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DVD Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The Complete Classic Series

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Airing for 10 seasons and 193 episode, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon is an incredibly strong reminder, for those who watched, of how good Saturday morning cartoons—and afterschool cartoons—could be.  With the advent of Cartoon Network and Boomerang and Disney Jr. and Nick Jr. and who knows how many other cable networks (plus, perhaps, a law or two about educational programming), the Saturday morning cartoon has—if you’ll forgive my borrowing the phrase—gone the way of the dodo.   Now, I’m not going to suggest that every moment in this cartoon is sheer brilliance, but they certainly seemed it at the time (the cartoon began in 1987), and anyone looking for nostalgia and buying the new complete series DVD set from Lionsgate will have a lot to like (and to hate, but we’ll get there).

What makes the show so spectacular? 

Well, let’s start with the theme song.  Perhaps never before, nor again, has a television theme song told you everything you need to know heading into an episode and sounded great doing it  Let’s examine the song, shall we?

What is the show about?  The song tells us repeatedly right up front – “teenage mutant ninja turtles.”  What are these guys?  “They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team/They’re heroes in a half-shell and they’re green” (factually inaccurate as the turtles have shells on their front as well as their back, be we forgive that).  What do these guys do?  “When the evil Shredder attacks/These turtle boys don’t cut him no slack.”  Look, those lines gave us two items, not only did it answer our question, but it also told us who the bad guy is (Shredder).  By this point, you’re probably wondering all about how these guys became ninjas. “Splinter taught them to be ninja teens.”  Who is Splinter?  “He’s a radical rat.”  Want to know a little bit about each of these individual turtles?  “Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines/Raphael is cool, but crude/Michelangelo is a party dude.”  And, let us not forget this about the theme song, as stated above, it sounds great too.

Yes, fine, they changed the theme song as the show waned, but they changed the tone of the series more than once as it continued as well.  This presumably was done searching for an expanded audience as the original audience grew up (it’s cool if you’re in your 30s and don’t live in your parents’ basement to watch the show, but it isn’t at 18 even if you were 8 when you started watching).  Do not let the theme song alteration affect your love of the series, the original song is the one everyone knows and the one everyone sings.

Let me take a step back though in case the songs lyrics are a tad confusing – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles focuses on four turtles who wandered into some ooze that made them far larger than the average turtle.  They were then cared for by Splinter, a human who turned into a rat because of the same ooze.  Splinter taught the turtles to be ninjas, and now they fight Shredder who is actually the same guy who cost Splinter his job at a dojo (life is funny like that).  Helping Shredder out on the side of evil are Rocksteady and Bebop (other mutations) and everyone’s evil boss, Krang, an evil brain-like blob from Dimension X.  Later, you’ll meet a guy named Lord Dregg, but he’s no Shredder nor Krang.

I know I’ve lost you already, but just stop for a second and breathe.  It is pretty simple really – the Turtles fight a guy named Shredder who wears a metal mask and helmet (like Cobra Commander).  Plus, the Turtles like pizza, lots and lots of pizza (see, everyone likes pizza, that makes the mutant ninja turtles relatable).

Most plots revolve around Shredder and Krang’s desire to beat the Turtles, take over the world, and maybe even grab a few other dimensions while they’re at it.  The turtles joke around, come up with a solution, and eat pizza to celebrate after they win.  The journey though tends to be a fun one and the jokes amusing.  Plus, when the show concentrates on overarching season-long plots (season one being the perfect example of this), it has more direction and purpose, which may be one of the reasons the first season (which, to be fair, is only five episodes) works so well. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has already been released on DVD in individual sets/seasons (they altered how they were doing it part way through).  If you have that complete set, bought in pieces, I urge you in the strongest terms not to get this one.  While the discs themselves may look slightly different here, the content on each one is the exact same as what came before (even if that means having episodes there twice… as season one does due to its inclusion of “bonus episodes” from later in the show’s run).  No attempt has been made to standardize the menus which actually change from being 4:3 to 16:9 part way through, and it doesn’t look as though anything has been to clean the images either.  There are also some episodes that are kind of out of order.

The only thing that really is different here is the inclusion of an ill-conceived van which mimics the one in the show and holds the DVDs… badly.  Each DVD is given its own space in the van, but there is nothing to firmly keep them in their individual spaces and any amount of jostling moves them.  I imagine at least a few people will be exchanging the set upon opening it at home and finding discs badly scratched due to movement in shipping.  There is also a great booklet that names every episode and says which disc it is on, except that—due to incredibly poor planning—the booklet doesn’t actually fit anywhere in the van.  It would not have been hard to cheat the van’s shape or the insert that holds the discs and give the booklet a place, but that hasn’t been done.

There are some extras (besides episodes) here, including interesting behind the scenes conversations with voiceover artists and members of the production staff.   As compelling as they are (and they really are interesting even if they’re brief), unfortunately, the video at the start of one of the interviews (Scott Heming) flickers.  And, completely inexplicably, for the interviews on the 10th season disc, they opted to make the images of the show 16:9 instead of the 4:3 they were produced at, the result of which looks awful.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hold a place near and dear to my heart, though not as near and dear as something like the original G.I. Joe.  Fans of the series who don’t yet own the show will enjoy themselves immensely relieving some of its better moments (and cringe every time the altered theme song plays).  The hand-drawn animation looks every bit its age here,  but the show is just as high-energy and funny as it ever was, and people who like the Saturday morning cartoon flavor will want this one.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.