Monday, September 3, 2018

SepTMNTber - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been a huge part of my life ever since the first cartoon debuted in 1987.  I watched the show religiously, I had as many of the toys as my parents could afford, and I was even a member of their fan club, which came with stickers and a TMNT bandana.  I think I still have it somewhere, I should really dig that out. 

Before I go any further, I do know that the cartoon is based on a comic book.  I won't go into it much because I have never read it.  I should, but it just hasn't ever happened.  Besides, Old School Evil has always been about the cartoons and the movies based on them, and I've shied away from comics as much as possible.  A long time ago, I even made a post about how cartoons based off other media wouldn't be covered here (I specifically mention Real Ghostbusters, which really bums me out that I can't talk about it here).  But I don't consider TMNT to fall into that since I and the majority of the cartoon's watchers hadn't heard of the comic when the show came out.  Whew.

Starting with that awesome theme song, kids were fed 30 minutes of awesome action, great humor, incredible character design, and more than a few disgusting pizza combinations.  Let's start with that awesome theme song, which tells you everything you need to know, and if you have no idea what I'm talking about, give it a listen and you'll be caught up in a minute.

Do you get it now?  You've got four turtles named after renaissance painters and taught ninjitsu by a giant rat, fight a guy named Shredder, eat pizza like crazy, and talk in surfer slang.  It does a perfect job of filling you in and sounds freaking awesome at the same time.

Let's get into the characters, starting with the titular Turtles's leader, Leonardo.  He's the most mature of the Turtles, the most responsible, and in most cases, the most boring. He's nobody's favorite, which is a shame because he's the best fighter of the group with the most badass weapons, the katana.  I'm not sure what has made him the leader of the group, but he definitely seems to be Splinter's favorite.  Leo, as he's often called, is played by Cam Clarke, who had other roles like He-Man in the 2000's Masters of the Universe cartoon.

Next up is Donatello.  While I was purely a Raphael fan as a kid, I've leaned much closer to Donnie as an adult.  "Does machines" is a total understatement, as he graduates from just building vehicles and communications devices all the way to dimensional portals later in the series.  He was always amazed by any technology he finds, like the Mousers and anything on the Technodrome.  He's a master of the bo staff, but isn't above using whatever technological weapon he can get his hands on.  He's voiced by Barry Gordon, who voiced the Orbots Commander in Mighty Orbots.

Third, it's Raphael, who's "cool but rude," which is about all I ever strived to be as a kid.  Raph was the joker of the bunch, and I probably got my snarky sense of humor from him and him alone.  He was hilarious, providing half of the humor of the show, along with Michelangelo.  "No sword on Earth can resist his sai," Splinter says about him.  While I'd seen katanas, staves, and nunchucks before the show, this was the first I'd ever seen of sais and I totally wanted a pair.  He was voiced by Rob Paulson, who has too many voice credits to count, most notably Yakko from the Animaniacs. 

Lastly, there's Michelangelo, everyone else's favorite turtle.  He talked like a surfer dude and introduced a generation to radical, gnarly, and cowabunga.  He was always ordering the grossest pizzas, like peanut butter and anchovies.  Mikey was portrayed as the least serious and dumbest turtle, and I never understood the appeal of him.  He primarily used nunchucks, but it was later replaced by a grappling hook.  Swords are okay but nunchucks?  Hell no. He's played by Townsend Coleman, who famously played the Tick.

Their teacher, Splinter was originally named Hamato Yoshi, sensai of the Foot Clan in Japan. Disgraced by his rival, Oroku Saki, he fled to New York, where he took up residence in the sewers.  When four baby turtles fell on him and they were doused in radioactive waste, they became humanoid, while Hamato turned into a half-rat.  He's your typical wise teacher, ready to impart wisdom on his pupils, the mend any disagreements among them, and to kick some serious Foot clan ass if needed.  He was portrayed by Peter Renaday, who really doesn't have any outstanding voice roles.  Grapple from Tranformers, maybe?

Last of their allies is April O'Neil, the yellow-jump-suited reporter saved by the Turtles and perpetual Foot Clan kidnap victim.  She's always finding herself in danger with the Turtles forced to rescue her from ever increasing peril.  The first real crush of a generation of kids, she somewhere was given the most smokin' of looks.  She sometimes acts as the informant for the Turtles, and has to hide their secret from the rest of her news crew, including Irma, her nerdy assistant.  She's played by Renae Jacobs who went on to do no voice work after this series.  Why not?  I thought she did a good job.

Now let's look at some villains.  I've covered Shredder before in great depth, so click the links if you want to check it out here and here.  He's the leader of the Foot Clan after getting Yoshi kicked out.  He's got an army of Foot Clan robots, which makes me think he was also kicked out of the real Foot Clan and replaced them it with his mechanical followers.  He's voiced by the great James Avery, who played Uncle Phil in The Fresh Prince.

Left out of the intro are the rest of the baddies, including Shredder's partner and sometimes rival, Krang.  Krang's a big brain from Dimension X, and the supplier of Shredder's technological weapons, probably including the Foot Clan robots.  Originally stranded in a little walker, Krang is upgraded to a big stupid-looking robot in the 4th episode by Shredder.  But if he needed Shredder to build it, did Shredder make his own robots?  I don't know!

Lastly, we'll cover Bebop and Rocksteady. While initially in Shredder's employ as your basic street punks, they were exposed to the same mutagen that mutated the Turtles in an attempt to make them strong enough to defeat them.  Paired with the most powerful animals they could find, Bebop was mutated to a boar, and Rocksteady to a rhino.  The two became real powerhouses, but were still no match for the Turtles because they were dumb as hell.  Bebop shared voice actors with Donatello (Gordon), while Rocksteady was voiced by Cam Clarke (Leonardo).

The characters finally done, let's talk about the cartoon itself.  It had some seriously great animation and character design.  The Turtles were given color-coded bandanas to tell them apart, along with their initials on their belts.  Shredder was covered with these spiked plates, the Foot Clan robots had this weird hunched body-style, and Krang had these weird tendrils and looked like a spine along the top of his body.  The show had a perfect balance between weird but not gross designs.  One more character that showed this perfectly is Baxter Stockman, a scientist that Shredder mutated with a fly.  I remember having this toy and it's such a great design.  They could have easily gone too far with his looks, but the fact that he even kept his bowtie keeps him on this side of cool looking.

The show had a pretty high level of violence, which is hard to avoid when  your hero is swinging a pair of swords, which they got around by making the enemies primarily robots.  Just like how killing off the Autobots in the Transformers movie was supposedly just fine because they weren't human, TMNT gets away with destroying their robots in some really satisfying ways, usually blowing up in a cloud of parts.

Like I said before, the humor of the show comes mostly from Raph's smart-ass comments or Mikey's slang.  Other than that, you had Shedder and Krang's bickering and Bebop and Rocksteady's stupidity.  It makes for a very funny cartoon that captured the attention of a whole generation. 

This cartoon was certainly something special when it came out, starting a whole new trend in Saturday morning with half-human/half-whatever mutant characters.  I'm going to cover some of them in a later post this month.  It even inspired me to make up a couple of mutant creature cartoons for Old School Evil!  But unlike most of the shows it inspired, TMNT somehow lived on - it expanded  to the silver screen with a handful of movies and it was reinvented into just as many different series. 

TMNT is still going strong today, which a new series premiering on Nickelodeon this month.  It's a big change from this original show (still not the biggest change, though), but the core idea stays the same - four turtles kicking ass.

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