What the SHELL is going on?
Chances are, you’ve heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Unless you’re a fan, however, you might not be aware of just how many versions of the characters there have been over the years. Sure, the basics have been the same—four turtles exposed to radioactive ooze become super butt-kickers—but the many TV series, movies, comics, and video games have depicted the Turtles in different ways.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of all things turtle, Nickelodeon surprised everyone with Turtles Forever, in which the Ninja Turtles of the new millennium team up with the Ninja Turtles from back in the height of their popularity.
Confused? Here’s how it works. First we have the Turtles from the original series, hereafter referred to as the “Classic” Turtles. Often described as an early ’90s series, the show actually debuted way back in 1987 and carried the characters through worldwide fame in 1989-91. It wasn’t cancelled until 1996. Then, from 2002 to 2009, there was the darker, more serious version of the characters, heavily inspired by anime, hereafter referred to as the “New” Turtles. Turtles Forever offers some dimension-hopping fun in which the two groups of Turtles meet each other and embark on huge adventure with the fate of the multiverse at stake.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo—are in pursuit of billionaire criminal Hun and his followers in the Purple Dragon Gang, only to discover that Hun has captured another four Turtles—alternate-reality versions of Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo. This reality-bending shock is just the start, as the Shredder and Krang, enemies of the Classic Turtles, has come into the New Turtles’ universe in search of some powerful mutagen. It’s not long before the New Turtles’ version of Shredder shows up with plans of his own. As all eight turtles bounce around from one dimension to another, reuniting with familiar faces such as April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Rocksteady, Bebop, Karai, and the Foot Clan. As the New Shredder’s master plan is revealed, there are even more quantum surprises in store.
As Turtles Forever began, I worried it wouldn’t work. Seeing the New Turtles in action, they didn’t seem that different from the Classic Turtles. Sure, they were all anime-inspired and had a lot of “extreme” moves, but they were still recognizable as the Turtles we all remember. That is, until the Turtles we all remember show up. Then I realized just how fun and amusing this concept is. It’s taking a look at all the little differences between the two groups, and making the most of them. The resulting movie ends up being great fun for folks who grew up with these characters.
I like the Classic Turtles as much as the next guy, but it bugged me how the old show too often went for comedy instead of superhero action. The creators of Turtles Forever must have thought the same thing, because the New Turtles are often perplexed by the Classic Turtles’ love of pizza, goofy catch phrases, and slapstick in place of ninja stealth. New Michelangelo, being the fun-loving one among his group, takes more of a liking to the Classic Turtles, while the hard-assed New Raphael doesn’t know what to make of his counterparts, as he’s the one who’s the most frustrated at all the ludicrous things they say and do. The Classic Turtles aren’t entirely clownish, however, because so much of the plot has to do with events that occurred in their dimension, the Classic Turtles often end up in the leadership role, taking the lead and diving head first into the action, while the New Turtles stop and think things through before joining them.
Emphasizing the little differences between the two groups makes for a lot of great character moments, such as when the two Donatellos set aside their differences to work together on a sci-fi gizmo, or when the Classic Turtles manage to surprise their alternates with some cool moves, while their other-reality versions admit that they also like pizza. A lot of these little touches can be seen in the visuals as well. The New York City of the New Turtles is all sleek and futuristic, but when we get a look at the home city of the Classic Turtles, we’re back in the ’90s-era soft colors and painted backgrounds. The animators must have spent many, many hours studying the styles of both series in order to recreate them so nicely here.
It’s just not our heroes. The whole gang is here. Even though he was a huge dude with metal blades on his shoulders and arms, Classic Shredder was often played as a buffoon villain, whose own ridiculous plans were his undoing, rather than defeat at the hands of the Turtles. The New Shredder is…different. The new series has taken the character in strange new directions, with a complicated back story of its own. Once he’s back at full strength, though, he’s more recognizable as the Shredder, and he is quite a formidable foe, capable of stirring up trouble for all eight Turtles. Krang shows a little more competence than Classic Shredder, and even gets one or two “super-villain” moments, but, like all the characters from the classic show, his comedic side is played up to contrast the true evil of the New Shredder. Rocksteady and Bebop are the same lunkheaded dolts they’ve always been, newcomer Karai gets a few moments of ninja-chick coolness, and of course the members of Foot Clan do their usual admirable job of getting their backsides handed to them.
That brings us to the big action, and, yes, there’s big action. A lot of those Foot Clan guys are really robots disguised as humans, so that means the animators can do that thing where they can show beheadings and dismemberments all they want because, hey, they’re robots, not people. As the stakes get higher and higher, the villains storm the New Turtles underground home and more or less trash it in a huge battle, revealing that despite all the comic antics, the danger is real for our heroes. Later, the Classic Turtles break out their van and that blimp/glider thing of theirs, and I love that they actually use all the cool weapons on these vehicles, something they did only rarely on the original show.
The “classic meets new” gimmick is well done, but not perfect. A lot of the Classic Turtle character voices sound a little too different from what they used to be, but that’s probably to be expected given how much time has gone by. Leonardo, both of him, doesn’t get to do as much as the other Turtles. Classic Raphael doesn’t get as many good character moments either, although his character was often inconsistent on the old show anyway.
What if you’re not a fan? If you have only a passing interest, in a “hey, I remember the Ninja Turtles” kind of way, I imagine you’ll get a kick out of this for nostalgia’s sake. If you’ve never seen any Turtles shows or movies before, then this movie will likely confuse you. Also, what kind of sad life have you been living if you’ve never been exposed to the Turtles?
Sadly, the technical presentation on this DVD is a flop. A full frame picture and stereo sound are decent at best, but the lack of any extras really hurts. How did this unique project come together? What were the challenges in creating it? Plus, now would have been the perfect opportunity for some kind of retrospective, looking back at the franchise’s history, etc. Instead, all we get is the movie. As Michelangelo might say, “Bummer, dude.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun, right? There are few things in life that define “fun” more than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, the target audience is the die-hard fans who have stuck with this franchise through the ups and downs of the last 25 years, but I don’t see any reason why the casual fans can’t also sit back enjoy the ride as well. I mean, come on, it’s the Ninja Turtles!