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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012): Shell Shocked!
"Starting the Turtles was a goof; it was not anything we envisioned directing our lives in any way, shape, or form." --Peter Laird, TMNT co-creator
The history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been one of underdogs and unexpected success. From its random inception at the hands of struggling artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird during an evening of casual brainstorming, to the premise of its story, which features a team of teenage, mutated, sewer-dwelling turtles using ninjutsu to fight against evil forces like rival ninjas, fellow mutants, or aliens. The goofy and quirky premise led to a comic book publishing deal in the 80's, and subsequently, an unlikely success that has also spawned four feature films (with an upcoming reboot in the works for 2014), four television series, and an explosion of marketing in toys, video games, and other merchandise.
The Turtles latest venture into television began in 2012, after Nickelodeon bought the rights to the franchise. The basic premise hasn't changed. Four mutant turtles learn ninjutsu under the tutelage of their sensei, Hamato Yoshi, who also happens to be a mutated rat known as Splinter. Upon reaching their 15th birthday, the turtles - who have spent their childhood living with Splinter in the sewers of New York City - ask for a chance to go above-ground and visit the city. But their coming-of-age experience sparks a series of events that lead to the resurgence of Splinter's old nemesis, Oroku Saki, also known as Shredder, as well as an alien invasion.
Surprisingly, Shredder's subplot serves mostly as a backdrop to the season's main story, which follows a race of brain-like aliens called the Kraang that plan to take control of the Earth. The Kraang, which move around piloting mechanical bodies, are the ones that actually brought the mutagen that gave birth to our heroes and their master. They also have little domain of the English language and speak in redundant language, providing one of the funniest running gags of the show. Their plan seems to be focused on kidnapping several scientists – including April O'Neil's father, Kirby – to help them handle the mutagen, but it's later revealed to involve April as well. The fact that this story seems to take precedence over Shredder and Splinter's rivalry works, mostly because it is involving and helps keep the suspense about the other surrounding stories.
Like with previous adaptations of the story, the four turtles have different characteristics that go from the color of their masks to the weapons they each favor, as well as distinct personalities that set them apart from each other. Their defining characteristics are:
Strong, regular build. Blue eyes
The leader of the team, mature and level-headed
Stronger build. Green eyes
The "muscle", has a bad temper and reacts abruptly to things.
Bo staff / Naginata
Thinner and taller build. Gap in his teeth. Brown eyes
The "brains", likes to invent things and is the most analytical.
Nunchakus / Kusarigama
Short height. Freckled face. Blue eyes
The "wild one", and arguably the most immature and less smart.
However, the script does allow the turtles to behave like what they are: teenagers. Despite their differences in personality, they all share similar traits as far as their age goes, like an inherent playfulness and the quarreling and rivalry that's common between brothers. It's important to mention the voice cast, which is crucial in giving life and personality to the characters. The voice talent behind the turtles includes stars like Jason Biggs (American Pie franchise) and Sean Astin (The Goonies, The Lord of the Rings) to popular voice actors like Rob Paulsen and Greg Cipes.
Meanwhile, Splinter remains the wise mentor to the turtles, although his appearance looks more elegant and regal than in previous installments. His tall posture and pensive demeanor help convey the essence of a true master, but still doesn't sacrifice his humanity by showing how much he worries about his "children" or how he disciplines them. Splinter has a hidden past which involves his lost family at the hands of Shredder. This serves as the catalyst for their ongoing rivalry, which brings Shredder all the way from Japan to New York.
One of the biggest changes from previous adaptations is in the character of April O'Neil. Formerly portrayed as either a lab assistant (comics) or a news reporter (TV and films), here April is a teenager, just like the turtles. She happens to be the target of the Kraang alien conspiracy, along with her scientist father, who is kidnapped in the first episode. Apparently, Nickelodeon thought it would be odd for a mature woman to "hang out" with teenagers, so they decided to turn her into a teenager as well. Regardless of the reasons, the truth is that April being a teenager allows for a more believable bonding between she and the turtles, while also giving opportunities for other storylines (like Donatello being smitten by her).
The plot progresses through the season moving back and forth between Kraang-oriented and Shredder-oriented episodes, with several of them intertwining and finally merging in the last stretch. I started watching the show by chance while it aired on Nickelodeon, and was immediately struck by how well it worked. from the first time, I thought the mixture of great action and witty fun was well balanced and effective, while also putting forth a script that could work for both teens and adults. After watching a few random episodes, I decided to go back and watch them all in order, and was again surprised at how engaged and hooked I was by the show.
Another thing I liked about the show is how patient it was with its story. Unlike other children/teen-oriented shows that feel the need to rush into things just to please the short-attention span of their audience, TMNT took its time to develop things and build on a well-constructed plot that spanned the entire first season. The Kraang plot to take over Earth is stretched through the whole season – for the most part, in a believable way; at least as believable as a show about alien invaders and mutant turtles could be – as the aliens make the necessary preparations for their invasion, which occurs in the final episodes of the season.
On the other hand, instead of throwing Shredder at us from the first episode and feed it to us through every episode, it keeps him mostly in the background while building suspense regarding his motives and his ties to Splinter. Shredder's initial appearances are mostly in dark rooms, meeting with his minions, while he prepares to face Splinter and his pupils. It isn't until the ninth episode ("The Gauntlet") that Shredder actually faces the Turtles for the first time, and it would take longer for him to finally face Splinter.
This patience and focus on continuity helps build a strong foundation for the show, and for future seasons. Like with Shredder, enemies doesn't appear out of the blue, but are rather given backgrounds to slowly build upon. For example, Baxter Stockman has several appearances through the season, but he still isn't the mutated housefly that we know from previous adaptations. Also, we meet Shredder's minions (Chris Bradford and Xever) for several episodes, before they also become mutated in the ninth episode. Finally, the writers held some punches by not introducing vigilante Casey Jones yet, even though he is one of the most popular characters of the franchise.
After one whole season of 26 episodes, I have to admit I was surprised and shocked by how much I enjoyed this show. Whenever an episode finished, I was already rooting to see what would happen on the next one. Particular praises go to the episode "The Gauntlet" and the last stretch of episodes leading to the finale, which were the best of the season.
I was a huge fan of the Turtles ever since I was a kid and saw the original animated series from 1987, so maybe I was biased to favor the show to begin with. But as an adult now, I was actually surprised at the level of effort and the quality of craft involved in this. From the writers to the directors, from the voice cast to the special effects, I have to say the results were "radical, dudes!" Grade: A-
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012) Trailer
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