Animation Wednesday: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012)

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a regular column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are older than I am. Conceived in 1984 as a parody of current comic trends (particularly those of Frank Miller), the resulting movies and TV series launched its heroes to international stardom. The adventures of Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo were the biggest thing in the world for children in the early 1990s, rivaling Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in name recognition. Since then, there have been numerous reboots and remakes, from an early 2000s cartoon to a CGI feature film. With the threat of a Michael Bay movie looming on the horizon, you might think that all of the juice has been squeezed out of this admittedly flimsy premise. But as Nickelodeon’s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles take proves, there’s still some new tricks in this old dog.

The premise is the same as ever. Four pet shop turtles, mutated by a toxic ooze, are trained by a giant talking rat to use ninja skills to protect the city from aliens, mutants, and the evil Foot Clan and its leader, the Shredder. But what really sets this version apart is that it’s the first iteration of the characters that actually feels like a bunch of teenagers. There’s nothing wrong with the grinning jokesters of the late 80s-early 90s version, or the stoic superheroes of the more recent cartoon. But for a characteristic that takes up one fourth of the group’s name, it’s been consistently underrepresented. The turtles here joke with each other and roughhouse. They doubt themselves or get too cocky and make mistakes. There’s a clear family dynamic in play, with the turtles as a group of four brothers raised by their father, Splinter, and let me tell you, as the oldest of four brothers, it really speaks to me.

The show’s take on the turtles in general is good, but the standout character is Donatello (Rob Paulsen, trotting out the awkward nerd voice of his that was UBIQUITOUS in the 90s). Donny’s always been the mechanically inclined of the group, but here, his awkward charm and insecurity with his role on the team are ratcheted up several notches. Particularly painful is his crush on April O’Neil (Mae Whitman), the turtles’ human friend, who seems alternately oblivious and slightly exasperated by his affections. Watching him get laughed at by Leo (Jason Biggs), Mikey (Greg Cipes), and Raph (Sean Astin, of all people) has to be one of the most quintessentially teenage things I’ve ever seen. Donny also gets several episodes to shine as the main lead, which is nice, since most of the other turtles (especially Michelangelo) have been overused and overmarketed to death.

Admittedly, a lot of the show can be hit or miss. We’re living in a pretty good era of children’s cartoons, with shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and whatnot, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (like a great many other shows) isn’t quite on that level. The animation is stylized and amusing, but it kind of falls flat when compared to a lot of CG todayThe characters are great, but some of the threats and situations follow the kind of absurd Saturday morning cartoon logic people scoff at. The show is at its best when the stories spin organically out of the character’s personalities, and it gets weaker as they try to shoehorn in new characters and threats.

But all in all, I’ve enjoyed the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles much more than I expected. It’s hard to believe that after nearly 30 years of stories about masked talking lizards there’s new ground to cover, but that’s exactly what the show does. Honestly, I can only expect good things, both from the show and the future of the franchise. After all, if kids who grew up with the grinning slapstick of the 90s made something this genuine and developed, just think what the kids growing up with this show will make.

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