A review of Nickelodeon’s TMNT Summer Shorts.
In 2016, Nickelodeon produced a trilogy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated short films for Comic-Con International: San Diego and they were a huge hit. As each film was created by different writers, designers, actors and animators, they all offered a very unique spin on the franchise in both tone and aesthetic.
Naturally, fans clamored for more and Nickelodeon, to its credit, obliged! In June of 2017, Nick launched the TMNT Summer Shorts festival. All summer long, Nick would release a new TMNT animated short each Sunday, showcasing a range of genres and styles. Or they would in theory, anyway.
That’s the promo which contains, alas, a number of empty promises. Many of the shorts spotlighted in that advertisement were never released (I’ll try to pick them out at the end of the article) and of the mere eight shorts that actually made it to YouTube, five of them were part of a series that shared the same genre and style. So much for variety.
And as you’ve probably already deduced, summer is more than eight weeks long, so the “one new short a week” thing was a load of fresh-from-the-sewer pudding pies. While they stuck to the schedule for June, releasing four shorts that month, it became a free-for-all after that. Three shorts managed to get released in July, albeit on random days and not following the Sunday schedule, and then one got dropped in the middle of August before Nickelodeon quietly shut down the festival and hoped nobody had noticed.I honestly don’t know what happened behind the scenes at Nickelodeon to make them bail on the Summer Shorts promotion the way they did. Ditching the release schedule was almost to be expected (the 2012 Nick TMNT cartoon has had one Hell of a weird broadcast history), but not even releasing the finished shorts that they paid for? Where’s the value in that? Or maybe they’re just saving them for a shorts festival next year, I dunno.
But while the 2017 TMNT Summer Shorts festival was something of a fiasco, of the eight films released, a few of them rank up there with the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con trilogy in terms of quality. So while I do think the festival fizzled out pretty disappointingly, there remains some good stuff to be mined from its catalog. Let’s take a look!
“Teenage Mecha Ninja Turtles” (by Matt Youngberg)
In the year 2090, New York is now populated with both humans and anthropomorphic animals. When a gang of mutant canines rob a bank, the NYPD is powerless to stop them. In step the Mecha Ninja Turtles: Teenagers piloting giant robot suits. Unfortunately, their greatest enemy isn’t the gun-toting hyenas, but their own lack of teamwork.
For all the festival’s faults, it certainly hit the ground running with “Teenage Mecha Ninja Turtles” being a contender for best in the series (personally, it’s my second favorite). We get a sort of Batman Beyond glimpse of the TMNT’s legacy, as an elderly Michelangelo trains four teenage humans in the art of ninjutsu… albeit with the aid of mech suits. There’s a lot of silent world-building done very economically in this five-minute short. Within the first few minutes, we’re introduced to the future setting, the commonplace presence of mutant animals, and the idea that mech suits are a typical item among both law enforcement and criminals. Before the first word of dialogue is spoken, the audience has a vivid idea of what this setting is like and I was really impressed with how Youngberg got us there so quickly.
Animation for this short was provided by DNA Production with additional animation provided by… Peter Chung? The Aeon Flux guy? Well, maybe. Or it could be a different Peter Chung. Incidentally, Peter Chung was a storyboard artist on the first season of the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon. So if this is the same guy, this short marks his return to the franchise after a 30-year absence.The animation-itself is very fluid and slick, definitely going for an anime vibe in places. But it’s the sort of… Teen Titans kind of anime vibe where the artists overblow what Westerner’s perceive as anime clichés and stereotypes and it comes off looking disingenuous. Like, you can tell it’s an American cartoon using Korean animators trying very hard to look like a Japanese cartoon, but not quite hitting the mark. Actually, I think that sort of style has come into vogue over the years and has evolved from being an “anime wannabe” sort of thing into being its own aesthetic genre. Some like it, some hate it, but I do think it’s much more now than what it used to be back in 2002.
The titular Mecha Ninja Turtles are Frida the red one (America Young), Jackson the blue one (Eric Artel), Basque the purple one (Khary Payton) and Kusama the orange one (Tania Gunadi). There’s a neat little twist in there where at first, it seems like each new teenager is an identical counterpart to their TMNT inspiration. Basque is the analytical intellectual, Kusama is the rowdy goof, but then we get a speed bump midway through the fight (when Grim, the hyena gang leader, hijacks his own mech suit). Frida, the red one, is the leader of the group and the one begging everybody to work as a team. That leaves Jackson, the blue one, to be the rebellious hothead, reversing the Leonardo/Raphael dynamic. It’s a good mixing, keeping parts of the team recognizable and parts of them fresh. Greg Cipes also reprises his role as Michelangelo for a brief cameo at the end.More than any other short in both the 2016 and 2017 series, I think “Teenage Mecha Ninja Turtles” really ran with the idea of reinventing the characters in a truly unique way. Other shorts, excellent as they can be, stuck with the same characters, setting, formula and all things familiar, even if they were drawing from different established sources. This one went out there, really far out there, and I think they gave us one we’ll remember best. Some of the character designs aren’t great (especially on the human teenagers, who look like circa-2001 kid’s sneaker mascots), and you may not dig the faux anime aesthetic, but it’s still a cool short with a setting I wouldn’t mind seeing explored again someday.
“Boulangerie” (by uncredited)
The Turtles are vacationing in France for some reason and decide to stop by a bakery for some snacks. Their poor grasp of the French language along with their poor disguises ultimately blow their cover.
Look, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings here, but what the fuck was this shit? It looks like they scraped it off of Newgrounds back in 2004. I mean, it’s embedded right up there, just see for yourself. Johnny Test would be embarrassed by this thing.Alright, I get it. I think this short was done by maybe high schoolers or art students or something like that. If it looks amateurish, that’s probably because it was made by amateurs. From the animation to the voice acting, you can tell dollars weren’t dropped on this. But at one-minute in length, it doesn’t stay long enough to leave that bad of a taste in your mouth, I guess. Some of the banter between the Turtles is actually pretty cute and fun, and I get what they were trying to do with some of the jokes, like the gradual reveal of the bad stereotypically French disguises (culminating in Napoleon and a French maid). It’s just that the animation quality and the timing, as well as the acting, wasn’t up to the task of making this look like anything other than a student film. A student film that would get a C+.
“We Strike Hard and Fade Away into the Night” (by Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander)
The Turtles and April have to keep a mutagen crystal away from Krang and the Foot Clan. Their fight leads them to a subway train that carries them all throughout the city.
Now this is more like it. If “Mecha Ninja Turtles” was my second-favorite of the 2017 short films, it’s safe to say that “We Strike Hard” was my favorite. While it doesn’t have the story or the twist that “Mecha Ninja Turtles” had, it makes up for it with some very stylish animation and a running battle that never once loses its momentum.
If anything, “We Strike Hard” feels like the kind of story Kevin Eastman loves to tell in his TMNT comics, finally brought to life. Eastman heavily favors the “flying by the seat of your pants” narrative technique and it’s a gimmick in most of his tales, particularly Bodycount and the 2012 IDW TMNT Annual. It doesn’t always translate so well in comics, a static medium, and can lose your interest when stretched out for too long (Bodycount being a four-issue mini-series was particularly bad because of this). But at four minutes and some change, “We Strike Hard” lasts as long as it needs to and tosses in some spontaneous hurdles along the way to keep you on your toes.One of the weirder gimmicks of this short is that everyone says each other’s name, or sometimes their own name, repeatedly throughout the battle. April or Leo will call out to each other by name, or the Foot Soldiers will announce themselves by whispering “ninjas,” or Krang keeps on yelling “Krang is here! It’s Krang!” The gag is bizarre and I’m not sure what the point of it was, but I liked it for the most part.
The running battle is exciting in both direction and for all the odds and ends that get thrown at the Turtles. Foot Soldiers by the dozens, Mouser robots, April mutates into a weird tentacle monster, and then when it gets to Krang making his surprise appearance by bursting out of the back of a TCRI truck, you might feel like a six year-old playing with your action figures. No real narrative in mind, just a bunch of weird bad guy toys being thrown at the good guy toys one after the other.Titmouse provides the animation for this one with Sung Jin Ahn taking directorial duties. It’s actually the second short by Ahn and Titmouse, as they previously did the “Don vs. Raph” short from the 2016 series. While the art design this time is different (Jhonen Vasquez did character designs on the previous one), it still has a flavor very similar to what Ahn offered in 2016. The characters are squashy and stretchy and sort of blob together when the momentum calls for it. I like the balance it strikes, as the action is fast and dangerous enough for you to feel invested in the tension, but there’s still that bit of cartoony goofiness to remind you not to take it all too seriously.
There’s another little gimmick that persists throughout the short, as bystanders take cellphone photos of the Turtles and the Foot Clan. It pays off at the very end, as we get a gallery of the photos, all somehow narrowly missing the action.
“TMNT Team Up!” (by Gary “Doodles” DiRaffaele and Tommy Sica)
Have you ever wondered what the 1987 TMNT cartoon would be like if it was a rapid-fire sketch comedy series in the vein of Robot Chicken? No? Well, here’s the answer to the question nobody asked: TMNT Team Up.
Altogether, five TMNT Team Up shorts were produced for the series which meant that they accounted for over half of the whole thing. So you’d better learn to like this shit. I’m not going to embed them all in this article, but the one above this paragraph is “No Fly Zone”. The others are “Flora the Fedora,” “Comic-Con Exclusive,” “Turtle: Impossible,” and “Big Daddy’s TV.”
Look, I honestly don’t think these things are irredeemably terrible. Compared to “Boulangerie,” TMNT Team Up is the fucking Lion King. I think that there’s just too many of them, as again, they represent five of the eight short films in the series. If anything, had the Summer Shorts festival been longer (or at least as long as originally advertised), these Team Up shorts would have fared much better, being distributed in-between the many different cartoons that were done in different styles and with different attitudes. Instead, we got these all at once and they don’t work nearly as well in a marathon.TMNT Team Up is the work of Gary Doodles, best known as the co-creator of Nickelodeon’s animated series Breadwinners. I had to Wikipedia that, because I’ve never seen an episode of Breadwinners. Is it popular? Is it terrible? Hell if I know. But his character designs look a little too close to the parody Ninja Turtles that appeared in an episode of Teen Titans Go…Anyway, the ADHD rapid-fire sketch comedy routine isn’t a bad direction on principle. In practice, it winds up mostly being a lot of dumb, corny or plain unfunny jokes, but thrown at you so quickly you aren’t sure if you were supposed to laugh or not. Kinda reminds me of Cartoon Network’s MAD animated series from about five years ago. Team Up is themed exclusively around the 1987 era of the TMNT, going with that aesthetic and roster of characters. They even use remixes of the music from the cartoon, both the theme song and the incidental music. The jokes, likewise, are geared toward the ’87 incarnations of the characters, so you’ve got Cajun Leatherhead and Casey Jones talking with a Clint Eastwood impression.
I think the jokes miss more than they land; it’s quantity over quality, for sure. But that’s Robot Chicken all over, ya know. There are a few recurring segments in these Team Up shorts, such as trading cards that spotlight a classic character (like Casey or the Rat King) and a gag about the Turtles driving the Party Wagon down the street and getting into wacky punchlines. I guess it could be worse.Like I said, these things aren’t good but at least they aren’t shit. I’d have had a better attitude about them if they hadn’t made up the majority of the series. But for whatever reason, Team Up seemed to be what Nickelodeon really, really wanted to promote, and once they ran out of Team Up shorts, they just pulled the plug on the rest. Kinda makes me worried about what the next TMNT cartoon is gonna look like once the current one ends next month.
Unreleased (by God Only Knows)
But what about all the shorts from the promo that DIDN’T get released? Well, I have no idea how many there actually were, but here are screencaps from all the stuff in that trailer that we didn’t see in the series. Some of those may have been from the same short (a few of them share aesthetics) and some of those may have just been gags filmed for the promo (like the live-action bits), so it’s not a perfect metric of what they didn’t release. Also, I think there were a few Team Up bits in there that I don’t recall seeing in any of the five Team Up shorts that got released. So jeez, there may have been even MORE Team Up shorts. Isn’t that great?
Anyhow, I want to divert from my negativity and say that I appreciate Nickelodeon doing these short films. While they may not all be great, it’s fun to see different animators put a spin on the Ninja Turtles. I can’t fathom any revenue stream coming from these things, so Nick just seems to be doing them strictly for fun. And it’s rare to see a corporation do anything strictly for fun. I don’t know if we’ll get more of these in the future, or maybe Nick will decide to unload all of the unreleased shorts later on. But if we do get them, I’ll be glad to have them. True, some of these shorts suck, but when they hit the mark, they’re absolutely fantastic.