Published on September 27th, 2012 | by Colin Ballsmonkey Hill3
2012: The Year of the Turtle (of the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety) – Part 1
2012: the Year of the Turtle (of the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety)
What Went Wrong
It’s been a while but the one and only BallsMonkey has made his long awaited return to the Website of Doom. And this time I’m gonna be tackling a subject that’s more near and dear to me then friends, family, and my own personal well-being.
I’m speaking of course, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Yes, the Green Machines, the Heroes in a Half Shell, the Fab Four (sorry Beatles, your time has passed), are set to once again return in a big away to mainstream pop culture, and like a true ninja their coming at you from all sides. With a new comic, a new cartoon, a new toy line, a new movie in development, and Nickelodeon at the helm, Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo are well rested and ready to take the world by storm.
But before we tackle the new, we have to look at back at what led us to this point. A lot of people may not remember, but the Turtles already made a similar comeback not too long ago; New toys, new comic, new cartoon, new movie, all the works…and it went nowhere. So what went wrong and how’s this time going to be any different. Let’s start at the beginning shall we.
The Grand Heyday:
In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. An oversized, black and white, one-shot comic about four mutated terrapins trained in the art of Ninjitsu by their rat sensei, Splinter and sworn to take vengeance on the evil Foot Clan and their leader, The Shredder quickly grew into the most successful independent comic of all time. The comic would go on to inspire the 1987 mega-hit cartoon series which would run for ten years, one of the longest running American cartoons of all time. The series was loosely based off the comics, omitting the grittiness and violence in favor of a more light-hearted and slapstick tone, which turned away some of the fans of the comics, but attracted a legion of kids. The show spawned numerous imitators and would be accompanied by an equally successful toy line, a new comic series produced by Archie Comics, three live action movies, and even a live music show at the famous Radio City Music Hall. The Turtles dominated the late eighties and early nineties but stared to decline in popularity around 1997. They also had live action television series in 1998, but the less said about that vile trash the better.
The comics still continued after this point, granted in relative obscurity, even amongst comic fans, but to public at large, the Turtles had gone. It’d be another five years before the Turtles would grace the small screen again.
The Long Awaited Return:
From 1999 to 2002 there were nothing but rumors surrounding what would be next for the TMNT franchise. There were reports that the Turtles would return to the big screen under the direction of John Woo, but they proved unfounded. There was also test footage for a failed computer animated TMNT series released online, as well as concept art for 2D animated series that was never followed through on by the WB. For a while it seemed as if Turtle Power had officially died. But something happened.
In 2000, Kevin Eastman sold his share of the TMNT to Peter Laird so he could focus more on Heavy Metal magazine, leaving Laird in sole control of the franchise. Laird partnered with producer Llyod Goldfine to develop a brand new animated series for 4Kids who at the time had reformatted the Fox networks Saturday morning block of cartoons from Fox Kids to the FoxBox and later to 4Kids TV (one day I’ll do a write up on that atrocity). Unlike the previous animated seires, Peter Laird had much more control over the creative direction of this series. Mostly unhappy about the cartoony tone of the original, Laird made sure this series stuck closely to the tone of the original comics, within the boundaries of the network censors of course.
The series premiered on February 8, 2003. The show took a more serious tone and featured more action, deeper and complex storylines, and character development, while still maintaining some comedic elements. As per tradition, Playmates toys developed an accompanying toy line. Unlike the Turtles cartoon series, the comic book never ceased production. It continued for another volume under Mirage until Image Comics acquired the rights to do their own TMNT comics in the late nineties. These comics were far darker more adult than the original Mirage ones and even had a few of the Turtles getting mutilated through the course of the series. In 2001, Mirage took the series back and relaunched the comic series, ignoring the Image series and setting it in the then present, with the Turtles now in their 30’s, having aged in real time. Peter Laird served as the writer with long-time TMNT artist Jim Lawson doing pencils. The new cartoon series even had its own short-lived comic series written by Peter David, famous for runs of titles like Aquaman, Supergirl, and Young Justice.
While the cartoon series was doing its thing, Peter Laird was in collaboration with Warner Bros and IMAGI animation studio to bring the Turtles back to the big screen. The 2007 TMNT film, aptly named TMNT, directed by first-time director Kevin Munroe, marked a milestone in the franchise history as it was the first time the Turtles successfully transitioned into the realm of CG. The four Turtles were voiced by veteran voice actors, but the supporting cast featured the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Patrick Stewart, and even Kevin Smith in a short cameo.
With all of this, it seemed Turtle Power was back and bigger than ever…
…yeah, seemed like.
In truth, 2001 through 2009 is an era of the TMNT franchise remembered by very few outside the hardcore fanbase. So what as the problem, why didn’t it hook people like before, and why don’t I think the same thing will happen again? Let’s break it down shall we.
The new cartoon series lasted from 2003 through 2009, a very successful feet for any animated series to accomplish. As I said before it was a lot more serious and complex than the original series; the action was more intense, the characters were more well-rounded, and even the animation was more solid. So if it had all this why did it never get even close to the popularity of the original? Well, one of the reasons may in-fact have been the serious tone.
Being a fan of superhero comics, you’re expected to make certain leaps in logic. A sun god from another planet who becomes Earths greatest hero, fine. A man bombarded with gamma rays who becomes a rampaging green goliath. Okay. Yet even by comic book standards, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have always been kind of far-fetched. It comes as no surprise considering they were conceived as a parody of popular comics then. One thing that helped get the cartoon over was of its sense of humor about itself. It was never afraid to poke fun at itself and the superhero genre. In addition, each episode was mostly stand alone, so it was an easy show to jump into from any point. The new series was one of those shows were you had to watch from the beginning, as certain sub-plots in one episode would be expanded upon in future ones, and while that’s good for die-hard fans, younger viewers and newcomers might have found that off-putting. The new series, while good, really lacked the charm and wit of the original.
Another factor I feel worked against the show was Peter Laird. Laird was very hands-on in the new series, maybe too much. He wanted the series to stick as close to the original comics as possible, but the problem with that, aside from the fact that it would have to be toned down considerably to be marketed to children, was that the old comic isn’t that well known. To the majority of the public, their knowledge of the Turtles comes from the original cartoon, which Laird was looking to get away from. As a result, aside from in-jokes, familiar characters Bebop, Rocksteady, and Krang were not present, and Shredder was changed from a human, to an alien being in a robotic exo-suit.
But I don’t blame the show itself entirely, I also blame the network. The FoxBox was poor idea from the start. The marketing for it was very weak, unlike Fox Kids it had no standing amongst its competition. Rather than showcase a variety of shows that ranged in action, comedy, animation, and live action, the block was overstuffed with horrifically butchered anime dubs, and other cartoons from other countries. TMNT was by far the most superior and most popular show on the line-up, but it was never that breakout hit that shows like Power Rangers, Animaniacs, and Batman: the Animated Series were. 4Kids had no clue what the hell they were doing, and I feel surrounding the Turtles with such un-appealing shows was a major factor holding it back.
By 2001 Peter Laird returned to the realm comics in an attempt to revitalize the Turtles for a modern audience. The series, simply titled TMNT, attempted to pick up where volume two of the comics left off, and continued the series in real time. In an way to fill the time gap, the comics sister series, Tales of the TMNT, was also relaunched, and showcased stand-alone adventures of the Turtles, while the main book stuck to an ongoing plot line.
I won’t get into the comic itself, but I will say it was a very mixed bag for me. But you’d think with the original Mirage crew back at the helm this would be top selling comic book. Well, the thing about Mirage Studios was that it was an independent studio…a VERY independent studio. Operating out of Northampton, Massachusetts, it might as well have been run out of a garage. There was no marketing, no strong distribution wing , they didn’t even have deal with Diamond Comics like most comic companies do. You’d think the creator of the most famous independent comic of all time would be a lot bigger, but most comic readers and retailors were surprised to learn there even was a Ninja Turtles book still going. A few stores would the comics in occasionally, but they never sold well. It got to the point where the only way to get the book was to fill out an order form and get them directly from Mirage Studios itself. It was a hassle.
In addition they had zero presence at any of the major conventions, so it was has next to impossible to get any info on it. Peter basically paid for the comic out of his own pocket, he was actually losing money on it publishing it just for the sake of it. Noble, but still no way to run a business. Plus the cartoon series never really promoted the comic any, and even if it did there was such a big difference between the two it be hard to see any real crossover between audiences. Especially seeing as how it contained a ton of references to stories and characters from over 20 years ago. Not a strong selling point for the kiddies.
TMNT came out in 2007…and went just as quick as it arrived. It didn’t bomb at the box office, but it wasn’t anywhere near blockbuster. I can do a whole article on this movie alone and where it went wrong, but I want to get out of the way what it did right first.
For one the animation was really good. The action scenes naturally flowed very fast and fluid and showcased different fighting styles for each Turtle, but I also have to give praise to the acting. The characters emotions were all very easy to read through subtle and not-so subtle body movements, a trait missing of most animation today. In addition, I felt the Turtles themselves came off very strong and true to the characters, plus their voices were spot on and really captured the essence of each of the four brothers. James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Mitchell Whitfeild and Mikey Kelly voiced Leo, Raph, Don, and Mikey respectively and the four played very well off each other. But I was dismayed during the credit sequence to see them not only get billed under Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans, but even under Kevin Smith, who voiced an ancillary no-name character with about two lines in the entire movie.
Unfortunately the praise ends there.
The movies biggest flaw was the story was a cluttered mess that didn’t know if it wanted to be original or a sequel. The main plot centered around army of monsters that was going to destroy the world unless they were sent back through a portal…yeah, lame I know, but it could have worked. But the stories main focus was on the relationship between Leonardo and Raphael. After Shredder was defeated (something we don’t see, only hear about in the intro), Leonardo traveld to South America to train…for some reason not explained, leaving his brothers at home to do nothing. While Mikey and Don take up odd jobs to earn money (why they need money, also never explained), Raph has been patrolling the streets and fighting crime as the masked, motorcycle-riding vigilante known as the Nightwatcher. When Leo returns he must try to re-unite his brothers and him and Raph come to blows over his absence which leads to a cool and well animated though ultimately unnecessary fight scene.
If how I stated it above didn’t make sense, don’t worry, it didn’t make sense when I watched it three different times. The story supposedly takes place sometime after Ninja Turtles 3, but in truth it’s hard to tell when it takes place or if it’s supposed to be based in any particular universe. But regardless of that, if you’re new to Ninja Turtles franchise, you’ll be completely lost by this movie. It expects you to have a good knowledge of Turtles lore going into it, and that’s a problem seeing as how the last Turtles movie came out thirteen years prior. It’s most recognizable villain wasn’t featured in any way, the Turtles were all separated for reasons never fully established, and the monster plotline was completely underutilized and came off as lazy and thrown in haphazardly. This was supposed to be the Turtles re-introduction to moviegoers, but it instead threw them head first in the middle of this sea of confusing plot elements and clunky dialogue, and didn’t even throw them a life preserver.
I don’t want to blame Kevin Munroe, he was nice guy who had a good connection with the fans, even talking with them on The Technodrome message boards, command central for all of TMNT fandom. Still, he and Peter Laird never had a clear direction of where the movie should go and it failed to live up to expectations. I also gotta blame the marketing, specifically the lack of it. Seriously, unless you were a die-hard TMNT fan, you had no clue this movie was being made. I live in LA, not that far from the Warner bros studios, and not once did I see any kind of marketing for this movie. No billboards, no commercials, not even a damn bus ad. It was mainly the fans doing the marketing for it. I remember being on the message boards hering about fans going to see the movie eleven times over just help it out. It was a sad thing, really. TMNT was terrible, but it wasn’t exactly a good movie either, and failed to make any impact outside the core fanbase. Some might blame it on the fact that it was animated and not live-action, but I gotta think it had more to do with what was listed above.
The second cartoon series ended 2009, the 25th anniversary of the Ninja Turtles, culminating in the animated TV movie Turtles Forever, which served as a crossover between it and the previous Turtles cartoon and wrapped up both franchise nicely. It was around this time that the news came…Peter Laird sold the rights to the Ninja Turtle franchise to Nickelodeon for six million dollars.
Fans of the series, for the most part, reacted in the natural geek way which I will sum up like this…
And, I am ashamed to admit I was one of them. My exact words were, “The Ninja Turtles are dead to me”.
Yeah, I’m eating my words right now. They taste a little salty.
Needless to say I had yet to see what was in store, and I like what I see. Nickelodeon seems to have a clear idea of what they want out of this franchise and how to get it. With IDW Comics and Playmates Toys they’ve completely rebooted the franchise and with their marketing power they can once again make the Ninja Turtles household names.
2012 has become the year of the Turtle, and that looks to carry on into next year and beyond. In the coming articles I’ll be breaking down the new comic, toyline, and cartoon, as well as analyzing the leaked TMNT script Michael bay produced…that one’s gonna suck.
Stay tuned kids.