Lionsgate // 1987 // 4378 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mac McEntire // November 26th, 2012
"Michelangelo, I think you've had one pizza too many."
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is often described as an early '90s show, but it actually debuted way back in 1987 and ran for ten seasons, ending in 1996. It spiked in popularity around 1989-1991, during which time turtle mania was absolutely everywhere. There's still huge fan love for the show and its characters today, as seen in this mammoth box set, containing all ten seasons on 23 discs, featuring all 193 episodes and three hours of bonus features.
Investigative reporter April O'Neil has made a shocking discovery in the sewers of New York. Four mutant turtles are living down there. They are pizza-loving teenagers, trained in the art of the ninja, and named after Renaissance painters:
* Leonardo, the heroic leader
* Donatello, the smart one
* Raphael, the sarcastic wisecracker
* Michelangelo, the carefree party dude
The four turtles learned martial arts from their sensei, a mutant rat named Master Splinter. Before he mutated, Splinter was a member of a ninja clan who was betrayed by one of his fellow ninjas. That betrayer has also made his way to New York, under the name of the Shredder. Shredder, now a crime lord with plans for world domination, has enlisted help from Krang, an alien from Dimension X. They're supported by robot ninjas of the Foot Clan, and two evil mutants of their own, the bumbling Rocksteady and Bebop.
The fight for New York, and the world, is on. It's up to the turtles to save the day.
The first thing you need to know about this release is the gigantic packaging. All 23 discs are housed inside a replica of the turtles' van. It doesn't look exactly like the van on the show, but it does look cool. The top of the van sits lightly on its top, so attempts to pick up the box most often lead to merely lifting the lid. Other than that, the package is sturdy, and the discs stay in place nicely. The wheels work, so you can roll the box around on your kitchen floor and reenact your favorite turtle chase scenes. Just take the discs out if you're going to crash the van.
As for the show itself, it might not be the rockin' action show you remember, and yet it's clear how these characters took the world by storm. Upon hearing there was a show called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of course you had to check it out. The show grabbed viewers attention just because of how different and outlandish it was, and that remains true today. The concept of the show is the best thing about it. There's just something about the world it takes place in that speaks to outrageous, high-adventure fun. I love urban fantasy stories that explore sewers, subways, and other tunnels beneath big cities -- a whole world of unseen mystery and wonder right beneath our feet. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a big part of that love. Add to that aliens, mad scientists, martial arts, robots, laser guns, monsters, screwball comedy, and more, and you've got a maelstrom of geeky goodness.
Still, the show is not perfect. For an action-comedy cartoon, it leans too far into the comedy side of things. Long stretches of episodes go by with nothing but slapstick and lame puns, with little to no fighting or chases. Yes, you can't have a show called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and not have a sense of humor about it, but the "ninja" portion of the show goes forgotten for seasons on end. It's a question of balance. If given a choice between taking out a bad guy with a roundhouse kick or a pie in the face, the show's writers will pick the pie every time, when it should be more like half the time.
Each of the turtles, obviously, fit a certain type. Leonardo is the serious one, which can sometimes make him the boring or stodgy one. He gets the coolest weapons, though, and has quite a few tough guy moments. Donatello is the smart one, the genius inventor, and his high-tech know-how is often what saves the day in any given episode. This version of Raphael is not the brooding, angry turtle from the movies. Instead, he's the sarcastic one, the wannabe comedian. Then there's Michelangelo. He's the fan favorite, the one most likely to make pizza jokes, the one most likely to cut down the villains with jokes more than with weapons. He's the one who usually offers the running gag of pizzas with weird toppings, and he's the one who can always be relied on to shout out the catch phrase, "Cowabunga!"
As for our villains, Shredder looks totally cool with his metal helmet, cape, and razor-sharp blades up and down his arms and shoulders. Unfortunately, Shredder is too often played for laughs. I'm not a fan of buffoon villains, who are undone not by their enemies but by their own idiocy, and Shredder too often goes into that territory. Krang is one of the stranger aspects of the show, a disembodied brain placed in the stomach of an artificial body. It's a good kind of weird, though, and he certainly stands out among other cartoon would-be world conquerors. That brings us to the big question of what, exactly, do Shredder and Krang want? Any given episode is about them trying to get the Technodrome up and running, but when it is, then what? There's a lot of talk about wanting to rule the Earth, but Krang also talks about wanting to go back to Dimension X to conquer it. At other times, all Shredder wants is revenge against the turtles, or against Splinter specifically. Continuing with the comedy, Rocksteady and Bebop are almost always played for laughs. They're toadies, so some wacky bumbling is fine, but there should be at least a few times when they're a threat to the turtles, but no, they're here for the slapstick and only the slapstick.
April O'Neil, she of the famous yellow jumpsuit, provides a lot of information for the turtles, but their friendship adds an important element to the show as well. It's true that she has to be rescued all the time, but she shows courage at other times, and has her share of hero moments as well. April's nerdy friend and coworker Irma gets a huge amount of screen time, with several episodes devoted just to her, another example of the creators putting comedy before ninja action. Irma's not a bad character, it's just strange to see her getting as much character development as, say, Michelangelo.
Disc one contains the first season, which was a mere five episodes. Fans sometimes refer to these as "the mini-series." All five episodes are serialized, telling a single story that builds to a big finale. This was done so the episodes could be reedited into a two-hour "movie" for syndication re-airings and a VHS release. They tell the turtles' origin, and establish Shredder and Krang's headquarters, the Technodrome, as something to be feared.
Disc two gives us the second season, made up of fourteen episodes. These build off the first, with the Technodrome stuck in Dimension X, and Shredder running around on Earth, scheming to get it back. This show was often criticized for being nothing but one big toy commercial, with a new characters, vehicles, and devices constantly being introduced, and that's evident even in these early episodes. On the plus side, the season wraps up with another Technodrome-heavy finale.
New math: Season three lasted for an exhausting 48 episodes, airing five days a week. You can find these on discs three through six. This was the height of the show's popularity, with the first live action movie coming out during this time. The pressure to put out five episodes a week shows, as the animation often comes across as rushed, not to mention the scripts. During this season, the Technodrome is stuck at the center of the Earth, and a number of fan-favorite characters debut, including fellow crimefighter Casey Jones, side villain the Rat King, mutant alligator Leatherhead, and samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo. The comedy gets really goofy during this time, but everything gets tied together with another Technodrome-based multi-part finale, a definite highlight of these early episodes.
Season four saw the show move from weekdays to Saturday mornings, timed to coincide with the release of the second live action movie. Originally airing in hourlong segments of two episodes packaged together, this season has forty episodes, located on discs seven through eleven. This is when any pretense of being an action/martial arts cartoon goes out the window, and the show is all comedy all the time. Shredder's mother shows up in one episode, Irma gets super powers in another, Raphael becomes a stand up comedian in another, and so on. It's also during this season that breaking the fourth wall becomes commonplace, with the characters talking to the audience at home, and making jokes about how they know they're in a TV show. The Technodrome is back in Dimension X this season, but there's no big season finale or Technodrome epic throwdown this time, with the finale being just another stand-alone episode. Season five picks up right where for left off, eighteen episodes on discs twelve through fourteen, relocating the Technodrome to the North Pole. Although a shorter season, there's no shortage of new characters -- a.k.a. new toys -- to be introduced. These include Muckman, Mutagen Man, and Mondo Gecko. Things continue to be light and comedic in season six, sixteen episodes on discs fifteen and sixteen.
Now things get a little confusing. The packaging tells us that discs seventeen through twenty house all 27 episodes of season seven. That's only partially accurate. The first thirteen of these are the so-called "vacation side season," a series of episodes in which the turtles visit a bunch of European cities. These were originally intended to air during the fourth season, but for some reason didn't air until later. Even then, they weren't shown on Saturday morning with the rest of season seven, but on cable as part of a separate run. The rest of the "real" season seven has the Technodrome at the bottom of the ocean, and features a number of callbacks to previous episodes, ending with another Technodrome-specific finale. It's not as fun as previous finales, but it makes something of a fitting end, because the show was about to be retooled.
Season eight begins a whole new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- new theme song, new look, and an edgier new attitude (mostly). For unknown reasons, the sky is always depicted as red, day or night, to give the show a darker, cooler sense of style. Seasons eight, nine, and ten had eight episodes each, and are on discs twenty-one through twenty-three. In addition to the new visuals, we get a whole new direction in the storyline. The turtles' mutations go out of control, prompting them to transform into monstrous new forms -- cue more new toys. We also meet Carter, a fellow mutant and martial artist, who also has a habit of turning into a monster. He gets a ton of screen time as well, no doubt in the hopes of drawing in new viewers as interest in the characters waned in the mid-'90s. Similarly, there are new villains. Shredder and Krang appear only sporadically, with the alien Lord Dregg taking over as the main baddie. He too is after world domination, and his M.O. is a smear campaign against the turtles, while falsely setting himself up in the media as a hero. He has a ton of sidekicks of his own, to inspire creation of still more toys. Season ten wraps up with a definitive ending to the series, as the turtles must go to great lengths to defeat Dregg after he achieves godlike powers.
Whew. That's a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Who came up with all this? Most episodes, including the entire five-part first season, were written by David Wise, whose idea it was to jettison the darker tone of the comics for a lighter, kid-friendly one. According to the never-wrong internet, Wise got his start at age 16 (!) writing for Star Trek: The Animated Series, and went on to write several fan-favorite episodes of the Transformers cartoon. He departed after the ninth season. Executive producer was Fred Wolf, who also developed DuckTales and Alvin and the Chipmunks for TV in the 1980s. Another key name behind the scenes was Michael Reaves, who wrote parts of the big Technodrome-specific season finales. Reaves wrote for a lot of my favorite late '80s/early '90s toons, and I'm a big fan of his work. No matter how cheesy, ridiculous, or dumbed-down the show was, Reaves was never afraid to take the high ground and develop the characters. Most of the episodes were directed by Bill Wolf, who also came to the show from DuckTales and those damn chipmunks. He went on to work on adult-oriented toons Duckman and The Boondocks. The "red sky" seasons were mostly directed by Tony Love, who came to the show with a long list of TV animation credits dating back to the mid-1960s. Why bring all this up? It raises a question of whether these folks knew they were creating a true pop culture phenomenon, or if it was just another job in the animation trenches. We may never know...
The picture and audio on these discs can be rough at times, with splotchy, murky visuals. This is more likely due to the original materials, though, and not necessarily the DVD transfers, especially during the first three seasons, as animators rushed episodes out to meet the five-days-a-week demands of the show's crazy popularity. The "red sky" episodes look much cleaner and visually impressive, as fewer episodes per season meant more time could be spent beefing up the animation in each one. Audio varies from good to mediocre, and yes, the famous theme song (composed by Two and Half Men creator Chuck Lorre! What?!?) is appropriately booming.
The bonus features are identical to the ones found on previous DVD releases. Featurettes include interviews with the actors, creators, and fans. There's also a simplistic text-based pizza recipe on one screen. The highlights of the extras, though, are two never-before-released episodes, "Planet of the Turtleoids" and "Once Upon a Time Machine," which aired in prime time just before the start of season four. You can find them on disc twenty-three.
What's not on this release? It's only the original animated series, so you're not getting the live action films, the animated TMNT movie, the live-action TV series, the anime-inspired reboot series, or the 2009 Turtles Forever special.
None of the above was technically a part of this series, though. What was a part of the series, though, was "Turtle Tips," a bunch of animated PSAs added to the show after its switch to Saturday morning. Cheesy as these might have been, their lack of inclusion is a real bummer, dude.
I know I've said a lot of negative things about this show, but the good outweighs the bad. It's true that the show's emphasis on jokes over action bugged me, but I'm aware that for a lot of viewers, the multitude of "so-unfunny-they're-funny" jokes will just add to the retro charm.
The best thing about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is simply that it's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in all its pun-spewing, toy-selling, parent-baffling glory. It's so wonderfully "out there" that you can't help but love it.
Cowabu...you know the rest.
Review content copyright © 2012 Mac McEntire; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 4378 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Pizza Recipe
* Turtle Van Box
* Theme Song