Turtles Forever

As far as I knew, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as a goofy '80s cartoon about four pizza-loving green heroes spouting catch phrases like “Cowabunga!” or “Turtle Power!” There were toys and a variety of merchandise, and by 1990 they even got their own live action movie, the first film I saw in my home town's first movie theater. I had never been to the movies without at least one parent accompanying me, and I remember begging my folks and cleaning the entire house for a week to get them to let me go with my friends unsupervised. I even did a little drawing of the four characters and put them the refrigerator as a reminder.

The turtles were probably my second most frequently drawn characters after, of course, The Transformers. By the time I was in high school, I had gotten into comic books and started drawing superheroes. And old, “hipper” collectors showed me the Mirage comic series that inspired the show. It was much darker than what I'd been watching, black and white panels with style and dialogue influenced in part by Miller's Daredevil. If the film version of the turtles differed from the cartoon I grew up watching, it was because it was more faithful to the source material. I altered my drawing style to look more like the comics, and even attended a class at my local library taught by none other than Turtles co-creator Peter Laird.

By college, I was majoring in art, with more of a focus on graphic design than illustration. I would also make several pilgrimages a year with my friends to the Words and Pictures Museum in Massachusetts, founded by the other creator of the Turtles, Kevin Eastman. That museum respected comics as “sequential art”, and exhibited original pieces from both independent and big name illustrators. And of course there were plenty of life-sized Turtles lurking about in the rafters. It was a cool place; a shame it's gone.

In 2003, a new animated series debuted, with darker, edgier Turtles closer to their comic book roots. Gone were the initials on the belt buckles to tell the characters apart. No longer were the pupils drawn on the masks, just opaque slits. They trained as actual ninjas, and kept their existence secret from the public, while the Turtles from the first series often flew around in a balloon or drove in a van bearing their logo. The series ran for 7 seasons, and with the exception of one season that had our heroes trapped in the future with a younger sidekick, it maintained its dark tone. Characters died, and a lot was at stake. Injuries carried over from episode to episode, and there was genuine continuity and personal growth. Leonardo took on much responsibility for his brothers, and trained the hardest, going solo in Japan for a bit after a personal crisis. Donatello was still the scientist of the group, although he went through an arc in which science nearly destroyed him. Raphael was the belligerent loner of the group, though beneath his tough exterior beat fierce love for his brothers and their sensei/”father” Master Splinter. Michelangelo was probably the closest to his 1987 version, still the comedian of the group, here a comic book aficionado with a penchant for dressing up like his favorite heroes at times. He retained the lighter spirit of the old show, and collectively the whole cast made up an outstanding hybrid of the source comics and prior series.

SPOILERS follow for the conclusion of the series and a follow-up movie:

That show ended with the wedding of the Turtles' human friends and allies, April O'Neil and Casey Jones. Things of course do not go smoothly with the arrival of Cyber Shredder, but all the Turtles' old allies join forces to defeat their enemy once and for all. This was not the same Shredder who was their main foe through the first few seasons of the show; in a twist, he was revealed to be an alien and had been exiled to a distant, frozen world following his defeat. There were actually 3 or 4 Shredders over the course of the series, with a history too convoluted to get into here. But they were all more menacing and formidable than 1987's Shredder.

Every Turtles series culminated this past Saturday in Turtles Forever, an epic feature-length adventure in which the 2003 Turtles meet their 1987 counterparts, thanks to an interdimensional mishap with the Technodrome, the giant rolling fortress of ‘87 Shredder and his interdimensional ally Krang. The film opens on a familiar 2003 scene, as Hun and his gang are confronted during an electronics robbery by a quartet of shadowy green figures. Master Splinter catches a reference to this on the news, and thinks his sons have been careless, but since none of them had ventured out that night, they soon realize something's not right.

Hun captures his attackers, who are revealed to be the ‘87 Turtles, and the 2003 versions come to the rescue of their alternate universe counterparts. Mikey, of course, takes to them instantly, while Raph finds them irritating. Shredder and Krang are in the ‘03 universe as well, along with the Technodrome and Bebop and Rocksteady, who did not have counterparts in the new cartoon. The two Turtle quartets join forces and find time for a visit to the ‘87 universe, while Shredder uses the Technodrome to locate and revive his counterpart, the deadly alien Shredder. ‘03 Shredder quickly takes control of the situation, upgrading the technology of the interdimensional travelers while reuniting with his old allies. He eventually discovers that these two groups of turtles are but a small part of a multiverse, and in one spectacular sequence of floating screens we get cameos of every comic book, live action, or CGI incarnation of the franchise. He tracks it all to a prime dimension, and the biggest treat of the film is finally seeing the black and white original Mirage Turtles animated. Raph is as enamored with the gritty source universe as Mikey is of the ‘80s “pudgeballs”, but they all fall quickly to the black-and-white originals, all while Mirage Leo narrates in a gritty voice: “I strike two on my way down. Donatello...takes out a third with his staff. Already the PUDGY ones are starting to panic. Raph LOVES this stuff. He's not alone.” The narration strikes the ‘03 Turtles as insane, as much as the ‘87 group's penchant to break the fourth wall and address the unseen audience.

The idea of multiple universes colliding is hardly an original one, but for TMNT to go through their own Crisis was definitely a fitting tribute to the 25-year-old franchise. It makes me feel old to realize they've been around that long, but Eastman and Laird's creations have come a long way, and this film certainly demonstrates that. It wasn't without its flaws, as the lack of some of the original voice actors is painfully noticeable in some instances. But the concept works in connecting all that's come before into one cohesive conclusion to this chapter, while acknowledging that it's not over. Now that Laird has sold off all the rights to Nickelodeon, it remains to be seen where these characters will go next. A new series is apparently in the works for 2012. Meanwhile, all the original incarnations are intact as we remember them, and all the universes Turtles Forever touched upon can be visited at any time. You don't even need a Technodrome to get there, just some DVDs and back issues.



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