For the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con, Nickelodeon decided to invite guest animators to create a trilogy of short cartoons based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Why? You got me. But these things are pretty cool, so I’m glad they did it. Nick also made the cartoons available for viewing on their YouTube channel, so no grainy camcorder footage for US!

The shorts don’t ascribe to any particular continuity and the guest animators were free to use whatever aesthetic, setting, and cast they wanted. In a way, it’s reminiscent of that experimental “Guest Era” of the original Mirage TMNT comic, where Eastman and Laird decided to shelve their ongoing storylines and invite guest cartoonists to write and draw the TMNT book for three years.

Only, you know. These are *good*.

“Don vs. Raph” (by Jhonen Vasquez)

Raphael is sick of Donatello’s shit. Perfect timing, because Donatello is also sick of Raphael’s shit! The two rivals decide to settle the old “brains vs. brawn” debate once and for all with a series of challenges. Leonardo, Michelangelo and April all act as judges and some unexpected guests take the part of spectators.

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Hey, it’s Jhonen Vasquez! You know, the Invader Zim guy?

Alright, that’s not fair. He’s done plenty of stuff since Invader Zim got cancelled fifteen years ago, like design work for the Disney cartoon series Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, and… uh… well, there’s an Invader Zim comic from Oni Press going right now, and it’s pretty good!

Vasquez returns to Nickelodeon for this TMNT short and it features all his trademark humor and visuals. It might live and die by whether you enjoy Invader Zim, or at least if you enjoy the sound of screaming, but I think it was my favorite of the Comic-Con trilogy.

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Directed by Sung Jin Ahn and animated by Titmouse, the visuals of the short are extremely manic, high-strung and everyone’s sort of malleable and gooey. It’s a ride to watch, as you can tell this was drawn on a frame-by-frame level and not done with shitty Canadian-style Flash puppetry. Everything is always moving and pulsating and it looks sort of like Bob Clampett if he was a weeaboo.

Vasquez’s credits stem from the writing, character design and voice directing. He didn’t direct the short, but his style of humor is all over it. “Don vs. Raph” has plenty of rewatch value, too, as there are little gags you might not notice the first time around (the happy face sticker on Mikey’s plastron has eyes that move and emote). There’s a lot of juvenile, lowbrow humor running the gamut of farting, burping, pooping and vomiting. So yeah, if that’s not your thing then it’ll probably turn you off. But in defense of the vomiting gag, April puking up a magical glitter fountain was pretty great.

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The cast for this one are a bunch of people I’ve never heard of, with the exception of Eric Bauza as Donnie and Matt Yang King as Splinter/Shredder (King previously voiced Shredder in the 2013 Out of the Shadows video game). The rest of the cast (Adam Devine as Raph, Anders Holm as Leo and Blake Anderson as Mikey) are apparently all from a show called Workaholics, which I’ve never seen. So I guess it was an in-joke. But whoever they are, they do a good job with the characters. I especially liked Anderson’s Michelangelo, who sounds youthful and funny without overdoing the idiot-factor.

This is the most energetic of the three shorts and the fast paced, rapid-fire visual humor elevates it as the standout installment to me. There’s great music from Jason Lazarus, too, that ties it all together.

“Turtles Take Time (and Space)” (by Brandon Auman)

April brings an antique scepter down to the lair to the show the Turtles, and what usually happens when April brings an antique scepter down to the lair to show the Turtles? The Turtles get sent on a journey through time! And now space! The Turtles fight their way through many strange universes and settings in an attempt to get home.

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Directed by Rie Koga and animated by Studio MIR, this short goes for a very Japanese “anime” look (despite being written and designed in America and animated in South Korea, but hey). MIR’s animation is very smooth and detailed and if you recognize the studio it’s because they’ve done Legend of Korra, Voltron: Legendary Defender and other “Ameri-Korean cartoons pretending to be Japanese anime” shows. The design-work is nice and even if the faux-anime aesthetic isn’t to your liking you can’t deny how technically pleasing the all-on-ones framerate is.

Brandon Auman’s story is actually a loose adaptation of TMNT (Vol. 1) #33, “Turtles Take Time” by Jan Strnad and Richard Corben. That said, it’s also a celebration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brand in its entirety, with a setup that harkens back to the TMNT III feature film, design-work and some casting that recalls the 2012 Nickelodeon cartoon, a segment that sorta-kinda spoofs the Michael Bay movies with an overdesigned Japanese influence, and a “twist” ending that guest stars the 1987 Fred Wolf cartoon TMNT (with Townsend Coleman reprising Michelangelo)! It’s certainly a love-letter to the franchise, cramming in as many references as possible for six minutes.

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The short has to move at a hectic pace to get through all its segments, but if I had to pick a favorite I actually think I liked the “baby Turtles in the pet shop” sequence. I’ve seen the Turtles fight pirates and I’ve seen them fight the Shredder and I’ve even seen them cross over with their 1987 cartoon counterparts (more than once!), but I’ve never seen them as hatchlings crawling through the pet shop, being chased by monitor lizards. It’s maybe a tad overly cute, but it also provides nice contrast with the other segments, that are more on the action-adventure side.

The “Michael Bay” segment is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s as much a spoof of the Platinum Dunes films as it is overdesigned anime characters in general. The pirate segment was great, at least until the actress playing pirate-April (Jessica McKenna) tries to do a British accent.

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Speaking of the cast, it has a strange mix and match of some familiar voices. Greg Cipes reprises Mikey from the 2012 Nickelodeon cartoon, while Eric Bauza plays Leo (despite having played Donnie in the last short). Instead, Scott Menville plays Donnie, and he actually had a brief go at the role in a TMNT spoof crossover on Teen Titans Go! of all things, so even his performance was a little familiar. Darren Criss plays Raph and Brian Bloom growls for the Shredder, and they do good work for their parts.

I think this was my second favorite of the three shorts. “Turtles Take Time (and Space)” is a very different type of cartoon from “Don vs. Raph”, however, and I love all the variety executed through these cartoons. A little something for everyone.

“Pizza Friday” (by Kevin Eastman & Paul Jenkins)

The Turtles want to hit up Pizza Friday at the cafeteria, but April won’t let them set foot in her high school so long as they look like mutant freaks. To remedy that, Donnie builds a holographic cloaking device to disguise the Turtles as ordinary teenagers. Of course, their lack of social skills threaten to make April die from embarrassment. Then the Kraang show up and threaten to make April die for real.

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Directed by Paul Jenkins and animated by House of Cool, I suppose this was my least favorite of the bunch. Doesn’t make it bad, but I think it had more problems than the other two shorts. For starters, House of Cool’s animation is really uneven. There are moments, such as the beginning in the alley, where the Turtles look incredibly stiff and puppet-y, like they stepped out of Johnny Test or something. Other times, such as during the climax in the cafeteria, they look really fluid and kinetic. So the animation isn’t bad, just bad in… places.

That aside, this short follows the most linear story of all three cartoons. It takes time to breathe and let the Turtles explore high school in their human disguises; the previous shorts were in a hurry to rush the characters from one zany set piece to another and felt a bit ADHD. The more traditional scripting (co-written by Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the TMNT) actually helps it to stand out the most in the trilogy, even if all three cartoons are visually and tonally diverse.

The bulk of the short revolves around April being mortally embarrassed by the Turtles as they obliviously blunder around her school trying to act like regular teenagers. Even at six minutes, the joke wears a little thin, but we get to see the Turtles doing something pretty unique and that counts. Raph hits on cheerleaders, Mikey tries to start slang trends like he sees on TV, Donnie signs up for mathletics clubs, and Leo… uh… Well, he’s Leo. He never gets to do anything interesting.

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The Human Turtles are designed by Saud Boksmati and Chris Macdonald and they capture the look of the characters about as much as you’d expect. Raph is a burly jock, Mikey is a cool dude with cutoff sleeves and sunglasses, Donnie is a bespectacled poindexter, and Leo is… uh… A lanky bystander. Jeez, Leo.

It might all be a bit on the nose, but I can’t say the designs aren’t fitting. Mikey’s maybe a bit too buff and Leo’s maybe a bit too skinny, but there’s a narrative “out” where Donnie says the hologram device projects an image of how each Turtle sees themselves. So if Mikey thinks he’s a bodybuilder then that’s his business.

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The cast is another one of those downsides to the short. The Turtles are played mostly well, with Yuri Lowenthal as Leo, A.J. Locascio as Donnie, Sam Riegel as Raph and Zach Callison as Mikey. Callison’s Mikey is maybe a little obnoxious, but that seems in keeping with how the character is portrayed most of the time. There’s also Jason Canning as the Kraangdroids; he’s an English comedian and sometimes voice actor, and as such, the Kraangdrodis all have English accents.

April is played by Kevin Eastman’s wife, Courtney Eastman, and her acting is pretty bad. It’s something of a tradition for Eastman to give his wives acting gigs in whatever cartoon he’s working on; his previous spouse, Julie Strain, played the lead in the Eastman-produced Heavy Metal 2000 (a terrible animated film I really ought to review someday) and the end result was just as unpleasant for the audience.

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So while it seems I’m ending this review on a critical note, keep in mind that just because I felt “Pizza Friday” was the weakest of the three shorts, I don’t think it was actually unenjoyable. All three shorts were wonderful, with very different looks and goals. It was a fun experiment and something I’d certainly love to see more of. Heck, I think more companies with legacy franchises should branch out and invite guest animators to produce short films featuring the characters. It’ll never happen since there isn’t much profit in it (none of these shorts promote a single action figure!), but it’d be cool all the same.