Bringing back Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, again, is one of those signs that media conglomerates just aren’t interested in developing new properties. Sure, it’s more cost-efficient than doing something new, and yes, it’s possible that if one company don’t take a stab at developing a new platform for the property, the rights may revert to or be picked up by some other company or individual. And worse than not having it is losing it and seeing someone else succeed with it.
So what’s the deal with Nickelodeon's new incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? All the well-established bits are in place: The ooze, the mutations, the turtles’ personalities (Leo’s the leader, Mike’s the goofball, Don’s the brains, and Ralph’s the sarcastic one), their love of pizza, April O’Neil, the Krang are in robotic bodies, and Shredder and Splinter have an old score to settle.
There’s not a whole lot of variation on these elements. Everyone’s been de-aged a bit (the turtles and April are 15 years old) to appeal to a younger demographic, I suppose. I wonder if this is really an issue. When I was younger, I never really had a problem with characters in cartoons who were older than me, and kids don’t seem to have any problem liking clones like Cody and Rex in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, so I don’t know that a character's age is ever a real thing, or if producers and studio executives just think it is.
Perhaps what’s missing the most is the surfer slang that marked the earlier incarnations of the franchise. Gone are words like "gnarly" and "radical" and, most importantly, "cowabunga." There’s not a solid replacement for this—though the reportedly ad-libbed “Booyakasha!” is probably going to stick around—and I’m pretty sure that’s okay. While the surfer slang might’ve felt contemporary and cool in the late '80s and early '90s, it’d be a little out of place now, and I don’t know that internet parlance (“I can haz pizza?”) would necessarily fit either.
But today's first episode was a tad on the bland side. If you’re familiar with the turtles, their interactions will feel rote, with nothing to really differentiate them from earlier versions. And even if you’re not familiar with them, the struggles of a team attempting to work together will feel a tad old-hat as well. The turtles' first confrontation with the Krang-bots in the pinstripe suits was rife with those, “Why are you hitting me?!” and near-miss friendly fire incidents.
Even the plot—invading Krangs and Shredder on a mission of vengeance—is well-trodden. I get the need for these elements to be present, but neither feels very re-worked or special to this particular iteration. There’s still plenty of time for surprises, but in laying the groundwork, this pilot didn’t really do anything new.
So this new series is resting on the animation to help set it apart, and insofar as it’s a CGI series, the animation does set it apart from the earlier Turtles shows. I’m not a big fan of CGI animation on TV, but I found myself liking it here. One reason is that the characters sometimes take on a look of almost being papercraft-ish, and that’s when it really shines for me, and feels different from other CGI animation on TV. The backgrounds and buildings especially have this paper quality, and the show’s darker color palette gives it some real atmosphere.
I also like, and I imagine this will be a divisive opinion, the show’s use of little manga flourishes, including the omake-inspired round eyes, lines around heads, and even the “I’m angry!” symbol appearing on foreheads. It gives the animation, and the show as a whole, a little more personality.
While I may sound down on the premiere episode, I didn’t really hate it (I didn’t really like it either, though). Kind of like with CBS’s new Elementary series, the question that bears asking is, “Why do we need another version of X?” And Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, at least in its debut, didn’t make a compelling reason for existing (beyond selling ancillary merchandise, of course). I think it has the potential be successful and a fun show, but I don’t know that I see the potential for it be much more than that.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a fun show. Its target audience is just looking for fun while it munches on cereal in its pajamas, but with animation’s crossover appeal ever more visible, I don’t know that the series has much nostalgic value for those older fans who may be interested in seeing a revitalized childhood favorite.
Note: Next week, I'll fold Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into a new weekly animation round-up that includes Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and Young Justice. Here's this week's inaugural edition!