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Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the adrenaline shot all nostalgia franchises need
No franchise loves to constantly reboot and yet do nothing different with each new iteration as much as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does. If you watch one Turtle movie or TV show, you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all. You’ll see Shredder, Baxter Stockman, Krang, maybe the Triceratons. The 2003 and 2012 cartoons had their moments, but mostly played the hits, and even the recent live-action films, maligned as they were, managed to get as far as Krang before their unceremonious end. All of it mostly averages out to being good, but there’s also a feeling of “been there, done that, now what?” when the Turtles meet April O’Neil and Casey Jones for the fifth or sixth time.
After 35 years, a big shakeup would be more than warranted for the Heroes in a Half Shell, and that’s thankfully what Nickelodeon’s recently ended Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series provides. Here the Turtles discover a hidden magical city under New York. The Foot Clan are there, but they’re not taking center stage. Instead, a warlord from the Hidden City named Baron Draxum is the bad guy, responsible for mutants (dubbed Yokai) appearing in New York.
Yeah, Rise has a very different angle on the Turtles than what we’re used to, and it doesn’t sound like the typical setup for a show about the Ninja Turtles — and that’s part of what makes it work. By now, we know how things will go with the Foot Clan or the Krang, but not so much mutant cockroaches masquerading as Times Square mascots or a TV chef transformed into a pig man. It’s a refreshing change of pace for a piece of TMNT to not coast on familiar plots and tropes. Even when Shredder inevitably becomes the villain for Season 2, Rise’s take on him is much scarier, more monstrous that gives the show a different energy when he tangles with the Turtles.
That new energy also extends to the show’s amazing breadth of action scenes. In giving the Turtles magical weapons — the outlier being Donnie, but his tech staff can become anything he needs — the fights are allowed to be chaotic and fun in a way previous versions haven’t been afforded. The creativity in each battle against the Yokai or Foot is consistently inventive and makes great use of the fighting skill and magic of everyone involved. No other western cartoon is really matching Rise, either in terms of speed or sheer scale.
And then there are the Turtles themselves. Yes, there are divergences from canon, such as Raph being the leader and all of them being different turtle breeds, but they’re otherwise largely the same. Their individual core personalities have been spun off to give them appropriate quirks and oddities, like Donnie’s mad scientist tendencies or Raph talking in the third person during fights. These quirks make the Turtles in Rise feel like they belong in the now rather than someone’s idea of how teens today interact. (Yes, the Turtles dab, and it’s actually great.) And it doesn’t hurt that the cast has excellent banter and comedic timing, funny without being irritating or doing anything wildly out of character. It never feels like any character is the butt of the joke; the show loves them all equally, which is fitting for a story about family.
It’s too bad, then, that Nickelodeon just effectively buried the show by sending its second season to Nicktoons, where reruns of their old shows exist. The network also shortened its second season from 26 episodes to just 13, with some episodes having already been written. For vintage Nick fans, it can’t help but feel like a repeat of Legend of Korra, which was infamously shunted to the network’s website midway through its third season. And much like that underrated gem, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will eventually find a large audience that can fully love it for what it is. Maybe it’ll be years from now, or after their incoming movie arrives on Netflix in the next few years. But it’ll happen, and everyone who watches the show will be all the better for it. If we are to have every childhood cartoon return for modern updates, the least they could do is be as daring and fun as Rise.