“We’re turtles! Fighting turtles! Not normal slow-poke turtles!”
The above quote is not, unfortunately, the refrain of a song in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The newest film in the franchise, demolished by critics, may not actually be much fun at all. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter for us, just as it didn’t matter for Hercules or Planes: Fire and Rescue or Maleficent earlier this year. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a great excuse to talk about cartoons, the bonkers relatives of this floppy blockbuster that share its reptilian heroes if not its sense of style.
The (likely badly translated) quote above is from the theme of Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. To call it a television “series” would be accurate but also something of a fib, given that this obscure entry in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles canon ended after just two episodes. It was produced in 1996 by the Japanese animation studio Ashi Productions, otherwise known for such television as Magical Princess Minky Momo and Space Warrior Baldios. They also produced Vampire Hunter D, the 1985 horror cult classic (though not its sequel, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust).
I know what you’re thinking. Why on earth would we take the time to look at this bizarre two-episode series, low-budget and entirely ridiculous, rather than the highly regarded and enormously successful American animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987–1996)?
Three reasons. The first is that we’ve had enough ’80s nostalgia and enabling more of it is just irresponsible. Secondly, everyone knows about the hit cartoon. It’s a success that will certainly outlast any disastrous feature film in the minds of its fans. And, finally, Mutant Turtles gives us a great opportunity to talk about everyone’s favorite topic: merchandising.
Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend was made exclusively to sell toys, specifically two sets of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures put out by Takara, the now-defunct Japanese toy company. The first episode promoted the Supermutants line, the second hawked the Metal Mutation line. The show begins with an extended commercial laying out the designs and attributes of each individual action figure. The turtles, as is explained, have been granted the ability to mutate into enormous, more powerful versions of themselves by a mysterious spirit. Then, once all four are transformed, they can yet again morph into a single superhero called the “Turtle Saint.” All of these manifestations were presumably available at stores in Japan when the show aired.
This was not at all a new challenge for Ashi Productions. Throughout the 1980s they made television shows to market toys, including such intriguingly named programs as Special Armored Battalion Dorvack and Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos. They got commissions from a number of different manufacturers and were old hands at this by the time they took up the Ninja Turtles. The animation, actually pretty good at times, is all about emphasizing the shape of the characters in their transformed states. The plot rushes with breathtaking speed but will suddenly stop dead in its tracks given the opportunity to emphasize just how cool-looking these action figures must be in real life.
Does this make for a good cartoon? Can such absurd, obviously commissioned content really be worth our time? It’s easy to sneer at this sort of work, but it shouldn’t be quite so easy to ignore just how many cartoons (and feature blockbusters) have essentially the same purpose. The two episodes of Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend are a fascinating curiosity in the history of their franchise and that of comic book franchises in general. And, for what it’s worth, they’re just entertatining enough to make them worth your time. The dialog is silly, the animation is colorful and very much in your face, and it tries so hard to replicate the boisterous comedy of the original series that it gets points for effort alone. Check out episode one, here in three parts.