Through 155 episodes, 4Kids’ 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a relatively consistent high quality, but not by committing to the tone of the comics – by committing to itself.
The one thing that every good cartoon needs isn’t great animation, tight storytelling, excellent art direction, or appealing characters. Sure, all of those are desirable, and every creative team should aspire to achieve those goals, but the number one thing necessary to a sustainable, enjoyable cartoon is commitment. Cartoons are, almost by definition, so loose and free and unrestrained, that any ridiculous, unrealistic premise can take surprising form and shape if everyone on board commits to the idea(s) and the ideal(s) of the cartoon. Commitment isn’t something you can put on paper or thrust into a few characters. Everyone has to agree to the set-ups AND the various plot catalysts that are inherent in the show’s premise. Everything that does happen, no matter how crazy, has to somehow come back the the core nature of the show and its characters.
This is a roundabout way of explaining why basically the 2003 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a high (well, appealing) quality through its seven season, 155-episode run. Whether shooting the four brothers across space, cyberspace, dimensions, time, pseudo-time, dream-scapes, or whatever crock-pot crazy story the writers cooked up, the show never shied from some core, committed basics: the natural characterizations of the four brothers and their pseudo-father (and their rich, always-potent familial connection); the intense, well-done action scenes; the unique seasonal choices that threw the cast into unique and varies circumstances; the myriad of diverse, outlandish characters that popped in and out of the turtles’ lives. SO much happened in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during its entire existence, but whatever DID happen, the writers and animators were committed to it. Even its weakest, wackiest premises were given solid, well-told stories: with seven season and one final TV-movie to muck things up, I’d be hard-pressed to declare any season or arc as an abject failure (and I’ll get more into that during this review).
I’m going to put a lot of the show’s success on Chuck Patton and Roy Burdine’s shoulders, the directors of the majority of the episodes (with credit also to the sheer influx of various writers that flowed in and out over the years). Every iteration completely up-ended the show – whether by changing the tone, the designs, the flow of action, the locations, the story-arcs, etc., all at the expense of a (increasingly obvious) shrinking budget and network interference – and Patton and Burdine managed to crank out fantastically energetic, entertaining episodes day in and day out. Even if the Lost Episodes, Fast Forward, and Back to the Sewer episodes disappointed fans (something I’ll get into a bit later), they still managed to produce delightfully watchable television.
All that’s primarily due to the show’s commitment. No matter what crazy event came into the turtles lives, the writers and animators approached it one hundred percent. No matter what insane limitations and forced changes were passed down on the creative team, they bit the bullet and cranked out good work. With cartoon writers these days seemingly struggling with storytelling with a 23-minute timeframe (The current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Adventures of Puss and Boots are two glaring examples), it’s refreshing to watch a show that can handle a solid, straight-forward story with genuinely tight action, real dramatic stakes, impressive characterizations, and actual humorous moments – all done within structurally competent stories and direction.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s major strength probably came from two key aspects: 1) treating the show like a comic, and 2) spending the time to establish every and all major plot changes. The first allows for slick visuals and dynamic animation (including constantly changing aspect ratios, the TV way of mimicking comic panels), particularly around large-scale fight sequences, while the second allows for characters and plot points to breath, particularly important when time/space/dimensional travel becomes a lot more significant. Animators get creative freedom; writers get creative freedom. Combined, the two aspects allow audience members to get drawn into borderline-incredulous storylines. Sure, the basic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story – where Leo is stalked, thrown into April’s apartment; where they all escape to the farmhouse and recover; where they return to New York and finally beat back the Shredder – is there, and smartly drawn out to emphasize the sheer seriousness and intensity of the arc.
When the brothers are warped into some bizarre space war between humanoids and alien-dinosaur people, discover an underground civilization of transformed monsters, battle along side parodies of Marvel/DC superheros, or when sucked into an alternate universe that involves a large-scaled, competitive battle nexus, a la Mortal Kombat – these kinds of stories threaten to completely throw the core nature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a loop. But the show maintains its composure, focusing on those two aspects from above, delineating multi-part arcs to ease in the strangeness – mini TV movies, basically. This opens up the door to some pretty crazy, but wildly entertaining stories down the line, both dark and light, and for the most part all intriguing.
A lot of fans disliked the fourth season take on Leonardo, who became a darker, more emotionally-distant brother after the crazy events of the third. I thought it was a bold choice; the show clearly didn’t take Leo’s view as gospel, and the remaining brothers/Splinter tried desperately to help him. It was a real challenge, and it worked well, making Leo’s breakthrough all the most satisfying. It unfortunately led to The Lost Episodes, which didn’t originally air at first. They were released after the Fast Forward season, and it’s clear why. It feels like the creative team wanted to try a “Turtles, but in school” set-up, but also attempted to go for the strangely popular Dragon Ball Z fanbase. Clearly cobbled together in a rush, The Lost Episodes are, while not awful, definitely way out the creative team’s range. But they try, and the very attempt makes it a lot more watchable than it has any right to be. Still, The Lost Episodes are by far the weakest season.
Fast Forward, meanwhile, definitely feels like network interference. Throwing a cast of familiar characters into the future was always a go-to move to try and revitalize a series. It’s also a bit more sillier, with Serling’s robotic annoyance, Constable Biggles uselessness, and Mikey’s more mischievous, goofier behavior taking up more screen time. But the writers, being professional, still make the most of it, with some solid, tense episodes and pretty intimidating villains. That season’s potential was also cut short, with a bunch of episodes left on the storyboard wall as Back to the Sewer debuted. It has the same tone as Fast Forward, more or less set up to finish up the series on a high note. Even though that season also was clearly cut short, time-and-budget-wise (nothing comes of the first episode’s “three Shredders” set up), the season is still relatively strong, its characters still on point, and its stories still well told, with a rushed but wonderfully resonant finale that sums up the entire season as a whole. “Wedding Bells and Bytes” exemplifies the show’s core strength – it’s constant commitment to whatever change comes its way.
The glowing praise here can’t mask the show’s few flaws, which are, while tiny, rather significant. The main one is that every single villain is a mustache-twirling figure of evil of some type, heavy on exposition and rants with little in terms of development. They do try to explore Stockman a bit, but his life story comes a bit too late, his massive ego way too ridiculous to pull back from. (Bishop’s arc overall is much better, although he’s was so much more entertaining as a villain). Stockman’s literal, constant dismemberment is also disconcerting, as being the only major minority character on the show; watching his hubris, submission, and destruction to others is a bit uncomfortable to watch, time and time again. Poor treatment of female characters is also the show’s flaw. April is established as a scientist but only occasionally exercises that level of intelligence; her training by Splinter never results in anything, either (Karai, on the other hand, fares better). Generally speaking, the characters are second-fiddle to the scope of the show, which is fine, but major players like April and Stockman deserve better.
Yet despite the flawed characters, changing premises, shifting tones, and various character designs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles never really lets up, constantly chugging out engaging episodes and real character moments that remained at a high caliber. The series ended its run (and celebrated its 25th Anniversary) with “Turtles Forever,” a fantastic, high-energy trip down memory lane, with the 2003 team meeting up with the 1987 team and battling 2003 Shredder, Karai, 1987’s Shredder, and 1987’s Krang. It’s filled with cameos and references to the various versions of the franchise, culminating in a self-referential (and self-deprecating) battle with the 1984 Mirage Comics version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s hilarious and amazing, with top-notch animation and clever touches, making it one of the best parodies/homages in ages. It also makes a fantastic capper to a fantastic show, a distillation of a series that ran its paces and constantly delivered.
Turtles forever, indeed.