Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nothing Wrong With Just a Little, Little Fun: Turtles Forever and Final Thoughts on the 4Kids Series

I saw Turtles Forever when it first came out, and with my childhood memories of the Fred Wolf series, and my vague knowledge of the 4Kids Turtles and the Mirage Universe, I had a blast.

Now I'm here again, with a surprising re-ignited interest in TMNT, that owes to re-runs on Teletoon Retro and not the new Nick series, to a sudden fascination Baxter Stockman, and an old fascination with Splinter. It lead to watching the 4Kids series, all of which gave me a more solid foundation to go into Turtles Forever than before.

And Turtles Forever remains wonderful. It's blatant metafiction and vigorous fanwanking but made with enough love and conviction that its goofy premise goes down smooth. I've noticed the controversy, but many of the people making these complaints don't seem to "get" the idea of affectionate parody, or to realize that Turtles Forever lets the old characters do plenty.

I enjoy the way this movie starts with the FW Turtles already in the 2003-verse, to excite viewers and save explanations for later, which is often a good way to begin action stories. But there's not much to say about the "plot", because the plot is thin. That's okay, since the movie is mostly just for having fun with a meta crossover.

This is a Turtles/villain show, paring the universe down to its most well-known and action-driven characters, so I wasn't disappointed by the shortness of FW Splinter's cameo, even if he was a childhood hero of mine. Instead, inside my head I made a high-pitched noise that only dogs would have heard.

In true Splinter fashion he, and 4Kids Splinter, take it all in stride, which was lovely. It suggests to me that my inner child might not be lying when she tells me that FW Splinter is strong, intelligent, and respectable.

Turtles Forever also ties up some loose ends from the 4Kids series. It's good to see Karai back in action, and I can temporarily forget all the bullshit that's been done with her—however, she is an extremely tertiary character, and it's a little disappointing that we'll never know where she goes from there. I also didn't care for her young-looking redesign. Turning Hun into a mutant turtle was a pretty fun idea, and Ch'rell has an appropriately powerful return and death.

Ch'rell is notably more manic than before, but it makes sense. This guy has been frozen in ice for several seasons, has awoken in a strange new situation with some guy that has "his" name--of course he's pissed.

Then the story becomes even more obvious that it's fiction about fiction, when the universe fades out, it becomes blue pencil lines before it disappears. At this point the joke can get to be a little much, but never enough to make me falter. Including the Mirage Turtles was excellent, and I can only imagine how much joy other fans must have felt.

I also love the character animation here, with an upgraded budget that allows for characters like mutant Hun or FW Shredder to pull some great facial expressions, as well as a lot of shading and lighting that had been absent from the previous seasons.

A lot of people of my generation complained about the portrayal of the Fred Wolf Turtles and prime FW villains, claiming that the special made them look stupid or wimpy. However, having watched that same cartoon recently, I'd say the portrayals where accurate (new VAs notwithstanding), and most importantly, not at all mean-spirited.

There are plenty of things in Turtles Forever that would have gone differently had it been a mean-spirited parody. If it were mean-spirited, we would not have had FW Shredder taking the imitative to find Ch'rell in the first place, the FW Turtles's exploring shurkien and dimensional scopes being useful, and Bebop being instrumental to Ch'rell's defeat.

Yes, there were a few times when the believability was stretched a tiny bit, such as FW Leonardo being a little too flippant, or the FW Turtles suddenly becoming goofy in the middle of a scene where they'd been acting stable, but I don't believe that was mean-spirited, either.

No, the writers were making a joke, and to make a joke, sometimes you have to exaggerate things, and you never stop to explain it. Turtles Forever was largely a light-hearted piece, and one of the gags was the difference between the 4kids and the FW characters. Acknowledging and then playing with that difference for the purposes of comedy is not bashing.  For me, for my money, the characterizations were pretty much accurate. They especially had that "old married couple" dynamic between Krang and Shredder down cold.

(That being said, a small part of me did get a kick out of the times FW Shredder got whaled on. You could guess why, knowing my favourite Fred Wolf characters are Splinter and White Baxter; the lower brain is a vicious thing.)

Oh, and about the mutant bowling balls, mutant pizza, and also leprechauns: sure, none of them literally existed in the old cartoon, but they sure as hell would be in line with it.

Even the Mirage Turtles, though they make a few jokes at the expense of the "Sellouts", work together with their counterparts, proving again that Turtles Forever is not meant to be an attack on anything or anybody.

However, this was the beginning of my realization that Fred Wolf April was the damsel in distress, or hapless, and possibly unlikable, when I had never thought about whether she was or not. No big loss, though, and I'm still certain this wasn't the reaction the writers intended.

At the very least, it's hard to believe that a crossover with this much effort put into it would exist only for the purpose of scorn. I was astonished by all the references to the old cartoon they snuck in, such as making crowds in the FW universe out of human character models from many previous episodes (I noticed the "eat your vegetables" mother from "It Came from Beneath the Sewers"), or using the phone elevator or the nose-vacuum thingie from the same cartoon. At this point, I'm willing to believe the giant fly that Hun accidentally makes and for some reason keeps in his office is a homage to FW Baxter. (Neat.)

I've heard people talk about more T.F.-style crossovers, something we don't need, because this finishes all of what it sets up and leaves you wanting more, as a good production should. Turtles Forever is one of those things that transcends all individual preferences to appeal to all fans of a media franchise. Well..."all" might be a stretch, but the complaints lobbied against this movie feel almost ungrateful, since it is made with such care, and is tremendous, tremendous fun. It just made me so goddamn happy from start to finish.

And with that, what do I think of the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I like this series for the times when it was good. It's true that I had much higher hopes for it, hopes that were eroded by the last three seasons--as well as some of the filler in the previous four. I expected something nearly as good as Gargoyles or Avatar the Last Airbender, and did not get that. But there are many things worth holding on to, even if this series won't make my personal list of best cartoons.

Despite the misfires, I loved the way that this TMNT helped to bring some of the older Mirage stuff to other media and make new connections between them, and the way it tried, as so many shows do, to be "dark" within the confines of a kid's series, and often succeeded.

The greatest strength of this series during the good times was its villains. Ch'rell successfully blended two disparate concepts (the Shredder and the Utroms) and re-ignited an old villain. Karai used to be great, and I wished she had been handled better. Before he was degraded, Hun was also a pretty effective antagonist. Bishop, as I've said, was the best new character introduced, and its Baxter Stockman is the best Baxter we've gotten.  (note: I haven't read the IDW comics, but Baxter Stockman without self-destruction sounds so uninteresting it's easy for me to jump the gun; also, Mirage Baxter is boring)

On the heroes' side, their characterization is pretty good, though the increasing stupidity of Casey and Michelangelo was disappointing. It's fine to have your characters be comical, but you can take it too far. April still never had much to do, but at least she became easier to define as a character, though still wasn't very interesting.

All in all, it was not something I regret seeking out and watching. When it was on, it was on, and certainly better than the old show at being what it tried to be (as in, I think it's more successful as an action series than the OT was as an action-comedy). I will be the first to try to focus on the good bits without being told to.

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