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‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Thrive on Cartoon Reboots

The identity of the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ required years of revision as the characters hopped from comics to cartoons to movies. 
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cartoons
By  · Published on August 8th, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we spotlight the various radical cartoon iterations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Despite what you’ve heard, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not an overnight sensation. What started as a joke doodle-war between artist roommates Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird eventually mutated into the first issue of their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book series. The tiny initial print run sold out quickly, demanding multiple editions with each of them accruing a lofty aftermarket price tag.

If you were to read the first issue today, the titular Turtles found within do not look, sound, or behave like the Turtles you adore. These black and white brutes gleam heavily from the inspirations of Eastman and Laird, mainly Frank Miller’s iconic run on Marvel’s Daredevil as well as his apocalyptic samurai saga Ronin. The comic book Ninja Turtles are fast to penetrate baddies with their sharp instruments of ninjutsu, and their humor slips deeper into the gutter than public broadcasting would ever imagine, let alone allow.

The characters took years to develop and required multiple platforms of filtration before they would solidify into the bodacious buds and toy aisle dominators we now recognize them as. The franchise may have begun with the comic book, but it cemented itself as an IP diety thanks to the 1987 cartoon series. Adults could scoff at its ridiculous premise until they were blue in the face, but once the cartoon bounded into the Saturday morning arena with its endless gathering of cereal-munching kiddies, preconceived notions of acceptable and profitable taste mattered little.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not about logic; it was about what was rad, and absurdity presented as pragmatic reality was absolutely rad. The fact that parents were confounded made the show totally bossa nova, maybe even tubular.

The cartoon series, of course, would not exist without the toys. As is the case with most Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s, the show was as much a commercial as it was a narrative. This is America.

Playmates Toys was curious but a little wary regarding the Ninja Turtles’ bloody comic book origins. For them to move forward on the property, they demanded a cartoon series to establish the necessary craving from its young audience. It would not be on them to do the heavy lifting.

The first season consisted of five episodes operating as a single storyline chopped into chapters. The Splinter of the cartoon did not start life as a rat but as a human. He was a disgraced member of the Foot Clan, living in the sewers of New York City with four discarded box turtles.

One day, he discovers his four pets frolicking in a river of ooze. As he collects his friends, he exposes himself to the mutagen. The turtles take on human characteristics, while their human master takes on the traits of a nearby rat.

Such a cataclysmic metamorphosis would be enough to occupy most miniseries, but with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, nothing can be that simple — cuz simple ain’t cool. The Turtles’ change is merely the beginning; the real challenge presents itself when Splinter’s old Foot Clan rival The Shredder partners with an interdimensional blob of pink called Krang.

More important than these slight shifts in origin are the significant alterations to the Turtles’ personalities. The grim avengers make room for the surfer styled party animals, flaunting their teenage roots more so than their ninja heritage. Pizza becomes their catnip — the weirder the toppings, the more prized and delicious. Rather than all of the Turtles donning a uniform red bandit mask, each gets his own color to distinguish him from the rest: blue for Leonardo, orange for Michaelangelo, red for Raphael, and purple for Donatello.

The first cartoon series ran for nearly a decade, and at its height, new episodes aired five days a week. Playmates Toys got their audience of consumers and made a killing on their molded plastic. After kids accepted the original concept, the company threw everything they could at the market: Star Trek Ninja Turtles, Universal Monsters Ninja Turtles, Pizza Tossin’ Ninja Turtles. Seemingly, no idea got turned down.

Eastman and Laird did not retain the rights to the first series, but when it came time to relaunch the brand in 2003, their Mirage Studios claimed one-third ownership. Mirage relished the profits that the first cartoon iteration brought in, but naturally, they wished the cartoon resembled something a little more in line with their comic book series. The 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was Mirage’s chance to instill a harder edge.

The surfer language retreated, as did the humor in general. The 21st-century Turtles were all about action, reaching back to Eastman and Laird’s comics for plots and characters. Splinter is no longer the man-turned-rat, but the rat-turned-almost-man. He takes on more of a father figure role as the 2003 series embraces notions of family and brotherhood.

Many consider this version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be the superior adaptation. As the ’80s kids grew up, so did their appetites, and a pizza topped with jelly beans and sausage no longer sufficed. Viewers expected grit, and the stakes elevated as brawls with the Foot Clan, Purple Dragon Gang, and the Rat King resulted in violent aftermath. Still, the 2003 series never reached the gnarly factor of the books.

The second wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lasted until 2009 when it climaxed with a TV movie featuring an interdimensional team-up with their 1987 counterparts and the OG black and white comic book versions of the characters. Look no further if you want to see the most glorious celebration of all things Cowabunga.

After the passing of the first 21st century series, Turtles fanatics would not have to wait long for more ninja action. In 2010, Nickelodeon purchased Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from Mirage Studios and 4Kids Entertainment, and two years later, they brought the CGI series to their channel. This time, the show went back to the original cartoon history while concentrating most of its narrative on Krang’s transformative mutagen. Toys, toys, toys — every animal gets a splash of the ooze, so the endless stream of action figures can march forever forward.

After five years, the studio retired the CGI Turtles, and Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took over their slot. In a franchise built on makeovers, it’s the most significant — strike that: the most radical. A new voice came with each turtle: Ben Schwartz (now better known as Sonic the Hedgehog) takes on the pressures of the leader Leonardo, Omar Benson Miller is Raphael, Brandon Mychal Smith is Michelangelo, and Big Head‘s Josh Brener inhabits the big brains of the team as Donatello.

From a visual standpoint, Leo and his brothers appear severely different. Body shapes are altered, additional facial patterns are slapped on their skulls, and their masks — beyond their usual color coding — are modified to match each sibling’s personality. These Turtles designs are akin to a Cartoon Network house style, emphasizing a two-dimensional plane of existence rather than the heavily rendered style of the previous CGI ‘toons.

Tonally, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes closest to matching the vibe of the original animated series. It’s a comedy with bursts of action. For folks raised on the 2003 show or even the CGI concoction, the latest incarnation initially appeared like a step backward, if not a total betrayal.

But twenty years of remakes and relaunches should teach us not to trust the gut reaction. We’re not just talking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles here. We’re talking Star Wars, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, The Fast and The Furious, etc., etc.

To Nickelodeon’s credit, they saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a franchise built on reinvention. From the moment the first comic book hit the newsstands in 1984, the creators and those they brought on board as shepherds to their turtle children, started tinkering with the concept. Through those many evaluations and drafts emerged the heroes we think of today. Eastman and Laird killed their darlings so their characters could outlast their input. Let’s pay respect to their creative slaughter by relenting our nostalgic stranglehold.

When it comes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, reboots are not the enemy, they’re necessary. If you don’t like one, don’t worry, another is already on its way.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)