With Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hitting the airwaves, it felt like a good time to sit down and take a look at the various incarnations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As you are likely aware, the TMNT got started back in 1984 when writer/artists Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman created their debut comic. Since then the four have become international superstars and seen their likeness adapted for television, film, a stage tour, and other comics over the years. Across these many mediums we’ve seen the four brothers sport many different looks, display different personality traits, while mostly adhering to the core of being mutated turtles that practice ninjitsu taught to them by their surrogate father – a rat named Splinter.
Whenever a new show based on an old property is unveiled, there’s almost always an immediate backlash by a certain portion of the fan base. It doesn’t even matter if the fanbase is inconsequential or even non-existent, as was seen recently with the She-Ra images unveiled, there will always be those who hate the new and prefer the old. And who am I to say they’re wrong? Hate it all you want, but you’ll always have what came before. I draw the line when folks say “they’re ruining my childhood” because that’s preposterous. Your childhood came and went, it’s history, there’s nothing to ruin. I’d encourage everyone to be open-minded and don’t be a slave to nostalgia because you’ll ultimately find more things in life to enjoy with such a mindset, but to each their own.
For this ranking, I am weighing the general design heavily above all others. This ranking is subjective and largely about how appealing I find the design of the four turtles to be. I am also giving a little added weight to the quality of the medium as well – does it hold up? Is it entertaining for children? All ages? And so on. I’m also just sticking to the comics, television, film, and stage show and not video games or toys. Most of the video games were based on one of those other things or strongly resemble another and the same is true for the toys. I don’t want things to get too unmanageable, so some of this may feel a little condensed, but you’ll see what I mean when we get to each one as I’ll note if there are any deviations. With that said, most of these all have some aesthetic charm to them, with only the very back-end of this ranking being particularly poor. Let’s get to it then, shall we?
13. Coming Out of Their Shells Turtles
I ended up with 13 distinct flavors of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and by far the most dreadful would be the stage show Turtles from the Coming Out of Their Shells Tour. If you weren’t alive in 1990, basically the brand was on fire. No one could really explain it, and still can’t since the premise is so preposterous, but everyone was pretty sure it wouldn’t last much longer. Anyone with a financial interest in the TMNT was rushing product to shelves to capitalize as quickly as possible and someone thought a live show was a worthwhile endeavor. Utilizing two sets of costumes, the Turtles would appear on stage in some radical threads and would sing, dance, and mime fights with the bad guys from the cartoon. There were also backstage segments that were pre-taped featuring more conventional play style sequences for plot points. These costumes weren’t really meant to be seen up close since they were for the stage, and it shows. There’s no nuance to their mechanical mouths which just flap around. They have these crazy wide-eyed expressions and the added clothing items just look dorky, to put it simply. What was crazy though, is that these costumes weren’t confined to a live show. They had them appear on Oprah and in home videos so you could see just how terrible they looked. The home video and Christmas Special probably came out after the money had been made on the actual tour, but the Oprah thing still blows my mind.
12. The Michael Bay Turtles (2014 Film)
I know I look like some old curmudgeon for sticking one of the most recent incarnations in the 12th spot, but I can’t help it – I really hate these guys. It wasn’t a surprise to see the newest films opt for CG over costumes, even if it was still disappointing, nor was it a surprise to see a new look for the gang green. However, could they have made these guys look any uglier? They’re a monstrous mess, just a pile of weapons, belts, and clothing. They embody the same personalities we’ve known for years and yet feel so lifeless. Even only four years after the first film, and a mere two after its sequel, these guys already feel forgotten and that doesn’t bother me one bit. I really have nothing nice to say about them. I guess Bebop and Rocksteady were cool?
11. All Effects Turtles (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III)
The third film in four years for TMNT was the abysmal Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. I liked it well enough as a kid I suppose, though it definitely was my least favorite of the trilogy. As an adult I find it mostly unwatchable. I suppose it can be laughed at in a manner befitting only bad movies, but my word do those costumes look awful. The first two films featured costumes designed by the Jim Henson Company and were remarkable for the time. For the third film, Golden Harvest and New Line Cinema contracted All Effects and the results were less than spectacular. The main bodies of each turtle looks fairly similar, but with less texture. They clearly looked like rubber suits. The heads though were awful. The dynamic expressions of the earlier costumes were gone replaced with something more static and soulless. I am not certain, but my guess is All Effects just went with one head design for its costumes as opposed to Henson’s multi-head approach. These ones are a bit more frog-like and just off-putting. Making these worse, the personalities of the Turtles were also less defined. Corey Feldman reprised his role as Donatello from the first film and apparently was considered the star as his character had way more lines. Everyone was kind of jokey and just along for the ride with only Mikey displaying much range. A very unsatisfying end to the trilogy. The feudal costumes at least looked kind of neat.
10. The Saban Turtles (The Next Mutation)
It feels like I’m picking on the live-action costumes in the early going, but I guess it’s to be expected with such outlandish characters that originated in print. And it also has to do with money. The third Turtles film was produced on the cheap, and the stage show certainly was as well relative to a film budget, and if you know much about TV cartoon development in the 90s then you know Saban is notorious for being cheap. Saban is most famous for bringing us Mighty Morphin Power Rangers which took film from the Japanese show Super Sentai and dubbed it for American audiences as something different. That’s about as cheap as it gets for show creation. It’s actually a surprise that the company even wanted to do a live-action series of TMNT in 1997 well after the franchise’s peak years. Titled Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, it required all new costumes and sets and must have been rather expensive relative to other Saban entertainment. Even so, there was no way it was going to match the costumes from the film series, and while you could argue these are worse than what All Effects gave us, at least they tried to change things up. This show also famously added a fifth turtle, Venus de Milo, and it sort of followed the continuity of the other live-action heroes. It was pretty hokey and more than a bit cheesy, but I suppose it has its fans.
9. Imagi Turtles (TMNT 2007 film)
In what was a bit of a surprise, Warner Bros. tried bringing back the Turtles with a CG sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III 14 years after that film had been released. In truth, audiences didn’t need to know much about those previous movies to see this, just a general knowledge of who the Turtles were since a lot of time had passed in universe as well. The movie was okay, not bad but not exactly good either, and the CG was befitting that of a major studio. The characters mostly embodied the archetypes established in the first film, but the visual style was very different. The Turtles were more rounded with squished faces. Their skin was smooth and mostly free of any texture. They looked slippery and ever more frog-like than what we saw in the third film. It animated well, but the stills are some-what lackluster. It’s not the design I would have picked, but it was fine and not really noteworthy as this film is easily the most forgettable of the first four.
8. The Flying Bark Turtles (Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
It seems premature to even include the newest version in these rankings, but here we are. I said a lot about them in my write-up for the first episode, but as designs go I don’t hate these. I appreciate the willingness of the producers and the animators at Flying Bark to try something pretty new. There are elements of the older designs in the new ones, but with this show the brothers are, for the first time, different subspecies of turtles. Even though I didn’t much care for the show, I can at least appreciate what it’s trying to do. And if we’re just going by looks, it’s definitely got more personality than what was ranked behind it.
7. The 4Kids Turtles (2003 Cartoon)
We have arrived at what is perhaps our first controversial ranking. The 2003 series produced by 4Kids Entertainment is well-regarded. It came at a time when the kids who had grown up on the TMNT were willing to embrace something that had grown up with them while a new generation was also willing to dive into a show about mutated ninja turtles. The show was a back to basics, taking a lot of the material from the original Mirage Comics run and adapting it for television in a kid-friendly manner without pandering. The old chunky designs were replaced with sleek, muscular, frames and the skin tones of the old Playmates toy line was essentially made canon as each turtle was a slightly different shade of green. The personalities were a bit of an amalgamation of the old cartoon and comic, with Raph, Leo, and Donatello being pretty close to the source while Mikey was a bit more like the old cartoon character. Where this one sort of stumbles for me is with the decision to go with the blank eyed look from the comics and toys. It makes the characters look pretty cool in a still frame, but when they had to emote it looks awkward. A future series would integrate this better. Don’t mistake this ranking as an endorsement of the 87 cartoon over this one as I’d much prefer to watch this series over that one any day.
6. The Fred Wolf Turtles (1987 Cartoon Series)
Here is where we get to the big one, the most recognizable brand of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the one most responsible for the popularity of the franchise. These turtles actually had four some-what distinct looks, but we’ll get to that. In general though, the makers of the cartoon took the designs from Mirage and mostly added color and personality. The Mirage TMNT looked cool, but aside from Raph they didn’t offer much personality. They also looked the same and had those blank eyes which wouldn’t play well on television. To make up for that, the cartoon introduced the colored bandanas and pads unique to each turtle while also giving them actual eyes. Raph was toned down from a hot-tempered malcontent to a sarcastic prankster while Leo mostly retained his super serious persona. Donatello was made a genius, and Mikey a surfer dude. Oh, and they all loved pizza. Like, really loved pizza. It’s stuff you know all about now, and even though the cartoon basically existed to sell toys it at least looked pretty good. The first season, at least. In that one, the Turtles were a more muted shade of green with more musculature and a hint of a beak. Come the second season they were a bit brighter and more rounded. Weapons were de-emphasized and animators saw little need in actually showing their weapons holstered and so forth. By the final season though, they received a fairly radical redesign that introduced more blacks and a more angular shape. It was trying too hard to make the Turtles seem “dark” and “cool” and didn’t really play well. In Japan, a pair of OVAs were released that mostly featured the standard look of this serious, but gave the Turtles crazy transformation powers. You may remember seeing the toys for these on store shelves and wondered where they came from, well there’s your answer. I didn’t think either was really worth devoting a separate ranking to, but felt they were worth mentioning.
5. The Archie Turtles (Archie Comics)
Alongside the original cartoon series was the Archie Comics series. This series basically captured the look and feel of the cartoon, but did at least experiment with making things a little more mature. I basically only decided to give the Archie Turtles their own entry because of what they did with Raph. Still keeping him mostly in-line with his cartoon counterpart, he was also made the loner or black sheep of the family and he wore all black for a while. It was confusing for me as a kid and I probably didn’t care for it, but now I look back and give Archie credit for not just adapting episodes of the cartoon into printed form.
4. Mirage Comics
All style, no substance. That’s pretty much the Mirage Turtles in a nut-shell, or should I say half-shell? While they did get better, initially the four characters were interchangeable. Chunky, but muscular, they were depicted in black and white and were only distinguishable by their weapons. Eventually, the personality of Raphael would be added and he was given a foil in Leonardo and a kindred spirit in Casey Jones. Leonardo would be made the stoic leader, while Donatello the introverted tech-nerd. Mikey never really morphed into the character we’ve seen elsewhere and he’s kind of hard to get a read on. Eastman and Laird’s artwork also improved along the way and their version of the Turtles from say issue 4 on is pretty damn good. Eventually, other artists were brought in to work on the books and you could do a separate listing on the various different takes they had on the characters, but for the purpose of this ranking I’m basically just going with the Eastman/Laird take. The peak of their art is probably best reflected, and most can recall it from the cover art to the first NES game. It confused the Hell out of me to see all four of the Turtles wearing red, but I sure thought it looked pretty bad ass.
3. The Nick Turtles (2012 TV series)
It took some time, but the 2012 version of the characters seen in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did eventually grow on me. As far as personality and so forth was concerned, I was pretty much hooked from the start. The same archetypes were followed that we’re used to, but they felt more malleable and sincere. Leonardo wasn’t just some goody-two-shoes, he often struggled with being a surrogate Splinter when out on the town. Raph was a bit of a hot-head, but he didn’t strike me as being confrontational just for the sake of it. Donatello was a brain, but an insecure one. Mikey was still juvenile and mostly care free, but without being too over-exposed. This show pretty much nailed it as far as that goes. From a looks perspective, they basically went with the first movie, but with colored masks. The Turtles also featured three toes for the first time, an odd choice, but largely inconsequential. They wore wraps on their feet too which was different, but it made sense (those other turtles must have had some serious blisters) and added a little personality. About the only thing I didn’t like was the sometimes boxy-looking anatomy. Their shoulder muscles looked practically square, but it became less noticeable the more I was exposed to it. I loved that each turtle had his own body type and you could tell them apart by that alone. I also liked the little touch of making their eyes go blank when in combat. Definitely a move that’s all style and has no practical explanation in-universe, but it’s a cartoon so who cares? Have fun with it! This television series should be the new measuring stick for any future incarnation of the TMNT. That doesn’t mean they all should take the same approach, but strive for the same level of quality.
2. The IDW Turtles (IDW Comics)
Alongside the 2012 reboot came a reboot in printed form. Kevin Eastman returned to the franchise alongside IDW Comics and presented a new version of the TMNT. It basically takes the tone of the original Mirage Comics, while also adding in the more developed personalities that would follow. The artwork is largely great, and the Turtles are back to wearing all red (they would eventually gain some color). If you’re an adult fan still mad about the new cartoon, well just head to a comic shop and read this series. This is the version of the TMNT made for those who out-grew the franchise, and from that perspective it’s pretty good. The Turtles will never be high art, and there’s tons of fan-service plots in this series, but in general it’s what most TMNT fans over 30 probably want.
1.The Henson Turtles (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze)
Could there be anything else? The 1990 movie is still the best adaption of any kind of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Taking the Mirage look, adding in the colored masks from the cartoon, and also its own creative liberties resulted in a near perfect take on this green team. The four brothers all look different, all act different, and all go through their own ups and downs along the way. They have distinct personalities and challenges to face, and most of all the costumes created for these two movies are fantastic. I prefer the more realistic approach of the first film. That one was less intimidated by showing these characters for what they are, while the second one brightened things up and made them a little more appealing to look at from a practical sense. In other words, the Turtles of the first film looked like they lived in a sewer, while the ones in the second looked like they lived in an upscale apartment in Manhattan (which they did for a time). The first film is also very different in terms of style and tone, but the Jim Henson Company worked on both. The costumes received mostly minor tweaks between films, though Donatello looks almost completely different (he also had the biggest personality change as well, I guess because Feldman left the franchise). Both films entertained me a lot as a kid, but of the two, only the first one actually holds up. The second is basically a live-action version of the cartoon, though Raph still gets to inject a bit of conflict into the group dynamics. That first film is the best though. It hits the sweet spot between the gritty violence of the Mirage source material and the playful banter of the cartoon. It’s unlikely we’ll ever receive a better version of these characters, but maybe someone out there is just waiting to prove me wrong. I hope they’re successful.