I really should have reviewed Turtles Forever two years ago when it was released, but since TMNT Entity is more for Ninja Turtle comic book reviews and research articles, I opted not to bother. Today, I figured I’d correct that oversight with a special article for Adventures in Poor Taste.
Turtles Forever was a lot of things: The big 25th Anniversary project of the TMNT franchise, the series finale of the 4Kids TMNT cartoon that had been running for seven seasons, and though we wouldn’t find out for another month, the last hurrah for Mirage Studios’ ownership of the Turtle franchise, as Peter Laird wound up selling the TMNT lock, stock and barrel to the Viacom Corporation in December of that year. But perhaps more so than those other three things, Turtles Forever was just awesome.
They kiss in your fanfic.
The plot is as follows: A trans-dimensional mishap within the Technodrome sends the Ninja Turtles of the 1980s Fred Wolf animated series (and their villains) to the universe of the 4Kids animated series. When the bumbling Shredder of the Fred Wolf universe accidentally revives Ch’Rell, the psychotic Utrom Shredder of the 4Kids universe, he and Krang wind up having their Technodrome, Foot Soldiers and mutagen hijacked by the much more competent and ruthless overlord. Discovering that scores of Ninja Turtles exist across a near-infinite multiverse, Ch’Rell decides to destroy his foes at their very roots… by traveling to the world of the original Mirage Comics TMNT and wiping it from existence! Meddling with “Turtle Prime” could result in annihilating all of reality, so the 4Kids, Fred Wolf and Mirage Turtles have to team up to stop him.
Though primarily a send-off to the long-running 4Kids TMNT cartoon series, Turtles Forever is also a celebration of the entire Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise, focusing on its three most popular incarnations while making an effort to reference all others wherever legally possible (the live action Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation series was owned by Walt Disney at the time, so they got the shaft). The result is an absolutely meta rollercoaster ride that spends as much time focusing on the “guest stars”, the Fred Wolf Turtles, as it does the primary 4Kids cast. Watching this on Saturday morning in 2009 when it premiered, it really made me feel like a kid again; like I’d gone to bed and woken up in 1992.
A lot of fans of the Fred Wolf series (basically, people my age) criticized the film for portraying the 80s Turtles as ineffectual, perpetually goofy, comedy relief imbeciles that could not stop talking about pizza for ten seconds and HAVE YOU WATCHED THE 80s CARTOON IN THE LAST FIFTEEN YEARS? That is precisely how they behaved in that show. It was pizza this, pizza that, pizza pizza pizza. About 90% of the Shredder’s evil schemes revolved around trying to gas-up the Technodrome so he could use it to do whatever, and when that wasn’t happening, his doomsday devices rotated between shrink rays and a magnet that could attract antiques. He whined like a child when he didn’t get his way and most of his defeats were purely comedic. The Fred Wolf cartoon was a silly, self-aware comedy series and that was certainly one of its most charming points, but let’s be perfectly honest, people; the way the Fred Wolf Turtles were portrayed in Turtles Forever was a perfect reflection of how they behaved in their old show.
Writers Rob David, Matthew Drdek and Lloyd Goldfine further illustrate their intimate knowledge of the Turtle universe by referencing everything from the rarely utilized phone booth elevator to the fact that the series was cognizant of its own fictional nature and that the characters regularly addressed the audience with humorous asides and commentary. While old school fans may find the constant lambasting of the 80s cartoon “offensive” (really?), it is entirely honest and nothing referenced and played for laughs is ever something that didn’t actually exist or actually happen. As someone with a sense of humor about the old cartoon (which I still enjoy for what it is), I found the jabs to be pretty hilarious, particularly the reactions to all the 4th Wall-breaking commentary that characters in the 4Kids universe could not understand. Turtles Forever is laughing with the ridiculous nature of the old show and if you can’t unclench long-enough to chuckle along with the observations, well, you take your Turtles way too seriously. And that’s coming from a guy who runs a site called “TMNT Entity” and updates it 4 times a week.
Yes, those are the Turtles from that obscure “Metal Mutant Turtles” OVA released exclusively in Japan and yes, those are the Turtles the Dreamwave TMNT comic that got cancelled after seven issues and yes, those are the Turtles from Mark Martin’s guest run on the Mirage comic in the late 80s.
There are certain glaring omissions that regrettably keep Turtles Forever from qualifying as “perfect”, I must confess. The first of them is that, well, not a single voice actor from the Fred Wolf cartoon returned to reprise their character. Instead, 4Kids employed a stable of sound-a-likes to varying degrees of success (but mostly failure). The reason for this is… complicated, but I’ll try to sum it up as succinctly as possible.
In North American animation, there are basically three factions of voice actors: There’s the “LA Union” voice actors (who consist of most of the people you recognize, like Frank Welker, Peter Cullen, Tom Kenny, Rob Paulsen, Kevin Michael Richardson and so on), there’s the “Canadian Union” voice actors (who operate out of Canada and consist of actors like Scott McNeil, Richard Newman, Gary Chalk, Tabitha St. Germain, Brian Drummond and so on), and finally there’s the “East Coast Non-Union” voice actors (who operate out of New York and consist of actors like Sean Schemmel, Veronica Taylor, Michael Sinterniklaas, Wayne Grayson and so on). 4Kids, as a rule, works exclusively with non-Union voice actors; could be that they’re cheaper, could be that they don’t have to honor Union benefits and contracts (after 10 years of hard work, 4Kids fired the entire cast of Pokémon and replaced them with sound-a-likes when they asked for a raise) or it could be that Union voice actors refuse to work with non-Union “scabs” and that’s why they have to be separated by the entire width of this continent. I dunno.
When asked, Rob Paulsen was quoted, “I’m sure this Sebastian Arcelus person is a nice guy, but all I’m saying is that I don’t want him using the same water fountains as me and I sure as HELL don’t want him dating my daughter.”
But for whatever the reason, the fact is that 4Kids does not employ Union voice actors and that means, from the very conception of Turtles Forever, the original voices of the 80s TMNT never, ever had the possibility of reprising their roles. It’s just a sad fact of how 4Kids operates.
The sound-a-likes are, well, mostly terrible. The primary reason for this is that the voice directors (there are three of them credited) were very clearly using the DVD set of the first season of the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon as a solitary reference when casting. This was some very, very poor judgment. The cast of the 80s cartoon grew into their roles like most animation casts do and many of the actors modified their performances considerably for the second season at the behest of producers wanting “mellower” and “less violent” characters. Cam Clarke’s Leonardo voice in the first season is very different from the voice he used for the rest of the series; sounding deep and gruff and closer to the voice he used for He-Man in the 2002 Masters of the Universe cartoon. Likewise, Clarke’s Rocksteady was snarlier, deeper and more furious-sounding than the whiney man-child of the later seasons. Pat Fraley’s Krang boasted a verbal tick in the form of incessant croaking that the actor phased-out by the subsequent seasons, as another example of how different the performances in the first season were.
Well, the sound-a-likes used the first season exclusively as reference and, as you can guess, most of them ended up sounding not a thing like the voices we recognized. Dan Green couldn’t have sounded less like 80s Leonardo while Johnny Castro’s Michaelangelo sounded utterly insincere; like the impression your dad would do while playing with your TMNT action figures with you when you were a kid. Braford Cameron’s Krang would be pretty good if it weren’t for the croaking (which was interpreted as burping because haha kids love burping). The only voice that struck me as being impressively spot-on was Sebastian Arcelus as Raphael; who sounded as close to Rob Paulsen as the real thing.
The lack of Uncle Phil could have been the final nail in this whole film’s coffin.
While the original voice actors were never an option, there is one other thing missing from Turtles Forever that could have been included if 4Kids had been willing to spend the cash: the original music from the 80s series. Lionsgate currently owns the Fred Wolf cartoon and in order to use the music from that series, 4Kids would have had to pay a licensing fee. Instead, they got their in-house composer to whip-up some “legally similar” tunes that sound like absolute garbage. The 80s TMNT cartoon has one of the most instantly memorable theme songs of all time, as well as some damn catchy background tunes, and where the lack of original voice actors failed, the implementation of that music would have gone a long way in making things feel more authentic. But 4Kids chose the cheaper route and it very painfully shows.
So no original voice actors and no original music. How “authentic” could the 80s TMNT possibly be without those lynchpin requirements? You’d be surprised. If directors Roy Burdine and Lloyd Goldfine managed to accomplish anything, it’s selling the art design of the original show. From the color pallets to the design aesthetic, the world of the 1980s cartoon feels as legitimate as can be. They even got things like the butchered wall scroll in the Turtles’ kitchen that’s supposed to read “Nippon” in kanji right. Every last, insignificant detail is preserved. They even went so far as to give the animators at Dong Woo in Korea the original character models from the Fred Wolf series to work from. Not modified model sheets adapted for the 4Kids aesthetic, not retraced and touched-up versions of the model sheets… but the actual model sheets. Right down to the incidental background characters filling out the streets. As a result, these may not sound like the 80s Turtles, but they sure as s--t look like em.
Even the brutalized Korean-animated Japanese kanji has been retained. If that’s not authenticity, I dunno what is!
And the overall animation quality of this film is impressive, too. Following the “Back to the Sewers” rebranding of the last season of the 4Kids series, it carries over those redesigns of the characters (whether you liked them or not). There’s a higher budget going on, what with this being a film and all, and the fight scenes are extremely fluid and the atmosphere (when the music isn’t ruining it) can be quite effective. The sequence where Hun, after being mutated into a vague version of Slash, wanders the darkened sewers in disoriented rage is a favorite scene of mine.
The film ends with the characters arriving in “Turtle Prime”, which is to say, the very first issue of the Mirage TMNT comic. The background and layout artists take every precaution necessary to capture the gritty, indie comic look and feel of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s art style, right down to the black and white, heavily inked cityscape. The Mirage Turtles retain their crude original designs and fiercer, more morally ambiguous natures (the only thing keeping them from killing the other Turtles is their knowledge of the Shredder) and Dong Woo really brings them to life. While I felt most of their voices were a bit indistinct, I really liked Braford Cameron’s Michelangelo.
Look out! It’s the grey machine! Gonna rock the party without bein’ seen! You ever see a turtle get dooooown!?”
As a finale to the 4Kids series, it both does and doesn’t work. Though it carries the design aesthetic of “Back to the Sewers”, it drops all of that final season’s ongoing plot lines. Serling, the robot housekeeper from the future is inexplicably missing and the “Shredder War”, alluded to at the beginning of the season, is rendered impossible by the conclusion of this film (though a “back door” is crudely constructed via some hammy dialogue). On the other hand, “Back to the Sewers” f-----g sucked and ignoring the storyline of that season (which had the Turtles traveling into a “Tron”-line cyberspace to battle a transgendered Cyber Shredder over Splinter’s missing “bits”) could only be a blessing. By bringing together the disparate incarnations of the Turtles from across the franchise history for one huge, explosive finale, they easily outdid anything “Back to the Sewers” could have had planned and managed to end a series, that had been struggling ever since the ill-conceived “Fast Forward” rebranding, on a tremendous high note.
You should probably know that the version of the film available on R1 DVD, though it’s in the original widescreen aspect ratio, is actually the TV edit, missing approximately five minutes of footage. The “uncut” version of the film was streamed on 4Kids’ website before Viacom took over, but to date, the only copy of the uncut version available on DVD is an R2 release. Still, the film functions competently even without those scenes and you’d probably never miss them if you were unaware they existed. And the DVD (bare bones as it is) goes for, like, 9 bucks on Amazon.
To sew things up, I’ve probably watched Turtles Forever a dozen times and I still think it’s a fantastic film meant to appeal to every generation of TMNT fan, no matter what version of the franchise you grew up with. The lack of original voice actors and music are a definite sour point keeping it from attaining perfection, but the high quality animation, authentic recreations of vintage design aesthetics and the brilliantly self-aware, meta nature of the thing raises it above any shortcomings.
To see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever for yourself, you can snag it from Amazon on DVD for around $14.99 by clicking the link, or watch it on 24-hour rental for only $3.99 from Amazon Instant Video.