Published on June 29th, 2014 | by Colin Ballsmonkey Hill5
Why TMNT 2003 is the Jan Brady of TMNT Cartoons
It must suck being the middle child.
I wouldn’t know of course, I only have one sibling, but like most things in life, I experience them through TV. The Brady Bunch introduced me to some of the problems middle children often face. Not being as popular as their older sibling or as doted upon as their younger one. The middle child is often overlooked and not always able to measure up to their other siblings.
“How does this relate to TMNT”, you may be asking. It’s simple…it’s a perfect analogy for the, as of this time, three cartoon series the franchise has had…
The 1987 Series is the Marcia Brady: The older and more beloved one that was the first to catch our attention and the first in all our collective memories. The 2012 Series is the Cindy: Younger and cuter, or at least more appealing visually. It’s still growing and yet to reach its full potential.
The 2003 Series is the Jan.
The 2003 cartoon series is the one that never gets a lot of attention, outside the fandom, of course. Ask some people about it and they’ll either go “huh, oh yeah, that one, it wasn’t as good as the old cartoon” or just not know it exists at all. It lasted from 2003 to 2010, producing 7 seasons worth of episodes, an unheard of number when you know how Saturday morning cartoons work. Very few cartoons ever hit that number and even fewer surpass it, especially in the “boys action genre, (Funny enough, the original TMNT is one of those, lasting 10 seasons). Even some of the most critically acclaimed cartoons or it’s type like Batman: The Animated Series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack, and Spectacular Spider-Man never reached that level. It’s a testament to the lasting power of both the franchise and the show itself. So why is this series very often forgotten by all but those within the TMNT fanbase? Most point to the lack of solid marketing for the show, but I think the reason goes a lot deeper. I think the answer lies in the quality and presentation of the show itself. Simply put, I don’t believe the show was all that good in the first place. Why? Well, follow me down to the sewer as I give an in-depth analysis of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, pin point all the things it did right…and the many things it did wrong, and try to answer my initial question.
Let’s start with some history. The early 2000’s were an awkward time for the TMNT franchise. After the debacle that was Ninja Turtles: the Next Mutation came and went, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s (the duo that created the Turtles, for the clueless readers) creative partnership had come to an end. Laird had bought Eastman’s creative rights to the franchise and was now in sole control of the TMNT’s future direction. He started by launching a new volume of the long running comic that started it all in December 2001 with himself as writer and veteran TMNT artist Jim Lawson on pencil duties. Around that same time, Laird was approached by 4Kids Entertainment, (who brought such anime as Yu-Gi-Oh and One Piece to American televisions, with varying results in quality), to produce a new TMNT animated series for their Saturday morning block: The FoxBox, which had replaced Fox Kids (that will be another article, because I have a lot to rant say about that). By this point TMNT had already been off the air for about four years, six if you don’t count Next Mutation(I don’t), so this was a chance to repackage the Turtles for a whole new audience of kids, and maybe some of the older fans, now in their late teens to mid-twenties.
Now, here’s the thing about Peter Laird. While I have nothing but respect and admiration for him and what he helped create, it’s clear that kind became the franchise resident George Lucas at this point, in that he was very particular about which version of the Turtles he prefers. While Kevin Eastman may be more diplomatic and accepting of all the different aspects of the Turtles, Laird never shied away from telling people which parts he didn’t like; and while he didn’t outright despise it like Next Mutation, it’s painfully obvious he wasn’t particularly fond of the original cartoon and the direction it went. He makes it pretty clear he didn’t like the slapstick nature and softer designs of the Turtles, so with full creative control, he sought to take the Turtles back to their indy comic book roots. For this new series, the aim was to go darker than before; no more cartoonish fight scenes, no more whiny Shredder, no more Bebop and Rocksteady, no more Turtles walking around in the daylight, no more April being a reporter/damsel in distress, no more pizza and “Cowabunga”. This new series would be more reminiscent of their early comic book days. The designs got sleeker, the Turtles stuck to the shadows and actually used their weapons during fights. Shredder would get a massive makeover that was both beneficial and detrimental (more on that later), but needless to say, he became a much bigger threat.
The 2k3 series was something most TMNT fans who were unfamiliar with the original comic were not expecting. The tone was changed from light-hearted and humorous to edgier with more effort placed on complex, interconnected, multi-arc storylines and character development. Now, during this period, the influence of anime was strong in action and adventure animation, so most series coming out at the time had styles that reflected that, but for the first five seasons of the 2k3 series, the art style had a striking balance of both eastern and western visual styles, as well as incorporating strong usage of shading and comic panel-style layouts. The backgrounds gave us a grittier and more expansive New York City, with lots of tall buildings for the Turtles to leap across. The music, composed by Ralph Shuckett, was faced paced and intense, often incorporating taiko drums, sanshins, and various Japanese instruments and sound effect, mixing classic Japanese with modern American rock.
The characters themselves all received facelifts to match their original comic counterparts. Leonardo was still the leader, but this time he was more self-doubting at times to add a new layer to him. Donatello was still the scientist and inventor, but this time he was less cynical and absent minded and more quiet and reliable, and a foil for Michelangelo who, without his trademark catchphrase and food of choice, was portrayed as more of a hyperactive and unfocused pop culture junkie, as well as becoming the sole vessel for all the comedic moments of the show, often to an…irritating degree. Raphael received the biggest change, going back to being the angry, aggressive, and rebellious hot-head he was in the old days, but still retaining a sarcastic streak, but more directed at his brothers rather than to the audience. Master Splinter was still the wise mentor, but went back to his original origin of being Hamato Yoshi’s pet, rather than Yoshi himself, his rivalry with Shredder remaining. April O’Neil, true to her roots, was here portrayed as a smart and capable science buff and rarely required saving. She once again starts off as a lab assistant to mad scientist Baxter Stockman, who was now black again, as he was in the old comics. Casey Jones now became a more prominent supporting character like in the comics, only now being portrayed as a good-natured lunkhead rather than a psychopathic vigilante. In addition, the show also introduced audiences to characters from the Mirage comics never before seen in animation like Karai, Nobody, The Fugitoid, and Renet the Timestress; restoring previously known characters like Baxter Stockman, The Rat King, and Leatherhead to resemble their original portrayals, and giving us brand new characters like Silver Sentry, Angel and villains like Hun and Agent Bishop.
As I said before, the show lasted for 7 seasons. The first four were pretty standard; we’re introduced to the Turtles and Splinter, we see their first meetings with April and Casey, their battles with The Shredder and Foot, and adventures that have them come up against aliens, dinosaurs, alien dinosaurs, time travel, superheroes, interdimensional fighting tournaments, mystical ninjas, monsters, mad scientists, ancient demons, all the standard stuff the TMNT encounter. The episodes were sometimes stand-alone, as elements that may seem minor in one episode, would re-appear in a later episode as a main focus. There was always some overarching storyline going on each season, with major one of the first three being the Turtles conflict with The Shredder, which ended in the Turtles “defeating” him in Season 3. The fifth season, dubbed “The Lost Season” due to the fact that originally never aired on regular television in favor of season six, was a break from the established formula, giving us one long season wide storyline that saw the Turtles get new magical powers and weapons to go up against a demonic Shredder. Season six was a massive departure in theme, tone, and visual style. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward saw the Turtles and Splinter flung into the far future, fighting evil alongside Cody Jones, April and Casey’s great-great-great-grandson. The show gave us new allies, new enemies, and a brand-new theme song.
The final season was a sort-of “back-to-basics” approach. The aptly named “Back to the Sewer” returned the Turtles and Splinter to the present, though keeping a few elements from Fast Forward, including the more stand-alone storylines and the simplified visual style. The show proved to be one of, if not the most popular show on the FoxBox’s (later renamed 4Kids TV). Like its predecessor and successor, the show spawned toys, clothing, video games, comics, party supplies, etc, yet still to general audience this show remains both underrated and unacknowledged. So what’s the problem? Let’s start with a the minor problem…marketing. Bottom line: it wasn’t great.
With all the merchandising, kids, specifically young boys, were the target audience. However, the tone and storytelling suggested their aim was also for a teen to young adult audience. While they got the kids whom TMNT was a brand new thing, they kinda of ignored the older fans, once that probably would have appreciated what the show was trying to pull off. They could have tied it in to the original cartoon more, saying that if you grew up with that version, then prepare to graduate to this one. They had the storytelling quality and fast-paced action to balance both audiences, but due to the limited imagination and skill of marketing people today and the lack of outside promotion, most people wrote the show off as “dumb kids stuff”. It didn’t help that the network didn’t have any strong shows to market it around, sandwiching the show between Ultimate Muscle and The Cramp Twins. But beyond that, the show didn’t make much of an effort at all to get itself known to the mainstream in general, to which I blame 4Kids’ limited marketing budget and venues. You can see the striking difference between then and now, because when Nickelodeon got the rights to the franchise, they made sure their new cartoon was well known, with ads appearing on everything from billboards to buses, the characters showing up on morning talk shows and in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, not to mention slapping the Turtles onto every piece of merchandise possible. 4Kids had none of that influence.
But the real problem doesn’t have to do with the marketing, because even if it was bettered promoted, there were two very major factors that kept the series from really succeeding beyond its core fanbase. These are primary reasons the show is the forgotten one of the bunch…It was a show that, at its core, was not designed for casual TMNT fans and It didn’t offer anything substantially new to the franchise to justify its staying power.
Now, you may be saying, “Colin, what kind of jibba-jabba are you jibba-jabbering about”? Well, shut up and I’ll tell you. Let’s start with the first point. You’d think by virtue of the title alone, the show should already be appealing to casual TMNT fans, well, let me explain. As I rambled on about before, the original cartoon was drastically different in tone than the original comic. Due to restrictions on Saturday morning cartoons the show couldn’t be anywhere near as violent as the comic, so the tone was shifted to be more comical. As a result you have this unique situation where the franchise has two definitive original incarnations that are polar opposites of each other. Both are responsible for introducing the world to the TMNT, but let’s face it…95% of the TMNT fanbase was introduced through the cartoon. One was a black and white independent comic and the other was a mass syndicate television show with shit tons of merchandise, of course the cartoon is the one everyone loves. Well, everyone except Peter Laird, who made every effort to distance the 2K3 cartoon from the original one. While it’s cool that he wanted an incarnation that closer resembled the comics, I really don’t know if he’s aware of the fact that there’s a large percentage of the fanbase that either don’t know or don’t care about those comics. I’m talking about the hardcore fans like yours truly, who’ve spent a lifetime digesting everything TMNT from better to worst, I’m talking about the fans who grew up watching and loving the Turtles cartoon, playing with the action figures, playing the video game, maybe reading an issue or two of the Archie comic, renting the movies from Blockbuster (yeah, I’m old school), begging their Moms for everything Ninja Turtles, but then when Power Rangers came out, moved onto them, then Pokemon, then grew up and got on with their lives. The fans that never took the time to look back further and discover the Mirage comic that started it all frankly because they had no interest or just simply were not aware of them, and you can’t blame them, seeing as how the comic was never a Batman or Spider-Man with a major publisher behind them, you had to go looking hard for these comics, and they weren’t being reprinted in any form at the time. These are the casual fans that, while they’ve moved on to other aspects of life, would still get a twinge of nostalgic excitement if something new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out.
What makes these fans kind of important is that they represent the mainstream; the greater public audience outside of the hardcore that ensures longevity in pop culture history. They’re not the types to frequent message boards and write fan faction, but they are the types that will buy a ticket for your big budget movie adaptation, or maybe even catch an episode or two of your new TV series. It’s even better if they have kids, because it gives them a chance to both relive their childhood and introduce it to a new generation. That’s the audience that the 2003 series completely alienated. How?
For starters, the theme song. Long gone was Chuck Lorre’s instantaneously catchy theme song from the old days that tell you exactly what you needed to know about the series and gave a memorable hook that is synonymous with Ninja Turtles so much so that just by saying the words “Ninja Turtle” you start hearing the song. What we were left with was this…cacophony…
Admittedly the instrumental is nice, but the lyrics are a weird and jumbled mess that just throws out random phrases that have something to do with Turtles, but not in any coherent way. Tell me, which gives you a more accurate description of what you’re about to watch…
“They’re the worlds most fearsome fighting teens/they’re heroes in a half shell and they’re green/when the evil Shredder attacks, these turtle boys don’t cut ‘im no slack”
“Mutant chain reaction/Living underground/ninjitsu action/it’s a shell of a town”
It doesn’t make sense. It’s like they grabbed a bullhorn and just started yelling random things about the franchise at you. The catchy “Heroes in a half shell, Turtle Power” hook, they try to replace with “Turtles count it off, 1, 2, 3, 4” and it just comes off as laughable. They even edit the theme song in season 3 to add descriptions for each Turtle like the old series did, but it’s way too forced and just pathetic; like, wow, we’re three seasons in and you still don’t know these characters. Let us spell it out for you. Plus they have that weird bit during the opening sequence where the Turtles are riding roller blades and razor scooters like this was 1997 and those things were still hip, sending a weird mixed message of “we’re going totally serious with this show, but here’s the Turtles on scooters because teenagers and EXTREEEEEEME”!
The interconnected storylines, while nice for the fans that watched week-to-week, were too convoluted for any causal viewer to jump right into. In this series, if you missed an episode or two, chances are you could be lost as to what’s going on in the main story. It was one of those shows you had to watch from the beginning and pay attention to or you were gonna miss a key detail. They didn’t even have the courtesy to do a recap segment at the beginning like Gargoyles used to. There weren’t that many stand-alone episodes, and even fewer that we’re completely stand-alone, so you couldn’t just jump into the middle of a season and know where everything stood, you still had to go back to the beginning. It’s not a bad aspect, but it’s a double edge sword; it something that appeases the hardcore fans, but can cause to lose the casual viewer who might be peaking in for the first time.
As I said before, the series had a darker tone; one casual fans wouldn’t be used to. But it was also an inconsistently dark tone. What I mean by that is they would take it seriously up to point, but then throw in an awkward beat of humor to lighten the mood at a time where the mood shouldn’t be lightened, and the humor wasn’t always particularly funny. Jokes were sometimes awkwardly thrown into a fight scene, mostly be Mikey, and they were never presented as something we should find intentionally funny.
Not saying the show did this all the time, but this was an example of another aspect the show got wrong: the humor. Part of what makes TMNT so appealing is that it’s so weird in concept, but it’s in on the joke. The Mirage comics originally began as a parody of the ultra-gritty comics of the day, though it gradually grew out of the parody. The original cartoon chose to put its focus purely on the humor, but instead of making fun of the comics and cartoons of the time, it mostly made light of itself. Being aware of its sheer ridiculous it had fun with the concept. Plus, you had a great comedy dynamic with the Turtles; Donatello was the absent minded scientist who’s inventions sometimes backfired, Michelangelo was the hip, pizza-scarfing, surfer dude who epitomized the franchise namesake, Raphael was the snarky and sarcastic one who could step back and joke about the sheer absurdity of everything, a lot of times right to the audience; throw in Leonardo as your straight man and you’ve got a perfect combination. They would sometimes get serious, but were careful to never go too serious. Even when the show got darker in season 8, they didn’t go too far as to lose the overall charm of the show 9 (well, until season 10). The 2003 cartoon emphasis was on the action, and while It did that exceptionally well, the funny stuff it left to Michelangelo, making him the sole bearer of humor; which resulted in him coming off as obnoxious and juvenile most of the time. When he would make a joke, we were never supposed to laugh at the joke, but at Mikey from being stupid and making it in the first place, as if to say “No, take all of this shit seriously”. The humor came off as being too forced, rather than letting it come naturally from the characters, and when you have a property called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you would think you could derive natural humor from it. Granted the original comics never delved much into the humor, but they were at their core a parody of comics at the time, just played straight. The whole pseudo-dark and serious tone of the 2003 cartoon was really off-putting to casual fans franchise expecting lighter and funnier Turtles.
The show would very rarely make reference to the original cartoon, usually just a quick visual gag or a throw-away line. Aside from keeping the different color bandanas, it made more effort to shy away from every popular element of the series prior. Michelangelo’s signature catchphrase was gone (Instead replacing it with the oh-so-much more superior: “It’s Ninja Time” …*gags*), as was any reference to pizza and the tongue-in-cheek; and it’s understandable. Hey were trying to build this series into its own thing, and leaning too heavily on the more popular incarnation wouldn’t be doing them any favors. Still, you can easily tell they were not too keen on embracing any aspect of the original series, no matter how popular. It could have been a nice middle ground, but instead chose to eschew the original completely and take its cues more or less from the Mirage comics. Though, funny enough, while the original TMNT cartoon is often accused of being a 30-minute toy commercial, but season four, that was exactly what the 2003 series became. Finding any excuse at all to throw in a new vehicle or costume change for the Turtles just to promote the toy that would follow it in a month. Here was one episode called “Grudge Match”, one of the better ones of that season, that showed the Turtles wearing shiny and decorative battle armor…but they didn’t wear them till the very end of the episode, after all the conflicts were resolved. They served no purpose but to promote the toys of the Turtles wearing the exact same armor. It was off-putting, and it would only continue like that all the way through Fast Forward and Back to the Sewers. Still, the series was content with existing as its own show, and it was never malicious toward the original…
…Until Turtles Forever.
Now, I’m sure all of you are at least familiar with Turtles Forever: the crossover movie that teamed the 2003 Turtles with their 1987 counterparts. It was well received when it debuted, and I admit, I was in love with it when I first saw it. However, after having a while to think about it, as well as developing a new appreciation for the original series, I now see this movie for what it really is…An 81-minute long middle finger to the original cartoon. I mean it, the whole movie is just basically an excuse for them to go: “Look how dark and cool our show is and how goofy and stupid that old crappy one was…BUY OUR TOYS”! The 1987 Turtles are portrayed NOTHING like they were in their show. It’s so bad it’s like the writers had never seen an episode of the old show in their lives, then were shown a single random one from that crappy “European Vacation” season of episodes and then told to write. It didn’t help that old non-union 4Kids couldn’t get the original voices back, so you have these atrocious stand-ins that sound and act nothing like the originals. All the Turtles act like incompetent, weak, doofuses and the 2003 pulls no punches in relentless mocking everything about them, while never once acknowledging their own faults, instead being constantly painted as the superior version that does everything right. When the 1984 Mirage comic Turtles make a cameo, suddenly everyone bows down to them as the almighty versions, further supporting Peter Laird’s anti-old cartoon stance. Aside from a few legitimately funny bits, this is mean-spirited, resentful, ego-stroking, wretch of a movie that “celebrates” the history of the TMNT by knocking everything that wasn’t Laird-approved.
Well, after that long rant, I’ll let you take a breather before I move onto my second point…I’ll wait…
…..you ready? Good.
My second point got me some flack on a TMNT message board, but it’s one I wholeheartedly believe. This show offered nothing new and interesting to make it stand out as a memorable part of the franchise.
Let me clarify, I’m not saying the show wasn’t important or meaningful, it was. However, when compared to other, more popular entries in the franchise’s legacy, it’s hard to see just what this show did to set itself apart from what had come before and what would come later. I say the Mirage comics and 1987 series were the most important to the TMNT franchise not simply because they were the originals, but because they would both be integral in how the franchise would be viewed in the public eye. The Mirage comics of course gave us the main characters whom the series would revolve around for 30 years (The Turtles, April, Splinter, Shredder, and Casey Jones), but they would also set the tone in terms of action, whether in terms of gritty street brawls with the Purple Dragons, crazy sci-fi fights with the Triceratons, or intense martial arts battles with the Foot Clan, in ran the full spectrum. The comic is also important for establishing an important theme of the series: Family. One of the most enduring elements about the franchise has been the development of the family bond between the four Turtle brothers, their father Master Splinter, surrogate sister and sometimes mother figure April, and their best friend/crazy big brother Casey. This aspect would come to be the most focused on element of the original comics, especially during the last two story-arcs in volume 1 where they begin to drift apart but are inevitably drawn back together. The Mirage comics set the tone for the story of a truly odd family unit brought together by even odder circumstances.
While the Mirage comics were a parody played completely straight, the 1987 cartoon was a parody with tongue firmly in cheek. The original cartoon was key for establishing another crucial aspect of TMNT: the wit. What’s helped the Turtles appeal to a larger audience outside of comic fans is their ability to step back and laugh and have fun with itself. Granted, all superheroes are pretty ridiculous, but the Turtles take it to the next level. Played totally at face value, the show would have been passed off as something a stoner thought up, but because the cartoon was in on the joke, it became better embraced by the world-at-large and set it apart from its contemporaries like Transformers and Thundercats. Granted the jokes were never next-level brilliant, but there were always some moments that could induce some legitimate chuckles. Plus, the cartoon introduced other aspects that would become important to the franchise; including the different color bandanas, fleshing out their individual personalities, and of course the pizza and theme song. Also, while the franchise had The Shredder to tie the martial aspect of the show around, the cartoon introduced a villain to help tie the sci-fi element together: Krang the alien brain from Dimension X. I would argue that Krang is just as important to TMNT as the Shredder is. Without Krang, the sci-fi bits feel more like random side adventures, whereas with Krang, it feels more like part of a larger and more important story.
The movies, video games, and even the Coming Out of our Shells tour that everyone remember are pretty much extensions of the show’s popularity and showed how well (or unwell in the case of Coming Out of our Shells) the Turtles could translate into other mediums. Even Next Mutation was so horrendously bad it’s hard to forget it. The current comic and cartoon are still in their infancy, but you can see the strides they’re making in establishing their own place, mainly by combining everything good about the previous incarnations.
But what did the 2003 series offer to the table? It wasn’t the Turtles first foray into animation, nor was it the first time we’ve seen them go more serious. The Turtles were no different from how they were originally portrayed, and for the most part it borrowed heavily from the Mirage comics without really doing anything new or unique with them. It did give us a couple of new characters, but none of which your mind would automatically go to when you think TMNT. It did offer one new twist, though some would argue it wasn’t for the better…
Remember when I hinted that Shredder was much different this time around. Well, in season 2 of the show they reveal that The Shredder, who we all assumed was human like in all previous incarnation…was actually an alien; an Utrom (an alien race from the comics that created the Mutagen served as the inspiration for Krang). His human body was actually a robotic exo-suit, from which he took inspiration from an ancient demonic Shredder who was the true original. This was the one thing this series could actually claim to uniquely be its own, and…it’s not really something to be proud of, and here are two reasons why; 1. It’s detrimental to the character of Oroku Saki. Instead of being a highly trained, badass ninja master, he’s instead a super robot who just kind of tosses the Turtles around. It kind of lessens the suspense when we know The Turtles are barely hurting him while fighting. 2. It turns this series into a purely sci-fi show. I’m not saying the sci-fi element is bad, but TMNT has always worked best when they had a balance going. By turning their main human, ninja bad guy into an alien, suddenly everything revolves around this one genre, and it gets tiring. It’s a needless twist that didn’t really add anything interesting and really just gave them an excuse to keep the Shredder around for longer.
So after all that, it must seem like I hate the 2003 series, right? Far from it. I like it. When it was first airing I loved it, but for me it doesn’t hold up well to repeat viewings. Still, I loved the emphasis they put on action. The animation of the fight scenes was on point (in the first five seasons), making them very fast paced and even adding some genuine creativity to them. I loved that they developed the family element, and a lot of the characters they introduced were pretty great, with a couple even showing up in the new IDW comic, proving this series isn’t truly forgotten. And though I ragged on them for the long, interwoven storylines, I still appreciated that they did that. I was one of the fans watching week to week, after all. The writing could be really good in the show, especially in episodes like “Bishop’s Gambit” and “Hun on the Run”.
It’s not a bad show by any means, but it’s still not what I would call one of the most memorable incarnations of the TMNT. Most people I talked to back then either had no idea it was on, or hated it because it wasn’t the 87 series. I think it’s finding new appreciation now, mostly through people bitch that the 2012 series is nothing like it. But still, it’s unfortunately not as successful as its older or younger siblings.
It’s the Jan Brady.