that appear?

The Purple Dragons The generic street gang the Turtles fight in the opening scene of the very first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appear here, and play a minor but recurring role. They are three Asian-American dudes in matching black and purple outfits that look like what the blonde asshole kid from The Karate Kid might design for a gang uniform. Petty street criminals, they appear whenever petty street criminals are called for.

Baxter Stockman The Turtles' second name villain after The Shredder in the comics, appearing as he does in TMNT #2, Stockman is here portrayed similarly to how he was in the original Mirage Comics, as opposed to the original cartoon (where he was a mutant fly) or IDW's rebooted (wherein he played a fairly major role). He's a bad guy and a robotics expert, but something of a joke to the Turtles (who can never really remember his name) and his later allies in the Foot (Bradford refers to him only as "Stinkman"), although access to Kraang technology makes him an occasional threat. He's designed like his Mirage inspiration, save for bigger hair and a not-terribly-menacing pink sweater.

The Mousers One of those instances in which Stockman becomes particularly menacing is when he invents his Mousers, who appear just as they did in the comics. They take to 3D animation quite well, and they're given a fairly menacing echolocation function, which allows them to vocalize mechanical growls and roars like little steel raptors from Jurassic Park.

Leatherhead The Ryan Brown-created mutant alligator introduced in 1988's Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #6, Leatherhead appears much closer to his original comics form than the version that was part of the original cartoon series. He's still been mutated by exposure to the same sort of mutagen ooze that made the turtles, and he still began his life as a pet baby alligator. As in the Mirage comics, he's spent much of his life with the aliens to whom the ooze belonged, but The Kraang being evil, he's now at odds with them, and his life with them hasn't been a pleasant one. Given an almost Jekyll/Hyde like personality, he is prone to go bestial and attempt to destroy the Turtles at a moment's notice, although in general he's their ally, and fights with them against The Kraang (seemingly sacrificing his life at one point). Michelangelo befriends him, and is usually able to calm him by rubbing him (as with real alligators). The animators do a great job on Leatherhead, who is one of the biggest characters to appear in the series, actually incorporating alligator moves like spinning in to his fighting style.

Metalhead There are actually two Metalheads in TMNT lore, having little in common aside from their name. The original, created by Peter Laird and Jim Lawson, appeared in 1988's TMNT #15 (the superhero issue), and was a member of the team Justice Force; he had the Marvel's Medusa-like power to control his own hair and use it as a weapon. He was also a robot. The other, more popular Metalhead is a robot turtle introduced in the original cartoon series and accompanying toy line. This Metalhead is also a robot turtle, but he has a stature similar to that of the Justice Force member (that is, he's really small).

Donatello creates him from salvaged parts of Kraang technology, and remote controls him with what looks like a Nintendo control pad. The part where the Turtles cartoons generally lose me is when they snap my suspension of disbelief with the sewer-dwelling mutants' arsenal of high-tech weaponry, including multiple vehicles, all apparently hand-built by a turtle-man with no formal education (and, in the original cartoon series, before the invention of the Internet!). The Turtles gradually accumulate gadgets and vehicles in this series too, but it does two things to make disbelief suspension a little easier: First, Donatello gets his hands on various bit of super high-tech alien hardware (Metalhead is reverse-engineered from a robot from space, not simply built from scratch, for example), and, secondly, everything has a home-made, junkyard aesthetic. Their equivalent of "The Party Wagon," for example, is an abandoned subway car with monster truck wheels; one of the seats in it is a hair-dryer chair like those found in old-school salons).

•The Rat King The original "Rat King" was a deranged man who thought he was various monsters, and first appeared in 1988's Tales of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a story written and drawn by Jim Lawson, entitled "I, Monster" (This series uses that title for the episode in which The Rat King appears). Lawson's version named himself Rat King by the end of the story, and later appeared enigmatically in the "City At War" storyline (and, more enigmatically still in volume 4 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The original cartoon treated him as a villain able to control rats, keeping his design from the comics. This Rat King is a mutated scientist given the power to control rats with his mind. His design is dramatically different. He wears a long black coat, a wide-brimmed black hat and a blindfold (he now sees through the eyes of rats), and his skin and teeth are shriveled and decayed, giving him a corpse-like, somewhat vampiric appearance.

Otherwise, almost all of the threats are all original ones, including a Lewis Black-voiced mutant named Spider Bytez, a monkey man, a mutant newt with space-age weaponry called "The Newtralizer" who really seems like he must have come from the Archie Comics (but didn't!), a mutated cockroach with a Terminator-inspired single-mindedness and general portrayal.

Next to Donatello's elongated design, the one aspect of the show that took me the longest to get used to was probably the vocal work. And that wasn't because there was anything wrong with it, mind you, it was just that the performers were so familiar to me from other cartoons. Specifically, Michelangelo and Donatello.

The former is played by Greg Cipes, who also voices Beast Boy in Teen Titans Go!, the last TV show I binge-watched on DVD like this, and he gives both characters identical voices. And given how similar the two characters are in terms of personality, it took an especially long time to get used to (Disconertingly, Michelangelo has a habit of shouting "Booyakasha," appropriated from Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G character and replacing old cartoon battle cry "Cowabunga," the root word of which seems to be "Booyah!", which is of course Beast Boy's pal Cyborg's catch phrase).

As for the latter, he's voiced by Rob Paulsen, who played Yacko on Animaniacs (and, according to IMDb, shares a birthday with me); his voice here is deeper, but it still sounds like Yacko to the extent it took me a few episodes to forget about it. I imagine more frequent cartoon/TV watchers than myself might have had a similar (or more difficult) experience acclimating to April being voiced by Mae Whitman, who, I may be mistaken, but am fairly certain, plays 87% of all animated female characters.

I was a little surprised to see movie stars Jason Biggs and Sean Astin playing Leonardo and Raphael respectively; neither of whose voices I recognized, but, after I read the credits, I could see it (and by "see it" I, of course, mean "hear it"). Other familiar (to me) voices include Clancy Brown as Dogpound (Kevin Michael Richardson voices The Shredder, and his voice is even deeper, scarier and more sonorous than Brown's, so there's no fear of the henchman out-voicing the archenemy), Phil Lamarr as Baxter Stockman, Kelly Hu as Karai, Jeffrey Combs as The Rat King, and Gilbert Godfried and Roseanne Barr as Kraang Sub-Prime and Kraang Prime, respectively. Oh, and Danny Trejo played Newtralizer, but I had no idea of that until I looked it up.

When Viacom/Nickelodeon acquired the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a few years back, I was pretty worried. (Well, as worried as one could be about the ownership of fictional characters, anyway; I was reasonably certain the sale wouldn't mean that Viacom employees would confiscate my issues of Turtles comics or anything). The 2013 live-cation film, which was brain-punishingly terrible, showed that I was right to worry, and while the IDW comics haven't been anyhwere near the neighborhood of as bad as that film, they have been overall disappointing (And seem more disappointing still after watching this and seeing things like how much cooler this show's version of a teenaged Casey Jones, introduced in the second season, is compared to the IDW comics' teenaged Casey Jones).

So I'm glad that this TV show turned out as well as it did (and while I'm only about halfway through season 2, that seems to be just as good if not better). If nothing else, it proves that good things can come from Viacom/Nickelodeon's ownership of the Turtles...hell, the opening credits even end with a nice homage to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's cover for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, which I don't recall seeing in any other adaptations, save Turtles Forever (The next season includes more Eastman/Laird Easter Eggs than this one did, and even has Eastman voicing what has to be the single most bizarre character in TMNT history).

1 comment:

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

The weapon Michelangelo uses is called a "kusarigama."

I've always preferred Splinter being a human mutated into a rat, rather than vice versa. If Splinter started life as a ninja master's rat, and didn't mutate until after his master was killed, how does he know ninjitsu? I know they say he watched his master practicing from his cage, but there is no way a creature with a tiny rat-sized brain could possibly absorb the complexities of martial arts just from watching somebody.