Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sketched TV: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Get out your Sais and nun chucks; we're reviewing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Splinter (Hoon Lee) has raised his four turtle sons, Leonardo (Jason Biggs), Donatello (Rob Paulsen), Michelangelo (Greg Cipes) and Raphael (Sean Astin) to be highly trained in ninjitsu, and now it's finally time for them to go out into the world. They befriend a teenage human girl named April (Mae Whitman) and help her rescue her father from a new alien menace. Can they survive the human world and stop both the Kraang (Nolan North) and the mysterious Shredder (Kevin Michael Richardson) before they wreak havoc?

Oh, wait, did you think I was going to review the new Michael Bay movie? Oh.

Ha. Haha.


Yeah, no. We're going to talk about something from the TMNT franchise that I know is ACTUALLY GOOD. AMAZING, in fact!

Check your nostalgia at the door, because there are a lot of changes compared to the original cartoon everyone loves. Mostly good changes! And honestly, if they had kept everything the same from the original cartoon, what would be the point? Why wouldn't you just watch the original cartoon instead? Anyways, in this updated CGI version, the turtles are younger and feel like actual teens, somewhere between 13 and 18. April O'Neil and Casey Jones are also younger, which, makes sense. Y'know, since the turtles are also teenagers. You wouldn't want a grown woman gallivanting around with a bunch of underage mutant boys, right? That would just be weird, man.

The younger ages work, too! They're all (pre)teens and the dynamic is both entertaining and humorous. It even comes complete with random chibi faces. The turtles are moody teens obsessed with cartoons and videogames and dumb teenager catchphrases like "high-three!" Because they have three fingers, on account of being mutant turtles! WHATEVER! IT'S AMAZING. It's a goofy kids’ show that feels like it's made for kids (UNLIKE A CERTAIN MOVIE) but still has plenty of great fighting and animation for older audiences to enjoy.

What I love about the new show so much is how fully-realized the personalities of the turtle brothers are. You can easily tell them apart, even without their color-coded masks. It's even in the character designs. For example, Donny is supposed to be “nerdy,” so he has a gap in his teeth, and Raph is the angsty bruiser, so he's the only one with a crack in his shell. The group dynamics work so well with each other! Leo and Raph are the strongest and butt heads fairly regularly. Raph bullies Donny a little. Everyone thinks Mikey is annoying. But all in a brotherly way! I've never really liked Leo, since he's always been the boring leader, but here he has a compelling drive to further his studies and keep his brothers together. And he's also obsessed with a Star Trek rip-off cartoon, which I find hilarious. Mikey could easily be seen as a screw-up; the most useless of the team. But even he proves himself a formidable ninja warrior. He still goofs off like crazy, but every once in a while he's got a good idea, and he's the best at naming stuff, which is adorable.

Another fun shift: they change the villains up. Instead of one brain in the stomach of a robot named Kraang, it's a whole alien race of brains running around in robot avatars doing weird experiments and trying to take over the world! There are a lot of episodes that have a monster-of-the-week feel, with new monsters like Dogpound, Fishface, Snakeweed and Tiger Claw. There are a LOT of robots and monsters and alien mutants fighting ninjas. Y’know, if that's your sort of thing.

The look of the show is incredibly cool. It's 3D, but it’s cel-shaded to create a cartoon look. It’s also highly stylized. Like Kung Fu Panda, it's interspersed with flashbacks and exposition dumps in the form of 2D comic book/cartoon sequences, and even has regular animated comic effects – sound effects and action lines – embellishing simple actions. It really is gorgeous. It's very reminiscent of the recent Clone Wars cartoon where they had clean, simple, effective designs and beautifully rendered textures. The new monsters’ designs are super cool. And the fight sequences are amazing. They're incredibly well-animated and use some stylistic graphic splashes (like splitting the screen four ways or showing sounds as visual words). They turn the turtles' eyes completely white and it makes them looks infinitely more kick-butt. And they get to use their ninja weapons in cool (new) ways! They even added a chained blade to Mikey's nun chucks and gave Donny a retractable blade staff. Each episode ends in a freeze frame that turns into a comic page, and the opening is a ton of fun to watch. Well, the song is cheesy but that's par for the course with kids’ shows. (Also, pizza? Yeah, I did it)

I like this version of April SO much. She seems significantly more fleshed out than some other versions of her character, and she sometimes gets to do kung fu and stuff. It’s an imporovement that she's only a damsel in distress sometimes, though it would have been great to skip that whole trope entirely. At least they also bring Karai into the show. She’s a badass ninja assassin and Shredder's daughter? But both girls are minor characters. We’re still looking at a cartoon that generally has 5 or 6 male characters in any one episode, possibly more, and I know they're trying to stick to the classics, and it's already crowded with so many characters – but they COULD bring in some more female representation. April even has a lady friend (played by Kate Micucci!!!) who barely gets any screen time. I know that The Next Mutation is treated like the red-headed step-child, but at least they tried to crank up the diversity with Venus, the fifth turtle. Maybe we can bring in someone like her? But like, name her after a female artist instead of a work of art so that she's not literally an object? Also, I'm glad there's a lot of representation of people of color in the voice cast and cast of characters. Good on them.

I'm continually surprised at the incredible voice cast they have. All the voice-actors for the turtles are spot-on for their roles, which is weird because you wouldn't picture Jason Biggs and Sean Astin as turtles, but here we are. Some classic voice actors like Phil LaMarr as Baxter Stockman, Clancy Brown as Dogpound, and Jeffery Combs as the Rat King are in the cast, too. And then there are even crazier casting choices like Roseanne Baer as Kraang Prime, Lewis Black as Spider Bytez and Danny Trejo as Newtralizer! How?? What?! That's insane! A fun game to play is to watch an episode then IMDB it to see who the hell voiced who or what. They're all incredible and melt seamlessly into their respective parts.

So yeah, you should check out the new TMNT cartoon. It's hilarious, amusing, incredibly well designed, and well-cast. There are two seasons out already, go watch it!

THE GOOD: Great designs, great fight scenes, great animation, great voice cast, fun and silly, great characters, lots of cool stuff kids and fans will like.

THE BAD: Could use some more representation (more girls!), and try to avoid old tropes.

THE VERDICT: $$$$$ It's a great kids’ show that's goofy, fun, and exciting to watch! If you enjoy TMNT, crazy action and goofy cartoons, you'll get a kick out of this. You should be able to find it on streaming services and DVD/Blu-Ray. Although, man I wish they had called this series something else so it was easier to search for.

TV SHOWS LIKE IT: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (classic), Star Wars: Clone Wars, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Teen Titans, Teen Titans Go

ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: One episode involves Raph facing his fears with Cockroaches while fighting a giant mutant cockroach terminator named Spyroach. I mean, what more do you want from a cartoon??

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