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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (4Kids): The Christmas Aliens

images-166In 2003, Fox and 4Kids Entertainment launched a brand new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series.  This series was the first re-launch for the TMNT after a long hiatus from both film and television and was an attempt at introducing the Turtles to a whole new generation.  One of the consultants for the show was TMNT co-creator Peter Laird and his Mirage Studios.  Something everyone seemed to be in agreement on was that this new show would borrow more heavily from the original comic book run of the Turtles while still keeping a general audience in mind.  This is, of course, in stark contrast to the original cartoon which all but abandoned the comics as both Laird and Kevin Eastman felt it was impossible to adapt that for a children’s show.  It would be easy to point to that decision as a mistake, but really that original show gave the world a whole separate take on the Turtles that proved endearing, if nothing else.

The 2003 series was more mature, but still pretty much directed at kids.  It took a lot from the old comics but also did its own thing.  Eventually, it would more or less go off on its own, especially once it hit the Fast Forward seasons towards the end of its run.  I can’t pretend to be an expert on the series as I really only watched the first season before eventually losing interest.  The show seemed to be fairly successful, though not a huge hit, with kids.  There was a new toy line and I’m sure the show’s success had some part in the decision to do the feature-length TMNT film.

The source material for this episode.

The source material for this episode.

Something unique to this series is that it contains what is, so far, the only animated Christmas special the Turtles have ever done.  It seems crazy to me that there was a never a Christmas episode during the original cartoon run, but I checked, and there isn’t!  The new series has also yet to do one, but it wouldn’t shock me to see one pop up eventually.  The only Christmas special featuring the TMNT so far is the live-action “We Wish You a Turtle Christmas” and if you’ve never seen it, DON’T WATCH IT!  The 4Kids series decided for its third season to adapt the Michelangelo (then Michaelangelo) Micro Series story for its first episode, “The Christmas Aliens.”  Having read that issue, I was interested in checking this episode out as that story is one of my favorites from the comics as it puts Michelangelo in the starring role as he attempts to make sure a donation of Christmas toys gets to a local orphanage.

Each episode of the series opens with a scene from later on in the episode, usually with a turtle or turtles in some kind of trouble.  This one opens with Michelangelo driving a truck as he’s being chased by some crooks before the opening credits hit.  The opening song for this show is one of its weak points.  I don’t care for the song on the new series, but it’s at least a throwback to the old series so I give it some points.  This one is just lazy.  When we get to the episode it shows Michelangelo strolling through the park on Christmas Eve.  The other guys are back at home in the sewer decorating for the evening’s festivities while Mike befriends some kids in the park and finds a stray kitten he dubs Klunk.  It doesn’t take long for Mikey to stumble upon a toy store that’s in the process of being robbed.  Apparently, this season’s hottest toy is a Christmas Alien doll (I believe in the comics it was intended to be a parody of the then mega-popular Cabbage Patch Kids) and it’s sold out everywhere.  A delivery truck loaded with them is the target of the thieves, but Mikey overhears the truck driver tell the crooks it’s intended for a local orphanage.  The crooks obviously don’t care as they make off with the truck and Mikey feels compelled to stop them.

That's one weird looking Santa.  I can't imagine he smells all that great as well.

That’s one weird looking Santa. I can’t imagine he smells all that great as well.

At the lair, various other characters start piling in.  I actually can’t name any of them since I didn’t watch the show regularly, except for Usagi Yojimbo who arrives with two other characters via some kind of portal.  All of the Turtles’ friends are here though to celebrate Christmas and some mischief is made.  Casey tries in vain to score a kiss under the mistletoe from April, while everyone tries their luck at beating the resident superhero in an arm-wrestling contest.  Everything has to be put on hold though as they all wait for Michelangelo to get home.

Meanwhile, Michelangelo has to contend with a bunch of crooks and even the police as he overtakes the delivery truck and heads for the orphanage.  The majority of the episode is a chase sequence, first with Mikey hanging onto the truck as he tries to take it over, then with more bad guys, and eventually the police.  The animation shows its limitations here as the truck looks extremely heavy.  It strikes parked cars and other moving vehicles and goes right through them without even the slightest wobble.  It’s an okay sequence, but not a very exciting one.  The Michelangelo character in this series is enjoyable though, and Klunk is supremely cute as he hides in Mike’s coat and pops his head out to take a look.

Michelangelo is eventually able to lose his pursuers and wind up back at the lair.  Everyone is ready to scold him for being late, but he of course explains himself and everyone heads to the orphanage.  The Turtles don elf costumes while Splinter goes as Santa and all the kids get their alien dolls.  We get a final lesson on giving, and everyone feels like a good person in the end.

Elf Mike and Klunk.

Elf Mike and Klunk.

As Christmas specials go, this is a solid entry.  It’s not too sentimental, there’s no silly drama, and everyone ends up with a good feeling when all is said and done.  There’s some light humor that is, while not inventive, at least amusing.  Michelangelo is a good choice for the lead role in this one as he’s always been the one that’s easiest to relate to.  His child-like state of mind doesn’t need to be exaggerated any further to make the story work.  In the comics, Klunk stayed around and would show up in future issues.  I don’t know if that was the case here or not but I never mind the addition of a kitten to story.  This episode was released on DVD as a Michelangelo’s Christmas Rescue and if you stumble upon it in your travels it wouldn’t be a horrible pick-up.  The running time is only around 22 minutes so definitely don’t pay too much should you come across it.  Since Nickelodeon launched the new series last year, episodes from this show are no longer on television so don’t expect to find it airing on any channels this season.  As always, there’s youtube if you really want to watch it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Nick Series Episode 1

You can’t keep a good turtle down.

When I was younger I don’t think I ever expected the shows and properties I was into at the time to still be popular when I was an adult.  I had a similar conversation with a cousin of mine who happens to be the father of a five-year-old boy.  We were talking about how it was kind of funny you could replace one of our childhood birthday or Christmas gift wish lists with one of his and not notice.  His list was full of Transformers, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and so on.  Some things are expected to stand the test of time, like Spider-Man and Star Wars, but intellectual properties like the Transformers and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?  Those were kind of unexpected.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have sometimes struggled to stay relevant.  After the bubble burst on the 80’s and early 90’s hysteria they kind of went away.  There was a television show on Fox Kids called The Next Mutation that only last one season and that show was the first attempt at bringing them back.  It was live action and since the budget was so low compared to the popular films it wasn’t received too well by older fans and the younger kids who had missed out didn’t seem to care for it.  After that failure, TMNT co-creator Peter Laird kept the franchise on life support with hopes of bringing the boys into the world of CGI.  I was unable to find anything on the internet, but I recall seeing some rather ugly mock-ups for it on ninjaturtles.com (now owned by Nick) back around 2000 or so.

There’s lots of little 2D visual effects in the show like stars or anime styled throbbing veins and such.

The CG proposal was never picked up, but the Turtles did resurface in 2003 with a new traditionally animated show put out by Fox and 4 Kids Entertainment.  Much like the first film, the new show combined the origins of the comic Turtles with the cartoon series adored by millions to create something that was both respectful to the origins but kept the kids in mind.  I only watched the first season but remember it being a fairly entertaining show.  Certainly if I were a parent I wouldn’t mind sitting thru it with my kid.  It kept the tone some-what serious with comedic breaks to liven the mood, most involving Michelangelo.  From what I could gather from a distance, the show would eventually splinter off away from any of the older versions of the Turtles and establish its own sense of self.  There was even a series titled Flash Forward that took place in the future.  The success of the show, though never approaching the height of Turtle-Mania, probably helped get the 2007 film, TMNT, made.  That’s when the Turtles finally got their CG debut and the results were mixed.  Financially, it did all right but the plot was rather poor and the Turtles looked more like frogs than turtles.  It did have its moments, but no new films in the series (TMNT was a sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III) were planned and if a Turtles film is ever produced expect it to be a reboot.

Anyone who has kept up with the Turtles knows by now that a new film was in the works.  Titled Ninja Turtles, it was going to be a Michael Bay production and was likely to be a major reboot for the franchise with the Turtles actually being aliens or something.  Intense negative reactions on the internet and a reportedly terrible script got the project put on indefinite hold.  Alongside it, a new television show and comic book series have been in the works.  The various mediums are not related other than the source material, but it was likely hoped that all of this cross-promotion would really help invigorate the franchise.  The comic has been out for about a year now and is okay, from what I’ve heard, and the television show premiered this morning.

There’s a blockiness, as seen in Leo’s shoulder, to the design of the Turtles that I find off-putting.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Nick Turtles?) is the CG series that never was from the past.  The Turtles have been given a modified look and the show is separate from other incarnation of the Turtles.  One of the larger changes resides in the April O’Neil character who is now a teenaged ally of the Turtles.  For the most part, it’s pretty standard.  We have four teenaged turtles living in the sewer with their sensei, Splinter, who once was a man named Hamato Yoshi.  The Shredder is back as the main villain, and so is Krang who hasn’t been heard from in a long time.  The tone of the show is definitely reminiscent of the old cartoon as this is aimed primarily at kids new to the property.  One actual throwback to the old show for older viewers is the use of voice actor Rob Paulsen who was the original voice of Raphael but will now be handling the Donatello duties.

Visually these turtles look a lot like the ones from the 2003 cartoon.  Each turtle retains his trademarked mask but features brown pads everywhere else.  Their skin tone varies slightly from turtle to turtle and some have freckles while Don even sports a gap in his teeth.  Each one has extra bandages for some reason, I guess to make them look edgier, and retains their standard weapons.  In comparison to the CG film, these turtles are less frog-like but since it’s television the quality is lower.  They’re kind of blocky looking and sometimes they get these weird flat “panels” on their skin that seems inconsistent from shot to shot.  It makes me think of the old 32 bit video games when developers were first getting their feet wet with 3D.  The overall design is fine, but does leave something to be desired.  Splinter has often been portrayed either gray or brown, but in this one he’s multi-colored.  He’s also much taller than the Turtles this time around, which is a departure for the character, and he’s less feeble looking.

The first episode, which was an hour long, serves as the introduction for the Turtles.  Right from the start we’re shown who the dominant turtle is (Raph) and also given a glimpse of their individual personalities.  Nothing surprising here, though each turtle is a little sillier than how they’re usually portrayed, including Mike who’s not only the party dude but also a moron.  Their origin is relayed and it’s fairly close to the one from the old animated series only this time it was Hamato Yoshi carrying the bowl full of turtles and he got into a scuffle with the holders of the ooze, or mutagen, that would come into contact with our protagonists.  The flashback, and others in this episode, are told via hand drawn stills with minimal animation which was kind of a fun break from the CG.  Later in the episode we’re told that Yoshi had a wife and daughter and lost both to the Shredder.  He confirms his wife is dead but uses the word “lost” when speaking of his daughter so expect her to surface at some point (perhaps as Kiara?).

Expect to see more of this guy in future episodes.

The animation is better than I expected.  The Turtles and other inhabitants of the world move well enough and it’s on par with the best CG one can find on television.  There is a bit of a disconnect between the Turtles and their environment that may or may not be apparent to all viewers.  Most of the backgrounds are fairly dark as well to probably make it easier on the artists.  Sometimes this leads to backgrounds that are mostly black which doesn’t look good on TV.  The music is mostly a collection of electronic instruments, the only notable moment for me was the chase sequence about halfway thru.  The new theme song is basically a hip hop remake of the original television theme.  The less said the better.

The tone of the show reminds me more of the ’07 film than the animated series.  It’s light on one-liners but definitely aims to keep things upbeat.  When the fighting starts the Turtles do get serious, to a point, and a visual cue kicks in where their eyes become completely white.  It’s kind of interesting, but also kind of odd.  They’ll still pause during battle though at inappropriate times to make a humorous observation.  At first the Turtles appear to subsist on traditional turtle food, but early on in the episode are introduced to pizza and are hooked instantly.  They’re shown to have a television (and Leonardo appears to model himself after a Captain Kirk like TV character) but appear mostly ignorant to the outside world.  Either they don’t watch much TV or they just don’t pay attention.

The show itself introduces us to the Utroms of this universe.  When I said Krang was coming back I may have spoke too soon as the Utroms are now called Krangs.  They operate in the same way but are depicted as villains.  They kidnap April and her scientist father, which is how the Turtles meet her.  Donatello is instantly smitten with her, so we’ll have to see where that goes, but the Krangs are the primary antagonist for this hour of the show.  Shredder is only shown in a cameo, but we can see he’s still the leader of the Foot (unless they choose to rename it) and it appears his head and face has been severely burnt (probably as a result of his last encounter with Yoshi).

This is definitely a kid’s show and older viewers should not expect this program to elevate itself beyond that.  I kind of wish I had watched it with a kid to see how they would have reacted to the jokes and visual gags, most of which are standard kids show clichés.  For me, none of it was very funny but the plot surprised me in that it kept me interested for an hour.  I expected worse, but it seems like the Turtles have a legitimate chance to recapture the hearts of kids once again.  I’ll probably tune in to a couple more of the episodes just to see what other characters from the past return but it’s not something I plan on sticking with.

Post script:  I would categorize my early impressions of this show as tempered enthusiasm.  I expected it would succeed at hitting its target audience but probably not those who grew up with the original cartoon series.  I may have been wrong.  I watched the first few episodes out of sheer curiosity, but now find myself watching them out of sheer enjoyment.  The show is a lot wittier than I could have ever expected.  Some of the Mikey humor is still a little much for adult tastes, but a lot of it is pretty clever and dialogue driven.  The action pieces have also exceeded expectations.  And the many nods to the old series (such as the ringtone on each turtle’s cell phone) is much appreciated.  A lot of my early criticisms about the show’s visuals still remain and it’s become obvious the show doesn’t have the budget to create a thriving New York (seriously, there’s almost no traffic in the city when the turtles are out and about) but that should be expected given this is television and not a feature film.  In short, this show is genuinely enjoyable and I have yet to view an episode that I did not enjoy on some level.  That may not always be the case, but so far so good.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs at 11 AM Saturdays on Nick.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection – Vol. 2

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 2

There was a time in my life when I thought I was done with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  They had dominated my childhood, but come the early 90’s I had mostly moved on.  I still had a soft spot for them, but their cartoon had become too predictable, the toy lines too ridiculous, and I was already on to my next obsession.  When the television show moved to CBS’s new Saturday morning block the studio revamped it, giving it a darker look in an attempt to mature the series to better appeal to changing tastes.  It didn’t last long in this new format, and the Turtles began to fade away from the mainstream.  In 1997 Fox and Saban Entertainment brought the four-some back for a new live action show, possibly to try to appeal to fans of the Power Rangers, but the show only lasted one season and 26 episodes before being cancelled.

The Turtles mostly vanished from television after the cancellation of The Next Mutation.  It seemed like they were now destined to become just a memory of a silly era where anthropomorphic characters were all over the place in children’s programming.  Something people in the future would look back on and say, “What were they thinking?”  Then a funny thing happened, and the Turtles were suddenly relevant again.

It all started with Fox and 4Kids Entertainment revitalizing the franchise thru a new cartoon developed in collaboration with Peter Laird’s Mirage Studios (by this point in time, co-creator Kevin Eastman wasn’t involved with the TMNT) that premiered on Fox’s Saturday morning cartoon block in early 2003.  Simply titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this new series adapted the original Mirage comics more faithfully then its predecessors while still keeping the show appropriate for younger viewers.  The Turtles had an edgier appearance with blank eyes and a more lean appearance.  Each one had a personality mirroring the ones from the original comic.  Really, the only holdover from the wildly popular 80’s cartoon was the unique bandana color for each turtle.  At times, the show almost directly paralleled the old books before the creators started to branch out and do their own thing, but the show worked and the Turtles were once again relevant.  This helped get a new movie green-lit that was eventually released in 2007, titled TMNT, and has helped keep the franchise alive to this day.  Now the Turtles are owned by Nickelodeon with IDW handling the new comic book line.  A new show and a bunch of new toys (including these awesome retro themed ones) are slated for release later this year in addition to the ongoing comic run now headed by Eastman.  Along the way, IDW has chosen to give the old fans some new collections to thumb thru, and my old Turtle-fandom is back in full-force!

Michaelangelo’s solo issue, featuring the debut of Klunk the cat.

I already talked about IDW’s first release of collected works, and now I’m ready to talk about Volume 2.  Volume 2 is another high-quality release and contains issues 8-11 of the original run, plus the micro issue one-shots for Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo.  The cover contains new artwork done by Eastman, though it confusingly includes the Triceratons and Fugitioid who don’t appear in this collection, but looks nice.  The interior has been enhanced to a larger size, like the first volume, and is kept in its original black and white.  Each issue is followed by reflections from both Eastman and Laird.  For this collection, Laird has contributed more thoughts and it looks like he was a more active participant.  It’s particularly interesting to read the comments for the later issues when the two discuss their fraying relationship with each other.  Neither guy takes shots at one another, and both come across as sincere when they express their disappointment for how things turned out.

The issues covered by this collection essentially wrap-up the original run of the books.  After issue #11, more people were brought on board and Eastman and Laird didn’t really work together any longer.  The Turtles were also exploding on television and the first movie was in production for a 1990 release.  The issues bring the Turtles back to earth following their exploits in space, and outside of a couple of issues, the story-lines are more reality based this time around (when one ignores the fact that the protagonists are walking, talking, fighting turtles, of course).

The first few issues have a sort of one-shot feel to them as the plot-lines do not tie in with any of the previous narratives.  Issue #8 was a collaborative with Dave Sims’ Cerebus the Aardvark, a comic at the time Eastman was said to be particularly fond of.  It’s some wacky time-travel thing that sees the Turtles accidentally warped to Cerebus’s medieval setting where the two join forces.  There’s some decent humor here, but for someone who isn’t a fan of Cerebus, the cross-over appeal was lost on me and I was interested in getting back to the New York setting.  Issue #9 is a flash-back of one of the Turtles’ earliest outings that sees Splinter switch bodies with a dying master in Japan.  While still containing a supernatural element, I enjoyed this one more than issue #8 as it felt more like a traditional TMNT adventure and it was fun seeing the younger Turtles do their thing.  Design wise, Eastman and Laird gave the Turtles full bandanas that covered their heads which was kind of a cool look.

He’s back!

The micro series for Mike, Don, and Leo are interwoven throughout the collection.  Mike and Don’s are more of the one-shot variety, while Leo’s directly ties into the next arc for the comic.  In Mike’s, we get to see the youngest of the Turtles foil a robbery on Christmas and make a new friend out of a stray cat he dubs Klunk.  It’s a fun chance to see Mike go off on his own and adds depth to the character.  The issue would eventually be used as inspiration for an episode of the 2003 cartoon titled “The Christmas Aliens.”  Donatello’s one-shot, “Kirby and the Warp Crystal,” would also be adapted for the cartoon as “The King.”  This issue was Eastman and Laird’s tribute to the legendary Jack Kirby.  Initially, the two wanted to rasie money for Kirby who was in a legal battle with Marvel Comics over licensing fees.  In the old days, writers who worked for Marvel worked under a work-for-hire agreement and anything they created was the property of Marvel and Marvel alone, meaning they saw no royalties for other works using the characters they created.  Kirby and his family refused to take Eastman and Laird’s money, but the sentiment was likely still appreciated.  The story is kind of fun, and it’s obvious the two had great affection for Kirby’s work as his influence is all over the series.

The Leonardo one-shot is probably my favorite from this collection as it kicks off the plot that re-introduces The Shredder.  This book and the following ones would be adapted in part for the first film.  In Leo’s book, he gets attacked by the returning Foot clan and eventually overwhelmed (in the film, it’s Raphael in place of Leo).  The encounter spills over into April’s apartment as the issue ends with Leo crashing thru the window and warning his brothers that The Shredder is back.  The full-page illustration is one of my favorites from the series.

From here, the Turtles are attacked by the Foot and the action takes them into April’s antique shop.  When things are looking bad, Casey Jones shows up and aids in their escape but Shredder sees to it that April’s store (and home) is destroyed in the process.  From here, the story takes us to Northampton, Massachusetts where Casey’s grandmother has an old farm house.  Issue #11 is told mostly thru the eyes of April as she writes in her journal about how the Turtles cope with defeat and how she deals with the loss of her father’s antique shop.  I’ve been critical of Eastman and Laird’s writing in the past, but here they do a nice of job of presenting their theme for the story with care and levity, making this issue (and arc) their best yet.  The overall theme of issue #11 ends up being to appreciate what is most important in life, and not to place too much importance in material things.  The issue ends with the Turtles coming together as both April and the gang arrive at that same conclusion simultaneously.

Overall, I think I enjoyed Volume 2 more than I enjoyed Volume 1.  The writing is tighter and more focused, and the micro issues really do a good job of adding depth to the characters.  Eastman and Laird are also able to bring out the individual personalities for each turtle in the other issues as well, and they’ve all finally had their traits firmly established by the end of the collection.  I’m still a bit surprised that the Leo/Raph rivalry hasn’t been hinted at yet, though perhaps I’ve been misled and that is a dynamic that was added to the group by outside sources before Eastman and Laird considered exploring it.  It’s also a lot of fun seeing the stories for the first time that ended up making it into the movie I saw so long ago as a kid.  It makes me appreciate that film even more.  And while most of the books were lifted in a more thematic sense for the film, the scene where Don and Casey work on the old truck even had some of the dialogue lifted word for word.  Only in the comic it’s Raph in place of Don and some of the insults are different.  There is a sense of finality at the end of the collection, especially in the write-ups from Eastman and Laird, but a volume 3 is on the way that will cover issues #12, 14, 15, 17, and 19-21 which contains the “Return to New York” story-line.  Following that arc, Eastman and Laird had little direct involvement with the comics so it figures that volume 3 may be the last for the The Ultimate Collection.  It is possible a fourth volume could be produced covering the massive “City at War” arc that spanned 13 issues and was co-written by the original creators.  Volume 3 is currently due out in July, though don’t be surprised if it gets delayed as both of the previous collections were.  I’ve really enjoyed the fist two volumes, and already have volume 3 pre-ordered!  For longtime fans, I suggest you do the same.

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