Monday, April 06, 2015

On the first part of the third season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Despite giving the latest animated series based on Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics a few years head start, I have now, somewhat unfortunately, caught up with the series on DVD, thanks to a few weeks of binge-watching. I haven't seen all of the third season yet then, only what has been so far released on DVD: The first seven episodes, in a collection entitled Retreat!

The second season concluded with a rather down ending, strongly echoing the events of 1986's Leonardo #1 and 1987's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10, in which The Shredder and The Foot Clan returned, hounded and hunted Leonardo, and eventually defeated the Turtles and their allies, sending them all fleeing New York City for an abandoned farm house in the countryside (events the current IDW similarly echoed in the transition from the "City Fall" story arc to one called, straightforwardly enough, "Northampton").

In the show, it was an alliance between The Kraang and The Shredder's Foot Clan that sent our heroes in retreat. Leonardo was badly beaten and near-death, Splinter was seemingly dead (viewers, unlike the Turtles, knew he was merely badly injured and separated from the others) and, in a pretty big departure from the comics (and most cartoons of this sort), New York City was completely conquered by the alien invaders.

That last bit sticks out as pretty unusual in this first batch of episodes, as while our heroes acknowledge their defeat and the changes to the cast, and while they do have television and access to news from the rest of the world, we don't know exactly what NYC's status quo is...and if The Kraang stopped there (Their plan, like that of all alien invaders, was to conquer the whole world, not just a city; specifically, they wanted to terraform the Earth into a new homeworld).

We know the Turtles get TV because, as with the last season, they get a new cartoon-with-the-cartoon to watch. In the first season, it was a Star Trek parody in old, Hanna-Barbera Sealab-style, which Leonardo used to get leadership tips from the Captain Kirk stand-in. In the second season, it was a Voltron/Battle of The Planets-style anime show. This time around, it's a Thundarr The Barbarian-like show.

In addition to the change in setting, the loss of Splinter and the absence of the foes they've been dealing with for the bulk of the first two season, this season has another pretty big change: Jason Biggs no longer voices Leonardo, but is replaced by Seth Green (there were a few episodes at the end of the previous season in which Dominic Catrambone played Leo, but it wasn't as jarring a transition, as his voice isn't as recognizable to me as Green's).

The change is actually addressed within the show, as in the first episode, when Leonardo wakes up, they immediately notice he sounds different. Donatello explains that his vocal chords were badly damaged—along with just about every other part of his body. Apparently The Foot Clan beat the Jason Biggs right out of Leonardo.

It's always rough to get used to a new voice actor in a cartoon series, and this one is particularly difficult in that Seth Green is just talking like Seth Green, rather than doing a voice (as he does on, say, Family Guy), and isn't attempting to use Biggs' characterization (Of course, Biggs wasn't doing anything over-the-top with the voice anyway; it's not like Matthew Lillard replacing Casey Kasem on Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo cartoons, as Lillard is doing his level best to do an impression of Kasem doing a Shaggy voice, and Shaggy is a character with a particular sound to his voice).

I suppose I'll eventually get used to it, just as I eventually got used to the fact that Michaelangelo sounds exactly like Beast Boy from Teen Titans Go! (they're both voiced by Greg Cipes) or that Donatello sounds so much like Yakko Warner from Animaniacs (on account of both being played by Rob Paulsen).

Since I haven't seen the whole season, and thus can't discuss it as a whole as I did with the previous two, I thought I'd just take a look at these episodes, a few of which are full of allusions to previous Turtles media that should be of particular interest to long-time fans of the characters.

"Within The Woods"

The first few minutes of this episode are practically a cover version for the TMNT #11, using the framing device of April writing in her journal to catch viewers up on what happened back in New York in the previous season, the new status quo, what the individual characters have been up to and how much time has passed (a few months). In the comic, it was a shorthand to move past all that trauma and get on with telling new stories; same here, really, but it happens even faster. The entire sequence takes place in the few minutes before the opening credit sequence.

After Leonardo awakes, with the voice of Seth Green, he has an extremely difficult time adjusting back to his "normal" life, hobblng around on a homemade crutch and not wearing his ninja mask. He tries taking a "mutagen medicine" Donatello made for him (it takes a lot of trust to swallow something radioactive and glowing green just because your brother says it will help), but ultimately all it does is make him sick, and he throws it up near a stream.

Mirroring the events of the comics series, where weird things didn't stop happening to them after they left New York (and they were in Northampton a long time in the original volume of the series, essentially from 1987's #11 to 1992's #49, not including flashbacks and the three-part 1989 arc, "Return To New York"). If anything, things seem to get weirder.

In this episode, directed for the most part as an extended homage to modern horror movies (in which no cliche of shot, staging or instance is left un-used), the mutagen creates a big, towering, slasher movie villain, essentially a swamp monster (he's all vines and plants) dressed in bib overalls and wearing a bag over his head. After he takes down Casey—he takes them all down, one by one, naturally—he exchanges the bag for Casey's skull-shaped hockey mask, making him look even more Jason Voorhees-esque still.

"A Foot Too Big"

The Turtles make the acquaintance of a new neighbor—Bigfoot. It's a pretty neat design, more tall and lanky than muscular and stocky, with very long legs ending in very big feet. This Bigfoot talks...sort of, in a weird, fluctuating mumbly voice provided by Diedrich Bader, and is surprised to find out that everyone knows who he is. Well, she, I should say. Bigfoot is a woman. Or a female.

Bigfoot moves into the farmhouse with April, Casey and the Turtles, and her romantic interest in Dontaello wreaks as much comedic havoc as the various gags about having a Bigfoot as a roommate. There's a bit of a tragic nature to the relationship too, however, as Donatello eventually realizes that April must see him in the same way that he sees Bigfoot. Although, to complicate things, April kisses Donatello at the end. Maybe just to keep that plotline open as a source of comedy, and maybe just to keep the episode from getting to be too much of a bummer.

As weird as the Bigfoot character is, she's nothing compared to a survivalist/hunter type with a very familiar voice who refers to himself as "The Finger." This is apparently because he was a creepy, extra finger on one hand—a fact that isn't nearly as creepy as the fact that he wears a shrunken head of his mother around his neck and has conversations with it, doing both voices—but more likely because he is voiced by former wrestler, actor and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, who has previously gone by nicknames "The Body" and "The Mind." That also explains why The Finger attacks the Turtles with at least one trap that is a shot-for-shot homage to one that Arnold Schwarzenegger's character sprung on the Predator in Predator.

"Buried Secrets"

The gang finds a Kraang ship with April's long lost—and long assumed dead—mother in a stasis chamber under the farm house (In this version, the house belongs to April's parents, and was their summer home). Here then we return tot he Kraang mega-plot, and the fact that April is very important to them, being half-Kraang in her genetic make-up (and thus having psychic powers that allow her to occasionally attack the Kraang mentally).

Michelangelo and Ice Cream Kitty are the first to figure out that something's not right about April's mom (played, in a nice bit of stunt-casting, by Renae Jacobs, who voiced the April O'Neil of the 1987 TMNT series), and they repeat the From Mars tribute bit where no one believes Michaelangelo because he's Michaelangelo that was used in the first episode of the series (He was the first to discover The Kraang, but his brothers didn't believe him that there were brain-like aliens hiding the stomach cavities of robots disguised as humans).

Mrs. O'Neil's true form is...well, it's pretty damn horrifying, to be honest. I'm having a hard time imagining a more horrifying, more Lovecraftian (in its sense of wrongness) monster in a film, let alone a television cartoon show for kids.

This is the episode in which Michelangelo makes whip cream turbans for Ice Cream Kitty, as previously discussed.

"The Croaking"

In the original, 1987 TMNT cartoon series, The Shredder sought to create his own mutant warriors with which to combat the Turtles (other than Rocksteady and Bebop). He got them in the form of four mutant frogs. Just as Splinter namedhis green-skinned pupils after his favorite Renaissance artists, Shredder named his after his favorite conquerors: Atilla the Frog, Genghis Frog, Napoleon Bonafrog and Rasputin The Mad Frog.

This episode uses those characters...sorta.

It is, in actuality, a rather extended homage to Napolean Dynamite, as this Napoleon Bonafrog is essentially just a mutant frog version of the character John Heder played in that film. Hell, they got Heder himself to voice the character.

While the other three frogs, and their small army of name-less frog warriors, are cunning and anti-human, Napoleon is the screw-up of the group, which is why he and Michelangelo become fast friends. There are a couple of pretty great action scenes in this episode, including one in which the frogs lay siege to the farmhouse, and eventually drag our heroes out one by one using their sticky tongues, and there's enough going on that the entire episode doesn't just use that single, one-note joke—he's more Napoleon Dynamite than Napoleon Bonaparte!—to fuel its running length. I didn't much care for that film, and was mystified by its popularity from the start, but I appreciated the subversion of expectations, and the commitment to get Heder himself to voice the character.

"In Dreams"

This is likely the most bonkers episode of the entire series so far, although there's a good chance it is only mind-boggling to me...and what I imagine is the relatively small category of viewers of thse show to which I belong.

As I'm sure I've mentioned somewhere in the previous 3,000+ posts on the blog, my first introduction to Eastman and Laird's characters, after seeing them in toy aisles and the cartoon show, was the 1985 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness role-playing game from Palladium Books. It was written by the late Erick Wujcik, and contained illustrations and an original comic by Eastman and Laird.

Among the characters original to Other Strangeness were The Terror Bears, a subversive parody of The Care Bears (a parody that would become somewhat ironic a few years after they were created, when the Turtles themselves entered toy aisles, and became a hot toy commodity supported by their own cartoon/advertisement, similar to Care Bears).

Pain Bear, Fear Bear, Doom Bear and Nightmare Bear were little black bear cubs with frightening belly badges centered around skulls, rather than hearts. The product of vague military experiments, the super-powered, super-evil bears escaped their captors and were now at large, ready for game-masters to include in their scenarios.

"In Dreams" introduces Dark Beaver, Dire Beaver, Dread Beaver and Dave Beaver, four differently-colored beavers with skull-themed belly badges. These are extra-dimensional monsters that attack people through their dreams, slowly draining away their life force. Why beavers rather than bears? Well, it could be that the producers thought that the Terror Bears were too close to the Care Bears to get away with in such a public venue as a cartoon show. Or it could be that they were just too scary. Or, more likely still, they just liked the way that "Dream Beaver" sounds like "Dream Weaver."

Voicing the Dream Beavers are Robert Englund, who certainly knows how to play a villain that attacks his victims by manipulating their dreams, and John Kassir, voice of The Cryptkeeper from Tales From The Crypt.

If that weren't enough stunt-casting, there's the mortal enemy of the Dream Beavers, a strange man named Bernie who has struggled for 40 years to keep the Dream Beavers from entering the real world. He's voiced by horror movie actor Bill Moseley, who played "Chop-Top" in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and, in one scene he attacks Casey with a chainsaw inscribed with the words "The Saw Is Family."

"The Race With The Demon"

The latest mutant menace is a, um, mutant car. Its tire ran over a puddle left by some misplaced mutagen in "The Croaking," and it is now a monstrous car with a horrifying mouth under its hood, one that gobbles up victims and forces them to be its driver. Its rather uninspired name? Speed Demon.

After a few encounters with the Turtles and friends, Casey Jones eventually challenges the mutant muscle car to a race in the souped-up car he and Donatello have been working on for the entire season to date. In the comics, Casey and the Turtles previously faced off against hot-rodding monsters in 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #30 by Rick Veitch and 2005's Tales of The TMNT #15, by Steve Murphy, Jim Lawson, Eric Talbot and Peter Laird.

This encounter is more reminiscent of the latter, in that Casey is drag-racing the demon car for his very soul, and in design. The bad guy in Tales was Von Clutch, a Ed Roth-style monster. At the climax of this episode, Speed Demon eats Donatello, fuses with him, and further mutates him into a monstrous ninja turtle Roth homage.

This episode also features the introduction of Dr. Cluckingsworth, M.D. He was one of Michelangelo's chickens (who gave him his new name), who pecked at some mutagen and developed a gigantic brain and attendant intelligence. The doctor is unable to speak, but can communicate by typing with his beak. He's used as a navigator on Casey and Donatello's hot rod, in order to calculate Speed Demon's moves and counter them, and can also lay glowing green mutagen eggs that can be converted into fuel to give the racer a boost of incredible speed.

Not quite Ice Cream Kitty weird, but close.

"Eyes of the Chimera"

After the previous two episodes, this one seems downright prosaic. When Speed Demon exploded in the previous episode his (its?) mutagen landed on a bird...that ate a fish...that ate a worm. So naturally all three combined into a monstrous new form, a giant bird monster with fish and worm-like characteristics. It attacks at a somewhat inopportune time, as Donatello's experimenting with Kraang technology from the spaceship in the basement and April's psychic powers rendered her temporarily blind...ish (she can't see out of her own eyes, but she can psychically see out of the chimera's eyes. Hence the title).

When the Chimera captures Michelangelo, Raphael, Casey and Donatello, it's up to the still-recovering Leonardo and the now-blind April to help one another overcome their difficulties and save the day...which they do.

This one', as I said, isn't too terribly remarkable, but I did like the Michelangelo/Donatello exchange that occurred when the monster first attacks. "Ooh! Bird, worm and fish," Mikey says. "Three animals, one body. I know this one, there's a perfect name for it in mythology!"

"Chimera?" Donatello incorrectly correctly guesses.

"No, Turducken!"

Man, Bellerophon would have had a much easier time of it if he had to fight a Turducken instead of a Chimera...

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