With all this talk about “ruining childhoods” by rebooting and retooling 1980s properties I have had my fair share of knee-jerk reactions. Reviving popular 80s action properties is nothing new in 2018, He-Man and Ninja Turtles got serious reboots in 2002 and 2003 respectively and even before that there were Extreme Ghostbusters, GI-Joe Extreme, Voltron the Third Dimension, and the beloved Transformers: Beast Wars, not to mention plenty of comic reboots. I wasn’t watching cartoons regularly until about 1987 so I have no nostalgia for the 1980s Transformers, GI-Joe, ThunderCats, He-Man, She-Ra, etc. The first cartoons I remember watching religiously were part of an syndicated afternoon block which included Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, DuckTales, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers and the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, eventually TMNT moved out for TaleSpin and it became The Disney Afternoon. Considering even Darkwing Duck is an early 90s cartoon and most of that TMNT was made after 1989, my fondest childhood memories are from the 90s. It might have been my total lack of nostalgia for the 80s series but I was instantly engaged by the 2002 He-Man and later the 2011 ThunderCats. I consider both to be much improved from what I saw of the originals in more recent years. On the flip side, I have tremendous nostalgia for TMNT and DuckTales but looking back on those old shows it’s easy to see how their reboots are much better series. However, they entertain me for different reasons than the old shows did and sort of still do. I’m looking forward to seeing how DuckTales progresses in season two Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit’s the airwaves this week. I have seen a few episodes that Nickelodeon uploaded to their website and so far I have enjoyed the new direction. So now I’m up to three distinctly different TMNT series that haven’t ruined my childhood. Arguably, each of them is better than my childhood heroes in a half shell.

Let’s start with the first cartoon. I have the entire run of the 1987-1996 TMNT on DVD; I collected it as LionsGate began releasing it back in 2004. It took until 2012 for the entire ten season run to come out on DVD but now it can be purchased in one big boxset. The 2003 series was already airing and coming out on DVD when the old series hit shelves so it was hard not to compare the new series with the old one while I was collecting both. As a teenager I had already looked into the original TMNT comics which were nothing like the cartoon from my formative years. They were gritty to say the least; they killed The Shredder in the first issue. TMNT started as a satire of some of the popular comics in the 80s. A little X-Men and New Mutants mixed with Frank Miller’s Ronin and Miller’s run of Marvel’s Daredevil. The original cartoon only came into existence because Playmates would not do a TMNT toy line without an animated series attached. The five-part pilot season of that series still holds up the best. While the animation done by Toei Doga wasn’t consistent between all five episodes, the character designs were great and the action was smooth, the tone could be comedic or serious and the violence was less censored. The vocal cast was consistently great throughout the series but I think some of the performances sounded much better in the pilot. The tones for Leonardo, Rocksteady, Bebop, Krang, Baxter Stockman and The Shredder were much more subdued and less cartoony than they eventually became. In the pilot there were plenty of jokes and one-liners but the villains seemed competent. As the show continued, the storylines became increasingly ridiculous, the villains became buffoons and the turtles often used slapstick to defeat their foes while their human reporter friend April O’Neil found more and more convoluted ways to get kidnapped. They tried to edge things up in 1994 when Batman, X-Men and Power Rangers started kicking their shells but Leonardo still sounded whiny and making the jokey turtles less comedic just made them feel like jerks. The charming and comedic writing made way for some mid-90s generic edgy writing. The turtles gained new Hulk-like forms, there was a mutant underground, a new guy shows up to join the team with his own muscle bound mutation and a new alien overlord becomes the main antagonist. The whole thing was a cringe-worthy mess and while not every idea was terrible, those seasons were far from the high point of the series. Before those seasons the show’s most glaring issues were laughable action and stories being driven by the toy line. The show had no shortage of freaks of the week and a plethora of new weapons and vehicles to show-off before they hit store shelves. For the majority of the show’s run the strengths were in the great dynamic of characters and amusing dialogue and fourth wall breaks, and well-timed visual gags. Those aspects still hold up well but I cannot for the life of me see why anyone would consider the first cartoon to be the only TMNT worth caring about.

In 2003 I was introduced to my favorite TMNT and despite it coming out while I was in High School I probably have the strongest nostalgia for that one. I did not have many friends who liked TMNT who embraced the 2003 series but I was a fan from day one. That was a bit surprising at the time because it was coming from 4Kids Entertainment, a company that was already notorious for ruining Japanese cartoons, granted they hadn’t gotten their hands on One Piece yet and I liked their Pokémon dub just fine. I’m sure it only turned out as well as it did because of the guiding hand of Peter Laird but it’s kind of ironic that TMNT 2003 included so much Japanese culture while similar things were removed from most of the anime adaptations produced by 4Kids. The 2003 take on TMNT was the closest a cartoon has come to the original black and white Mirage comics. There were jokes and snappy dialogue but the overall tone of the series was more in line with Justice League and Batman Beyond than the previous TMNT. The story was allowed to build from start to finish and there were multiple arcs. Several stories were adapted straight from the comics. The turtles were allowed to grow in skill and wisdom and the main antagonists were deadly. Once again the character dynamic was great all around and as much as I love snarky fourth-wall breaking Raphael from the 80s, I quite enjoy the brooding loner type Raphael of the comics, films and this series as well. April was a computer programmer rather than a reporter and she was rarely a damsel in distress after her introduction. The animation from Dong Woo was consistent and looked great in action. There were actual fights and the choreography was quite impressive. The series had some of its own faults though. A few one-off or reoccurring stories were lackluster and the comedy often felt forced, especially when it was coming from Michelangelo. Also, while Peter Laird’s vision of animated TMNT was great in many ways, his preference to ignore some popular aspects of other incarnations of the franchise was rather disappointing. That, to this day, keeps TMNT 2003 from feeling as definitive as it could have been. The first 100 or so episodes are largely fantastic but not-so-unlike the first cartoon, TMNT 2003 also went off the rails by the end.4Kids decided to do a few soft reboot to refresh the toy line. The writing and the animation suffered as the turtles were sent nearly 100 years into the future. Some folks don’t like the direction this series went with The Shredder and definitely didn’t care for the multiple versions of The Shredder but there was no question that main Shredder of the series was a force to be reckoned with, the 2012 one has him beat though. The series concludes with the TV movie Turtles Forever which also serves to bookend all things TMNT up to that point before Viacom bought the franchise. The 2003 Shredder tries to destroy the entire multiverse and the 2003 turtles team-up with the 1987 turtles and even the Mirage comic turtles. Many jokes are made at the expense of the 80s turtles and they feel like parodies of the actual 80s turtles that aren’t even voiced by the original actors.. It was a bang-up finale for the 2003 series despite being harsh on the 80s cartoon. While there were some major missteps the 2003 series is probably the best of the animated series thus far but maybe that’s my nostalgia talking.

While I was initially apprehensive about the 2012 TMNT from Nickelodeon, it also hooked me from the start. The first season had really strong writing, surprisingly great CGI animation with great fight choreography and turtles that actually acted like teenagers. The personalities were similar to the 2003 series and the comics but I like the tweaks they made to dynamic. Leonardo gained a nerdy side and Donatello gained some attitude. It took a bit of time to get used to April being a teenager rather than an adult but it really worked out for the best though her father constantly getting kidnapped or mutated got old fast. Teenage Casey Jones fit in with the rest of the crew but he could get pretty obnoxious. It was clear from the start that the showrunner Ciro Nieli and his writing team had a great grasp of what made a TMNT story entertaining and compelling. Ciro grew up with Mirage comics as opposed to the old cartoon and it showed. The first season strived to be its own beast while incorporating aspects from various incarnations of the TMNT. They introduced some new characters and retooled some old ones. The Shredder was no push-over this time either and what he was capable of was downright disturbing, especially because he wasn’t some alien or a demon but rather a man who could push around powerful mutants and aliens with ease. The 2012 series had a near perfect mix of comedic and dramatic elements which made it a really well-rounded experience, unlike the previous two cartoons which leaned too far on one side or the other to have a great balance. Like the 2003 series, the story was allowed to grow from the start and over the course of four 26 episode seasons, it developed quite the lore of its own. By season two they were dipping more into the nostalgia pool as they introduced new versions of lots of mutants from the first cartoon and toy line and later on they even added in characters from spin-off comics and the 2003 series though some mainly felt like they were only those characters in name. Eventually, the nostalgia plays got out of hand and they had too many characters to utilize them all well. Several original characters were brushed aside in favor of incorporating yet more elements from the 80s cartoon. If that direction didn’t make it obvious that Nickelodeon wanted to milk the nostalgia, then more than two cross-overs with the characters from the 80s cartoon made it abundantly clear. Just like the 2003 series, they ended with cross-over event but unlike the 2003 series, Nickelodeon got back the original actors. It was a delight to hear the cast reunited though even these cross-overs were a bit harsh on the 80s series, just nowhere near as rough as Turtles Forever was on it. Like the previous two series, the last seasons of TMNT 2012 also felt the need to shake things up and it went off the rails. Maybe I shouldn’t expect a show riddled with mutants and monsters not to feel the need to constantly one-up itself in bizarre situations but I prefer my TMNT to be a bit more grounded, at least when it starts grounded. I’m well aware the comics that even the Mirage comics got weird early on. The 2012 series didn’t shy away from introducing more mutants on a weekly basis, much like the 80s cartoon but the showrunners were also fans of the horror film genre so they made sure to include a lot homages to those films and plenty of creepy scenarios and body horror. None of that’s my bag so there are episodes of the 2012 series I don’t want to revisit but I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of the series. One of the most unnecessary nostalgia play’s, in my opinion, was the inclusion of Super Shredder, yeah the Super Shredder from the second live-action movie, only way more disturbing this time around.  Up to that point, the turtles themselves had never won a fight against The Shredder despite the fact that he remained human and they just threw that away to up the ante for no good reason. They did actually kill off some characters in the 2012 series and got away with a whole lot for a Y7-FV rated kids show on Nickelodeon. The final season had three separate apocalyptic scenarios, one of which was intended to be the true ending to the series though Nickelodeon played it out of order and not even on the main channel. The other two involved summoning a demon, raising the dead and turning everyone on earth into a vampire or werewolf. Not that serious threats to inhabitants of the Earth were uncommon up to that point. The first three seasons each ended with an alien invasion. Even so, having the true ending basically being the worst case scenario that the turtles prevented on a regular basis is pretty dang dark. I never expected TMNT to go all Mad Max but it sure did. Overall, the tendency to lose the plot and overall weaker writing probably puts the 2012 series behind TMNT 2003 in story-telling but it is arguably the more entertaining of the two and lacks the lows of 2003. It might be appropriate to compare TMNT 2003 to Justice League and TMNT 2012 to Teen Titans and Avatar the Last Airbender. Also, the less I say about the shipping aspect of the 2012 series the better.

Now we come to Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which feels like it is going off the rails right out of the gate. Following the pattern of several other recent action shows it has been light on story development, heavy on comedy and trimmed down to an eleven-minute format. People expected the series to take a lot of pages from Teen Titans Go with a minimalistic low-action and high comedy approach but thus far the action animation has been quite impressive. It looks very Gainax/Trigger inspired and shares similarities with the frantic comedy and action seen in anime like Panty & Stocking, KILL la KILL and Little Witch Academia. The art director and co-developer Andy Suriano did work on Samurai Jack after all. You can trust that the visuals are in very good hands. I’ll admit my initial impression of the character designs was lukewarm at best but it looks great in motion. They made some notable changes to the dynamic in Rise of the TMNT by making Raphael the defacto leader of the group rather than Leonardo. Because of this Leonardo is free to cut loose. It’s different and I don’t mind that but as many critics have stated the new dynamic makes all the turtles feel like they’re all basically the same character. That’s one thing it does seem to have in common with Teen Titans Go. I think each turtle still has some individuality which allows them to play off each other but they do definitely feel like different shades of the same turtle. I’m really enjoying the dry-wit of the new Donatello and like Leonardo as a lovable scoundrel but they’re leaning a bit too hard into Raphael and April being well-meaning wrecking balls and Mikey feels especially bland now that everyone is cracking jokes and doing naïve things. They made April African American for the first time in a cartoon but the stereotypes they are projecting with her aren’t exactly flattering. I’ll be frank, she acts like an idiot and that’s nothing like the intelligent and cunning April’s of the 2003 and 2012 series. That’s honestly a shame, so I hope she doesn’t keep perpetuating bad stereotypes. I am also left wondering what would become of Raphael when Leonardo steps up his leadership game. He’ll just be a loveable oaf and while that might be better than an angry loner to some, I feel like it’s a disservice to the character. That said, after two turtles series that got the dynamic just right, I don’t really mind the big changes. TMNT is a franchise that has room to explore other origins, stories and dynamics and still feel like TMNT, it’s very flexible like Batman and Transformers. However, the eleven minute format and the lack of story development kind of makes the bold new direction pointless. If the main objective was having fun with these iconic characters then why change them at all and why introduce a new major antagonist and a concept of a mystical city under New York if you’re going to spend most episode on the turtles and April interacting with a freak of the week? The approach with mutants in this one is kind of a head-scratcher in itself. There’s a lot of them and it’s the turtle’s fault they got mutated but they seem to be hiding in plain site or not hiding at all. I suppose that gives them lots of freedom to tell whatever story they want to and they could do a lot of interesting things with the integration of mutants into human society but I get the impression they won’t delve deeply into that. I’m sure they’re saving whatever origin story there is for another episode in favor of getting right into the action but it does feel odd to jump to the point where the turtles already know April. I’m not sure how I feel about the new Master Splinter either. In the previous three series he was a great mentor, teacher and father figure though the 2012 one made some pretty terrible parenting decisions along the way. This Splinter is fat old rat who just watches TV and picks on his sons, not even remembering all their names. It’s shown he’s capable of impressive martial arts but he doesn’t show much interest in training the turtles. He has a shelf of things the turtles aren’t supposed to touch which at least eludes to him having previous adventures. I trust there’s more to him than he currently seems to be but I hope they don’t take long to expand on his character. It’s obvious the turtles are super green when it comes to martial arts in Rise, and they flat out embarrass themselves in the first few episodes. The new antagonist seems to have a history with the turtles and also wants to mentor them into capable warriors. I’d like to see where that goes but I don’t expect a lot of story development to come from the eleven minute format. Needless to say, I have some concerns for the story progression and dynamic as it has been presented thus far but it is much too early to write those things off. In the meantime the animation is fantastic, the dialogue is snappy, the one-off scenarios are amusing and it is genuinely funny. I feel it does a better job with the eleven minute format than other action shows have, though it could certainly use some more breathing room. The first episode was double-length and I expect other story centric episodes will be double-length specials like Steven Universe is prone to do but it remains to be seen. Initially I thought Rise would be the first TMNT cartoon I could ignore entirely but thus far I have been pleasantly surprised and quite entertained. I’m still not that keen on the title though.

I don’t think every version of TMNT has to be to my liking but it is nice to be able to enjoy four vastly different TMNT animated series over the course of my life. I would not even go so far as to say any version of TMNT ruined my childhood, though plenty of gosh awful versions exist. Maybe it’s easier for me to accept different versions of TMNT because the franchise constantly reinvents itself and maybe it’s just my bias but I genuinely consider each TMNT cartoon to be great in their own ways. I have room in my heart for all four. I won’t say the same for some other 80s and 90s reboots but we’re all probably a little too quick to judge things that aren’t even broadcasting yet. There are definitely some reboots that are an acquired taste or just plain terrible but each new series should be given a chance before we collectively decide they are an affront to the franchise. Nothing can actually ruin your childhood memories accept for going back to what you used to watch and seeing it for what it was. Some things hold up better than others because they had a lot of care put into them despite being cartoons intended for kids but a lot of iconic childhood favorites of the 1980s are not nearly as good as you remember them being. Don’t take this stuff so dang seriously and be willing to accept a new take for a new generation. I know I need to take that advice myself when it comes to ThunderCats Roar. Despite having several issues with the 2011 series and no nostalgia for the original, I immediately did not like the previews for Roar. I’m trying to keep an open mind but beyond ruining the childhood of ThunderCats fanatics it just feels like another nail in the coffin for action animated series on television. I guess that’s what I’m nostalgic for, story driven action cartoons that aren’t mostly comedies. I wish more things could turn out like Voltron: Legendary Defender but I digress. I’ll give Roar a shot and I hope you all will give Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a shot as well. The series premieres today on Nickelodeon with new episodes Monday-Thursday at 6:30PM EST. Also, if you haven’t seen the 2003 or 2012 TMNT series you should definitely get on that as well. They’re a shell of a good time.