Like many people born during the 80’s, the turtles were a massive part of my childhood. April was one of my first cartoon crushes, Baxter Stockman was one of my imaginary friends and I hoped beyond hope there might be some way I could grow up to literally just sort of become Krang.
That said, it still only took me one episode to accept Nickelodeon’s 2012 update as the perfect, definitive incarnation of the franchise. The turtles truly look and feel like four entirely different characters, April is a capable fighter and of central importance to the storyline, Shredder is a terrifying madman who forces the heroes to retreat more often than the reverse, Krang is now an entire race of creepy-yet-hilarious alien invaders and the show knows exactly how to balance comedic fun with sincere, emotional character writing.
…and topping off all that great comedy, effective drama and pleasingly cartoonish CG animation is the one thing that could have grabbed my attention even without all that sheer quality: incredibly stylish, bizarre, sometimes downright nightmarish monster designs, hearkening back to the colorful grotesque-cute of 80’s series like Madballs, The Real Ghostbusters and the original Turtles toy line itself.
The toyetic terrors of 2012’s TMNT are precisely the sort of charismatically creepy creatures I’ve been craving and sorely missing from kid’s cartoons for the last half of my life, and with the second season well underway, I thought I’d like to give (nearly) every biological aberration of the first season its own brief review, in order of appearance, starting with…
As I mentioned already, one of my childhood heroes has now lent his name to a whole species, every one of which is also actually named Kraang and speaks in patterns reminiscent of Mojo Jojo from the Powerpuff Girls. Of course, the “original” Krang was just based on the more benevolent Utrom aliens from the Mirage comics, so these Kraang put the two in a blender. As much as I loved both, this iteration has my favorite overall design, with longer squid-like tentacles and beautiful big frog-eyes. They’re a perfect blend of menacing and adorable, making fairly creepy, interesting villains with consistently entertaining personalities and funny dialog. Krang may have been one of my idols well into adulthood, but I daresay the Kraang manage to be even more endearing.
Did I mention their leader is voiced by Roseanne Barr?
The first new mutation we get to see in the show, Snakeweed was just a knife-wielding thug until Kraang mutagen fused him to a patch of weeds, creating a huge plant-creature with an interestingly insectoid face, almost like a preying mantis. It’s a neat design choice that works really well; I can totally believe that a plant-man might happen to also look like a bug-man. Even cooler are his exposed tissues and visible, pulsating heart, gruesome little touches to remind us that this used to be a human. Those legs are actually a single stalk at first, until he tears it in half just to walk!
In a later episode, we also get to find out how Snakeweed’s been surviving down in the sewers: by imprisoning humans in a garden of digestive pods and converting them into “fertilizer.” Beautiful.
In only the second episode, an obnoxious, loud-mouthed slob played by Lewis Black becomes vastly more attractive when he’s exposed to both mutagen and a warehouse full of spiders. Surprisingly one of the cutesiest mutants in the series, Spider Bytez has a face more like a chipmunk than an arachnid, and his design is essentially just a bunch of limbs sticking out of a giant, rolling head. It’s not often giant spiders get to be such inelegant goofballs, so while not my usual style when it comes to monsters, I can’t not love this guy just the way he is. What more do you really need? He’s Lewis Black as a giant, venom-spitting, web-farting, spider-legged head, so basically Lewis Black just playing himself. I can’t even tell if they animated anything over him, it’s uncanny.
This is the first friendly mutant the turtles ever run into, and his role is tragically minor for such a magnificent beast. Blessed with glowing pustules, unexpectedly freaky eyeballs and giant man-hands that somehow allow him to fly, Pete is hands-down the most majestic bird-person I’ve ever seen. Anywhere. It’s unfortunate that they don’t often make action figures of harmless, non-combative bit characters (excepting Star Wars) or I’d already have one for every room of the house and the dashboard of our car.
In the first-gen series, Shredder had the incredibly nonthreatening Bebop and Rocksteady. In this series, he has the almost-as-inept but significantly scarier Dogpound and Fishface. Originally Chris Bradford, a Chuck-Norris lookalike and martial arts celebrity, Dogpound borrows his animal genes from Shredder’s pet akita, and they somehow managed to make this poor guy simultaneously intimidating and ridiculous. He has some of the goofy fluffiness of a big, dumb dog with the lopsided horror of something Umbrella corporation left floating in a giant tube until your dumb ass let it out.
Dogpound’s partner, Fishface was a master thief and assassin until his unfortunate fishification, which left him helpless on land until Baxter Stockman reverse-engineered some cyborg legs from a Kraang droid. Like Dogpound, he manages to be both bad-ass and incredibly silly – my favorite combination. You have to love a fish monster with mechanical pants, and he even retains some of his assassin’s edge thanks to a deadly, venomous bite. It’s too bad we only see him use it in his debut.
A staple of the franchise, Leatherhead began as a monstrous brute with a heart of gold in the original comics, became a preposterous hillbilly villain in the 80’s cartoon, returned as an eloquent scientist in the 2000’s series, and finally returned more to his roots in 2012, now a terrifyingly destructive yet lonely and sensitive crocodilian. There’s not a whole lot to say about his new look, except it’s far larger than we’ve ever seen before, and to say much more of his personality would spoil some of the show’s sweetest and saddest moments.
THE RAT KING
The Rat King is another classic TMNT villain, but I don’t think he’s ever been quite this terrifying. Experimenting with the affects of mutagen on the human brain, the deranged Doctor Victor Falco goes even crazier after an accident leaves him hideously burned and telepathically connected to every rat in the city – including Splinter. Now obsessed with creating a new rat-based world order, he continues his work in a secret sewer laboratory, and depends completely on his ability to see through the eyes of his rats, since the accident left his eyeballs vestigial and useless.
One of my absolute favorites, this delightful chimera is an accidental fusion of cat, octopus, snake, jellyfish, and giant isopod, which Michelangelo completely gives up trying to nick-name. It’s fairly innocent looking with its head and eyes retracted, but proves to be surprisingly agile and dangerous, including electrical eye-beams!
In full attack-mode, Justin has a pleasingly nasty, alien maw, and shows off how his eyeballs are also entire mutant jellyfish. I thought I was the only one! I love everything about this guy, from the fun squash-and-stretch look of his face anatomy to his spoiled-seafood color scheme. He’s even got the tail plates of an isopod hanging off the back of his head! Justin escapes safe and sound, too, for at least a momentary cameo in the second season. Here’s hoping that’s still not the last we get to see of this cutie-patootie.
THE COCKROACH TERMINATOR
Inspired by real-world experiments with cybernetic cockroaches, this bio-mechanical insect begins as a cute, harmless spy-roach created and controlled by Donatello, until a vat of mutagen merges insect with spy-cam into a relentless killing machine. Now, as much as I adore cockroaches, I have to say I wasn’t really all that wowed by this guy until he “molted” mid-way through the episode, undergoing a metamorphosis into something not at all like a cockroach, but somehow, impossibly, even more beautiful than a giant, murderous cybernetic cockroach ever usually entails…
Look at this thing. Look at this profound, unbridled beauty, this incomparable work of art. An angel straight from heaven.
Apparently, when a cockroach and a digital spy-camera merge at the molecular level, you end up with a flabby, grey-blue maggot man with a yonic lamprey maw, Brundlefly eyes and circuit board wings. A flabby, grey-blue maggot man who can also pull booger-like organic bombs from under his moobs. My god. This thing brings me to tears of joy. Why did they only make an action figure for his first form?!
I wouldn’t really have expected much to top Justin or flabroach, but we’ve got one mutant left from season one, and if you haven’t actually been watching the show, now would be the best time to stop reading and catch yourself up, because this last mutation is also one of its darkest, saddest and most unexpected moments.
When we first meet Timothy or “The Pulverizer,” he’s just an overzealous turtle fanboy who desperately wants to be a hero himself. He’s awkward, he’s oblivious, he’s embarrassing, he’s a comic relief screw-up you’ll either find cutely pathetic or wish some horrible, twisted fate upon, and you’ve probably guessed from the build-up that you’re going to get that very wish.
Timothy’s second appearance, “The Pulverizer Returns,” is set up like another pure comedy episode. In his quest to become cooler, the idiot has somehow fallen in with the foot clan, and even volunteered himself to test a batch of stolen, unstable mutagen, certain it will turn him into a superhuman monster with rad powers and sweet moves.
Instead, the mutagen he gets doused with just burns. Really, really burns.
Now half-sentient and half-insane, the corrosive, oozing abomination that used to be Timothy is driven to mindless rampage by the sight of his own reflection and, presumably, the pain of being nothing but living organs floating in acidic phlegm. That’s right, kids; this goofy, hilarious nerd was set up for two episodes just to dissolve alive into a tortured mass of viscera.
…and once they get him in containment, he should be strangely familiar to fans of the 80’s series. We see just how familiar in the second season, but that’s a review for another day.
There are very, very few people in this world who don’t enjoy some combination of cartoons, ninjas, turtles and mutants. If you’re one of those people, what’s your problem?
If you’re anybody else, you should have already been watching the new turtles. The 80’s series wanted to be exactly this hilarious, and the 2000’s reboot wanted to be exactly this dark. This series carefully distills everything that worked throughout the long, convoluted history of the franchise and smoothly blends the results into one of the most delightful animated series of the past thirty-some years.