TV Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2: ‘Rise of the Turtles Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’
A brand new cartoon series featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted Saturday, September 29 on Nickelodeon; this is the third animated series to feature the characters, the fourth television series and the eighth continuity for the lean, green fighting machine, as they sometimes like to be called.
After that many continuities, what can this series bring new to the table, storywise? This is the first animated series to use CGI rather than traditional animation, so it did bring that to the table. But did it avoid the problems that other TV CGI series face?
Story and characters
At this point, “The Rise of the Turtles” is one extra-long episode; however, the first half was aired on Friday night as a sneak preview, and it worked perfectly well as a standalone episode with a cliffhanger ending.
The story begins with mutant turtles Leonardo (voiced by Jason Biggs), Raphael (Sean Astin), Donatello (Rob Paulsen) and Michelangelo (Greg Cipes) on their fifteenth “mutation” day; after hearing their own origin story, they ask their adoptive rat father Splinter (Hoon Lee) if they can finally visit the surface world after a decade and a half of living in a sewer. He reluctantly agrees.
The four take to the surface, where they witness a teenage girl, April O’Neil (voiced by Mae Whitman), and her father being kidnapped by some “men in black” types. They attempt to rescue her, and fail badly, though Michelangelo does manage to discover that the kidnappers are actually robots with alien brains in their stomachs. Pretty much everything after that would be spoilers.
After 28 years of existence, we know the characters; Michelangelo is the goofy one, Raphael is the rebellious one, Leonardo is the leader and Donatello is smart. That has not changed, though in this version, Raphael has a pet non-mutant, non-ninja, non-teenaged turtle (I mean tortoise!) of his own, while Leonardo bases his leadership skills, surprisingly, on a Captain Kirk expy. Donatello, meanwhile, is instantly smitten with April, who is a teenager like the turtles. The writers seem to be setting up a sort of cross-species romance, there.
The show does seem to focus more on humor than previous incarnations; I know the last animated series got needlessly dark near the end. I do not remember the original show being so purposely humorous, but I was in grade school back then, and may have just been missing the jokes.
Animation and character design
It is usually a very bad idea for a television show to go with CGI; the best example to illustrate the problem is another Nickelodeon show featuring anthropomorphic animals doing martial arts: Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. I do not have anything against the use of CGI over traditional animation in movies, but the process is very expensive, and TV is a bit cheaper. Compare the animation of the Kung Fu Panda movies to the television series, and you can easily see where the money goes in CGI.
Lucky for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there is no movie to compare it to (the CGI movie TMNT is not the inspiration), and the art compensates for the lack of budget. Movement is still stiff sometimes, but martial arts maneuvers are more stylized, making them bearable. The background is also rendered in a simple, comic book-inspired style – keeping the show within budget while giving it a unique, interesting visual look.
The show features short bursts of traditional looking animation, usually in flashbacks, though the episode of “Space Heroes” Leonardo watches hearkens back to Johnny Quest-style Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It also features obviously anime-inspired moments where hearts or teardrops are added to the scene; these will probably end up grating on my nerves.
The character designs themselves are top notch; each of the four turtles are differentiated beyond just the color of their bandanna and shade of green of their skin. Each are different heights and weights, from tall and skinny Donatello to short and compact Raphael. They also each have unique details; Donatello is missing a tooth, Raphael has a noticeable crack in his shell and Michelangelo has the reptilian equivalent of freckles. The best design belongs to Splinter, who has a truly beautiful facial design, though he looks to be tending toward the chubby side in the body.
The show does not really do anything to new or unique with the idea of anthropomorphic turtles fighting crime with the help of martial arts, but actually, thank goodness for that. If you like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you will like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.