Friday, November 9, 2012

New Addi(c)tions: 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Stuff

Why do I keep writing Turtles posts?

Okay, so I decided to start watching the 4Kids/2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. I intend to watch it in full, even if the re-branded seasons get as bad as fans said they are. I'm disappointed with the Nick series, and I need to class up this joint. But for the purposes of fun, there will be a piece at the bottom of this post where I'll talk about whatever TMNT stuff I feel like bringing up at the moment.

I have watched the entire first season of the 2K3 series, and was very, very impressed. This is a show almost on the level of Gargoyles (almost), and just one of the great American action series. It's well-written, builds its world slowly, and I'm surprised at some of the things they got away with.

I'm not completely ignorant of the 2003 TMNT, but at the time it was airing, I had no interest in seeing more Turtles stuff. I had no nostalgic urges, and never knew anyone who recommended it to me as simply a god cartoon. I did watch Turtles Forever, though, and I enjoyed that.

Swimming in the anime-geek hatred of 4Kids at the exact time this series was airing might have also steered me away from it, even though I knew this was an original production, and that I shouldn't have let my issues with the production house give me a bad attitude towards their American content.

But I'm better now.

I am also clean of any urge to dislike any differences between versions of the Turtles. I say, if you start out with Fred Wolf Splinter as your favourite, a character who had his very birth species changed, then you have no right to complain about anything that doesn't impact the fundamental quality of the show.

The way the 4Kids series slowly develops reminds me of a novel, of revealing stuff piece by piece instead of throwing the cards all out on the table. Knowing the way some of these other people rewrote scripts for anime, I am surprised by what this show is getting away with. But this is only to its benefit: the reason I like darker and more serious stuff in kid's cartoons is because conflict makes for better stories, and kids, you know, shouldn't be shielded from that.

How much of this quality and this subversion of the 4Kids model is due to Peter Laird's involvement, and how much to the talent of the other writers involved, either the cartoon veterans, or the hidden talent of the 4Kids staff? I have no idea. But including the original creator is generally a good thing, setting up a consistent rhythm between the different media, and an understanding of what makes the material "work", and therefore Laird's involvement is an important factor.

(It's really fun to spot voice-actors, too. Hi there, Mike Sterniklaas, Ted Lewis, Dan Green, Eric Stuart, Marc Thomspon, Darren Dunstan....).

Unfortunately, I was spoiled for many of the important beats due to my years of Turtles research. That didn't made things boring to sit through, though, because I appreciated the execution. The return to battle Shredder at his building was especially great, even though the engineered antagonists were pretty ridiculous.

It's too early to tell if I'll like any of the other characters besides the ones I was already predisposed to, namely Splinter and Baxter Stockman. And of course, both men are better characters than they ever were before, along with everyone else.

(Though April still doesn't have much of a personality—at least she's more active and self-possessed, but it's still hard to describe who she is. I guess we can't expect miracles.)

I'm not saying I like 4Kids Baxter to save face, to cover my liberal guilt about finding white Baxter to be a hilarious candy-ass: I genuinely do like this guy. I like the combination of hubris and grotesquery we've got going on here, and that he remains arrogant even as his mutilations continue, which is an unconventional reaction for a minion.

In its own sadistic way, this notion is more fun than the norm, as Baxter'll keep setting himself up higher only to fall again, rather than continuing a monotonous pattern of submission. Shredder and Hun slowly removing Baxter's body parts is also a wonderfully creepy take on the whole "you have failed me" song and dance. I already know where his plotline goes, but it's interesting on rewatch.

(And yet, despite all the differences, there are parallels between 4Kids Baxter and Fred Wolf Baxter that I can't help but notice again.)

It's hard to get used to Darren Dunstan playing Splinter, not because he's different, but because Darren Dunstan's role as Pegasus has been branded onto my brain, and Splinter's voice sounds a little forced, too. I also think the bend in his snout looks odd, though I dig the Nicodemus eyebrows.

My interest in Splinter is more respectable, but he's unquestionably written better in other mediums than in Fred Wolf's version, including the Archie comics and the earlier live-action films. The 4Kids version is better for all the usual reasons: the fatherly aspects are emphasized more, creating a more rounded character, and due to coming from a more serious and well-crafted show, Splinter now has much more gravitas and presence, a sense of grandeur.

It's also true, though, that I'm not looking for something to "convert" me away from the Fred Wolf cartoon. I do think that it is objectively a bad cartoon, and not because it's not "serious" enough. There's an objective standard of quality that transcends the tone of a work, so that the Fred Wolf series is bad as a children's action-comedy series, with The Real Ghostbusters, during its pre-Slimer! era beating the series out for quality with a similar tone.

So, I have zero actual respect for the Fred Wolf cartoon, and not because it's supposed to be a humorous show… everything about the Turtles was done better in other mediums. But godammit, I still like watching it. Splinter's iconic status can't be topped by any kind of practical thinking, and realize that I like white partially Baxter because he's so pathetic and stupid. I wish I could ride the Irony Train through the whole series run instead of cracking as I did. I won't forget any of this just because I've seen a version that's actually good.

Actually, I think seeing the better version of The Turtles has strengthened my interest in the Fred Wolf cartoon, and all the related convictions, if you can believe it. It's because I know that I don't have to expect it to be anything much better, because there already is a better version about. I'm still critical of the Fred Wolf show, and there are still some things I would have changed, but I feel less guilty about enjoying it.

I don't pretend to have perfect tastes in entertainment. Having that's impossible unless you pretend or deny whenever you inevitably like something below your usual standards, and I prefer to just indulge. What I looked for, and found, was another cartoon to enjoy, and this time to respect, and not to forget about the other stuff.

Other TMNT Stuff:

I did watch the "Metalhead" and "Monkey Brains" episodes of the Nick  Turtles cartoon, and…at this point I should have dropped the show. The show is still bland, not goofy enough or not serious enough to be exciting.  Both episodes also pushed my buttons a little, with their back-to-back anti-intellectualism. Donatello shouldn't use technology to take the place of walking actively into battle; Donatello should not think so much or he'll get his ass kicked. Gah.

Maybe, somewhere, these could be valuable lesions to impart to kids. But kid's cartoons are already full of this self-congratulatory "Being dumb means you're fun/nice/good" crap that I can't take any more of it. 

"Metalhead" was the first episode with the Kraang in it that I saw. I have no interest in the original Krang, but it's a letdown to see modern villains apparently being drones to knock down like bowling pins.

Donnie and his crush on April still creeps me out, though I'm not sure if it's the species gap or the fact that he seems older than her, even if he's actually not. Maybe the vast age difference between the VAs bothers me, too….

Since my last TMNT post, I also bought the season 1 and 2 DVDs of the Fred Wolf show. I told myself I wouldn't be willing to buy beyond the second season, because the percentage of likable episodes goes way down, but I'm starting to waffle, because I want to avoid piracy. Awkward, with that full set coming out.

Anyway, I had told myself not to bother with the "Red Sky" seasons, because they aired after I had stopped watching the series and didn't have that nostalgic cachet. That, and this more "serious" retooling of the series, apparently done to complete with Batman: TAS, sounded like a very stupid idea. But the season 1 disk had four Red Sky episodes as a bonus feature, so I thought I might as well get my money's worth.

It was exactly what I thought they'd be. It's just so obvious the retooling is a desperate grab for attention, mainly because they don't change anything substantial. Sure, they change the art style, tone down the slapstick, maybe add a dash more seriousness in atmosphere, but none of the major problems with the series are "fixed". For example, April still has no character, and still gets kidnapped and/or makes a fool of herself. Seen in the harsh light of adulthood, the end result is a little pathetic.

It's also a little painful to say, but not even the wonderful Tony Jay as Dregg, the alleged "cool new villain" can save this. Yes, The Shredder was a silly villain, but at this point in a series run, there's no changing the fact that the series had the villains it deserved.

The best thing would have been to start over with a new series, not shoehorn in a new villain, especially not who acts more sophisticated, but does the same shit as before. Sticking in a tougher, cooler new character is one of the weakest ways for an old series to pretend to be relevant.

Carter, that cool new human friend of the Turtles, is another example. At least he's an adult instead of a kid sidekick, and it's nice to bring some diversity to the cast, but he's not much of a character beyond his superpowers. It's also strange and off-putting that he's more like a Marvel-style "Mutant" who can transform from an altered humanoid form to normal, than an anthro animal who can't change back. Because he can change back at times, it's also harder to sympathize with Charter's transformation angst.

The final evidence of it all being a "desperate grab" is to have the Turtles start mutating into monstrous forms, with Leo being the one who gets it the most. It's almost as if they heard all the complaints about Leonardo being too boring, and decided, "Fuck it, we'll just turn him into a monster", instead of trying to do anything substantial.

(Not even Splinter was that entertaining at that point. Was it that he sometimes speaks in faux-Eastern wisdom even more? Or that he technically wasn't nostalgic anymore?)

So, that's that. I'm still very happy with the 4Kids series, and hope it keeps entertaining me. But some things you just won't forget about. And then sometimes, there are things that are just forgettable.


  1. I don’t pretend to know why you keep Turtles posts, but as long as you do and don’t mind me chiming in (seriously, tell me if you do—I sometimes feel über-insecure about not being able to tell when I’m not welcome) I’ll continue to respond to them, especially as intelligent discourse on the franchise can be frustratingly hard to find. I am not complaining at all. : )

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the 4Kids show. Its first season is right up there as one of the best freshman seasons out of any show, and while Season 2 isn’t as consistent, the following two take things to a whole new level. While there are even more things I wish it had learned from Gargoyles—mostly continuity/timeline stuff and its willingness to abandon its protagonists when it suited the story—it in many way feels like an evolutionary step between it and something like Young Justice. If you ever feel like talking about it, I am currently making an episode-to-episode deconstruction of the show at one of my blogs, and I’d love your input.

    You are correct in surmising that Peter Laird was instrumental in making the show what it was. About a year or two back, he actually began releasing the production correspondence he’d exchanged with Lloyd Goldfine, the show’s executive producer. From the looks of it, I’d say that about 70% of his suggestions made it to the final product, which given how substantial they could sometimes be—he asks Goldfine to scrap entire premises more than once--is quite significant.

    My first instinct regarding April, though, is to once again disagree with you, partly because as I grew older I eventually grew to identify a heck of a lot with her perceived lack of direction after losing her job, as pointed out in the episode where her father’s antique store is introduced. It’s a really interesting character beat, and one I sometimes wish the story had tackled more often, even as I feel that it´s not something the writers would have handled with the sort of nuance it would require.

    As for the new toon, the last episode clarified something that had been bothering me, and it’s the way it wants to deal with various issues as if they weren’t complex issues with no easy answers. The last episode, for example, had Raph chewing out Leo for letting a trio of Purple Dragons the turtles had just defeated simply leave, after the gang had just tried to extort a restaurateur. The episode treats Leo as being fully in the right—the episode is meant to be about the righteousness behind showing mercy to one’s enemies--and doesn’t even appear to consider the idea that said criminals would likely then go on to commit further crimes. It makes the cartoon seem immature, in a way that would probably bother me more, if I didn’t feel like the 4Kids toon makes this one to a degree unnecessary.

    April + Don, on the other hand, feels like a badly conceived idea that is badly executed. Interspecies relationships can work—Goliath and Elisa do—but this takes none of the lessons from that and instead mixes Nice Guy ™ tropes and mixes them with the unfortunate implications that come from the fact that April is literally the only woman Don has ever known, and the only female character in the show thus far. I don’t have much respect for the pairing in general—it always seemed to me like it stems from the creatively boring idea that two people defined by the same adjectives *must* be paired together—and the show makes it a thousand times worse.

    - Ian

    P.S.: I saw the Halloween costume pictures you posted a while back. You make a great Baxter Stockman. : )

  2. Well, you're very welcome, on all counts: I welcome you replying to my posts, because I don't get much traffic here.

    I only struggle with posting Turtles stuff because of that pure boundary between nostalgic and present interests that seems now to be breaking. I am a little unbalanced at the idea of Turtles becoming my "new" fandom, when my last fandom was something very...different.

    Of course, I also have the same frustrations you do: of being unable to find any interesting discussion on the boards. I have been poking around The Technodrome's forums for a while, and there's not much happening, nothing to make me want to join it.

    I'm well into the second season of the 4Kids series by now, and continue to be entertained and impressed. I'll save my thoughts for when I'm finished.

    I know I'm not yet at the point where I want to look at 4Kids episodes on an individual basis, but that's more of a personal preference: I haven't done episode reviews in ages, with the last ones being in Evangelion fandom in the early 00's.

    That said, I am vaguely toying with finishing and posting some of my point-form commentary on some Fred Wolf episodes that I write up in my spare-spare time. I think it's easier to talk about something when there's more to be critical about.

    Once again, I feel a little squeamish about picking on a show's major female character, but 4Kids April still doesn't feel like a "whole" character to me, like someone whose reactions I can understand and predict, who forms a consistent picture in my head.

    Her character might be doomed to be this way in all versions because she's supposed to be "the normal one", the same trap that Leonardo allegedly falls into, and no one can think of what to do with her beyond that. But I don't consider that an excuse, wanting to believe that no character type is above being written as a complete person.

    I did indeed read some of Laird's input posts, and agree that he sounds like a great editor. Just that I also noticed good animation writers like Greg Johnson and Marty Isenberg credited, and wondered if hiring those instead of 4Kids' in-house folks also contributed.

    At the same time, I can't let myself believe just because these men were involved with some bad dubbing, that they had no talent at all.

    Are you the same person who runs the "Monsters of New York" blog, by any chance?

    I'm not thinking too deeply about the Nick cartoon by this point. It's almost like this series is in the middle of the road between Fred Wolf and 4Kids when it comes to goofiness and seriousness, so it doesn't please in any way the others can't.

    I agree that Don/April has some shades of Nice Guyism, and is uncreative. Shipping April with any of the Turtles has always struck me as a little weird beyond the interspecies thing, since I see her as more of a sister-figure, even when she's closer to them in age.

    It seems that a lot of fantasy material treats interspecies relationships without the gravity or complexity they should, with Goliath and Elisa being an excellent exception. It also frustrates me that it's usually human female/inhuman male, and acting as if echoing societal standards of beauty through this is something profound and moving. (See my criticisms of fan reaction to Disney's "Beauty and the Beast").

    Thank you for the compliments on my costume. It's been almost a decade since I dressed as a fictional character for Halloween, and I liked how my searching of thrift stores turned out.

  3. [Expletive deleted]. One wrong click, and the 90% finished response I had disappears into the ether.

    I can totally understand why one would feel reluctant to attack a work’s sole representative when it comes to x, y, or z group, and underlines why it’s generally a bad idea to have a group being represented by only one person. The fact that that sort of gender disparity has been more or less codified into the TMNT mythology remains one of my greater disappointments with the franchise. That said, I don’t feel any guilt in saying that I don’t find the Nick version of April is easily my least favorite incarnation of the character, and she is literally the only woman in the show’s world, outside of flashbacks and her invisible aunt.

    On a similar note, I am now wondering if whatever I continue to find appealing in April in her various incarnations is the same thing that I find appealing in characters like Harry Potter’s Ginny Weasley, who is also considered to be a rather hollow character by a not-inconsiderable part of the fandom. Something for me to consider.

    “Monsters of New York” is indeed my side project, born out of the belief that the two different series are meant to be best friends forever. I’m elated to have you as a reader in any capacity, and like I said, any criticism and/or commentary would be much appreciated.

    Regarding the show’s writers, I have the impression that the ratio of established animation writers to writers who’d previously worked for 4Kids is rather skewed in favor of the former, at least at first. Lloyd Goldfine is the only person in the writer side of things who I know for sure came via 4Kids, and he was on the record as being a huge fan of the original comics, indicating a more-than-merely-professional interest in making sure things went well. It’s not until latter seasons that people like Matthew Drdek (who worked on 4Kids’ One Piece localization) become more involved.

    I had not paid a lot of attention to the tendency for “beastly” characters in interspecies relationships to be men, although now that you mention it, it’s a hard to escape. Most counter-examples I can think of tend to be designed as humans with cat ears or green skin, rather than something which wouldn’t register as human should they be rendered realistically.


  4. I figured it was you, since I saw you reply to Station 8 under the name you post here, but plugging a MotNY review. :)

    I will stop by your blog in a second, and reply to a few of the most recent posts. Reading others' episode reviews makes me want to open discussions I wouldn't want to open myself.

    I guess the biggest problem is that, for some reason, I have a tendency to talk more about works I feel are flawed or less respectable, than ones I do respect. Often the media I love the most deeply, I talk the least about.

    At the moment, I've also decided to make "Latest Turtles Miscellany" a posting habit, following my trip through the 4Kids series, and whatever other Turtles thoughts occur to me while I'm doing it. I'm still not finished season 2, but I'm close to it.

    I'll also cop to not knowing who exactly does what with 4Kids, but just that I had a general distaste for the company at the time.

    I'm starting to warm up to 4Kids April a little, and will probably be a little less harsh on her characterization in the future. I'm hoping she develops into a more distinct person later on.

    Yeah, I've given up on the Nick Turtles until I hear any better word-of-mouth. April being literally the only female character anywhere in the series is also a problem, too. Because I haven't watched the series from the start, I can't judge whether or not Nick April is just "the girl", however.

    Yeah...the idea that interspecies relationships involved a human female and a "monstrous" male has been a little bugbear of mine for a long time, and it's sucked almost all the positivity out of the metaphor, as I only see it as a way to enforce the status quo. I make exceptions for something as well-written as Goliath x Elisa, but usually these things aren't well-written, being treated just as a matter of course, that of course a human female would love anything. We're just so pure.

    That relates to the TMNT franchise in that, while Turtle/human romance sounds rare, the amount of mutant/grotesque female characters is notably lower than the already low number of female characters, which is an unfortunate problem.

    Which is why Quarry was such a nice surprise. :)