TV Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pilot (2012)

“Stick it in your shell.”

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Told ya I’d be back in May! Whaddup, my animate this people?

I figured with a certain Michael Bay movie coming out this summer, I’d start off this exciting, fresh chapter of animate this with the Nickelodeon television series, Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesFull disclosure: I recently finished up an internship with Nick AND…I never read the original comic books, nor did I grow up watching the ’80s cartoon or numerous puppet-y films. You have been warned.

I’ll say this: I’ve clearly been missing out on something special. Because, by the time I finished watching this two-part pilot of TMNT, I was like:

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Diehard Ninja Turtle fans who may be reading this, I sincerely hope you don’t take offense to what I’m about write: this franchise is CRAZY. I mean, the title “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” should clue you in on just how weirdly creative the whole situation is…but, wow, my eyes have been opened.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s the deal: meet Hamato Yoshi, a skilled martial artist from Japan who’s moved to Lower Manhattan because…why not? One day, he gets mutated into a giant rat, and his four pet turtles get mutated into humanoid turtle…things. So, he decides to make the best of the situation and train the turtles in ninjitsu because…why not, right? He also starts calling himself “Splinter” for some reason. AND, there are alien robots — that’s right, alien robots — more Japanese ninjas, and the occasional mutant maniac.

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Props to whoever got this idea off the ground because, you gotta admit, it sounds like the product of an insane mad lib. But, hey, after decades of popularity, you gotta believe that the TMNT franchise is doing something right. Which is exactly why I wanted to check it out for myself.

Without further ado, here’s my review of the latest televised incarnation of this amazingly popular tag team of shelled superheroes.

THE GOOD

It’s FUN. The characters, the animation, the humor, the fight scenes, the crazy sci-fi, Eastern-cultured metropolitan world. It’s the stuff of a perfect Saturday morning cartoon…and, if you’re a little old to be waking up at 6am for your weekend ‘toons, it makes for a great guilty pleasure. I’m a nerd, it’s okay.

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First of all, we have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves — even a newcomer like me knew their names beforehand: Leonardo (blue), Raphael (red), Donatello (purple), and Michelangelo (orange). But, growing up, the Turtles always kinda blended together in terms of personality, at least to me. Except for Michelangelo because he was the ‘Cowabunga’ one. Yeah.

I gotta say, Nick did a GREAT job differentiating the Turtles and giving them each a unique character. You become invested in Leo’s (Jason Biggs) over-eager hero complex, which is inspired by a healthy media diet of campy superhero cartoons from the 1980s (a detailed throwback that I especially appreciate).

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Raph (Sean Astin) is a tough guy with a big ego, but he harbors some deep-seated anger issues; he also subtly resents Leo’s leadership, which definitely makes for interesting dramatic chemistry. Michelangelo (Greg Cipes), as I vaguely knew him, is more-or-less the same pizza-loving party dude, but, this time, he DOESN’T have an annoying Californian accent (seriously, they live in NYC! It never made sense to my child brain). Better yet, he has an admirable drive to prove himself to his three older brothers, who seem to never take him seriously. As the youngest sibling myself, I can sympathize with ya, Mikey.

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Finally, Donatello (Rob Paulsen), who’s my favorite Turtle simply because he’s voiced by one of the most prolific voice actors alive, gets more of a spotlight in this series, at least according to what I’ve read. The “Ringo” of the group, Donne’s always been portrayed as a nerdy nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, who builds weapons and various machinery for the team and fights with a…stick. But, this time around, he actually kicks some SERIOUS butt and takes initiative when it comes to the fighting — especially since he’s the most emotionally invested in 16 year-old April O’Neil (Mae Whitman), the Turtles’ only human friend and constant damsel-in-distress.

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Yep, in addition to being the smart, geeky one, he’s the hopeless romantic of the group too. He’s adorkable.

While it’s a little weird since — you know — he’s a TURTLE, Donnie makes a special connection with April in the pilot, which is referred to throughout the series and adds some unexpected romantic drama into the mix. Especially when April’s canonical love interest, Casey Jones (Josh Peck), shows up in the second season. It’s a weird-ass love triangle, to say the least. But it’s definitely entertaining.

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As for the pilot itself, it’s a great introduction to the characters and their RIDICULOUS universe. On their fifteenth birthday, the teen Turtles venture out of the sewers and onto the rooftops of New York City for the very first time. They meet April O’Neil, she and her father get kidnapped by aliens in disguise (yup), and the Turtles realize they must learn to work as a team to save them. Meanwhile, it’s hinted that the aliens, known as the Kraang, are directly linked to the Turtles’ mutation fifteen years ago. As outlandish and crazy as it all is, that little reveal definitely sparked my curiosity — seriously, how did this hot Ninja Turtle mess get started?

AND, the last 30 seconds of the episode reveal Splinter’s long-lost rival, Oroku Saki A.KA. the Shredder (Kevin Michael Richardson), who we have yet to see in action.

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My inner-nerd was READY.

In addition to memorable characters, the writing is also pretty great. It’s lighthearted, but it isn’t silly — if you grew up watching Teen Titans, the dialogue has that same, punchy humor that will occasionally go to the dark side when something serious happens. It’s a nice balance of comedy with a little bit of drama here and there. I think it’s appropriate for a superhero show about turtles…

The animation also lends itself to some great slapstick humor. And, I LOVE how Nick animates the Turtles. Aside from their ninja masks, the Turtles actually look different from one another. It’s great attention to detail and — I’m sorry, ’80s fans — you don’t end up with THIS:

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BORING…please don’t hurt me, ’80s fans.

The fight choreography is animated really fluidly too. As with The Legend of Korra, it’s fun, engaging, and crisp. Way to kick butt, my dudes.

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The animators also pay homage to anime, which is clever because the Turtles were basically raised in a Japanese-American household (er, sewer). They drink Japanese soda, eat with chopsticks, and are fluent in Japanese, and it makes those little nods to the anime style all the more compelling and fun.

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The landscapes are beautifully animated as well. Just look at that lighting!

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My only question: why is NYC so empty? I’ll suspend my disbelief because, at the end of the day, we’re talking about NINJA TURTLES.  Still, it bugs me that the Turtles have free range of the city and will maybe run into only one or two people on the street…come on, it’s NEW YORK! There are people literally EVERYWHERE. But, I guess it’s expensive to design so many extras. I’ll let it slide.

Overall, the animation is good, but it’s far from perfect. Now, which leads us to…

THE NOT-SO-GOOD

While the animators have the scenery and the Turtles themselves down to a science…them human characters doe.

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That’s April’s dad. I know, he’s terrifying.

For a long time, Pixar had the “valley of the uncanny” problem too: it’s difficult to animate people without them looking like creepy meat puppets. Let’s take a peek at the second Toy Story film for a prime example:

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See what I mean?

Look, I understand animating life-like people is difficult, so the O’Neils’ design isn’t the WORST thing in the world. Still…DAMN they’re creepy-looking.

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Seriously, Donnie, what do you see in her? To be fair, April’s design improves as the series continues — maybe the animators realized she was looking a little blocky and robotic in the pilot. Again, it’s not AWFUL, but still…ew.

THE BAD

The villainous Kraang robots fit perfectly in the nutty Ninja Turtles world. The problem is, they’re ANNOYING.

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Their design is cool, their mysterious back story with the Turtles’ origins is interesting, but their voices and choppy speech patterns HURT my ears. I fortunately can’t find a video or audio example to include, so I recommend you just watch the pilot for yourself. In the meantime, I give you this:

Tina, you never let me down.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As long as you remember that Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a guilty pleasure, you’ll probably love it just as much as I do.  It’s action-packed, funny, and so damn crazy that you can’t help but get a little invested. It’s cartoon-comic-book-nerd-tastic goodness.

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Plus, the Turtles look and SOUND awesome — as I said before, the legendary Rob Paulsen is in the cast, so what else can you ask for? As long as you let the creepily animated humans and poor Kraang acting choices slide, well-developed characters and inspired writing definitely make this series worth a look. Booyakasha!

4/5

*If you’re a long-time Ninja Turtles fan, I wanna hear what YOU have to say about the 2012 Nickelodeon reboot. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

 

 

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