The latest installment in our in-depth review of the 2003 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon.
It took all my fortitude to work up the nerve to start this article. Why? Because the first episode I was going to have to watch and review in this batch was “Junklantis.” And nobody should have to see that episode more than once.
And all-around, this is not a good selection of episodes from the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. “The Golden Puck”? Oh god, not “April’s Artifact!” This one’s gonna hurt. At least the “Rogue in the House” two-parter is pretty good. Or that’s how I remember it. Let’s see if that holds up. Please let it hold up. I really need it to.
“Junklantis” (written by Eric Luke)
The Garbageman is back and we’re all a little lesser for it. He’s built an undersea fortress called Junklantis and is using robot whales to hijack passing freighters and steal their cargo. Donatello and Michelangelo use the new Shell Sub to venture to Junklantis and stop him. No, this is not an episode of the 1980s cartoon.You know, the 4Kids TMNT cartoon gets so much credit for how complex and daring and sophisticated it was, but you’d never know it if the first episode you saw was “Junklantis.” This shit is pretty bad.
Garbageman appeared last season in what was certainly that year’s worst episode. The purpose of reviving him for a second go-around eludes me, especially considering how bland and by-the-numbers this whole episode is. The animation is listless but competent (save for a bandana miscoloring), the story is crammed with typical clichÃ©s and contrivances (the engine on the Shell Sub won’t start during the climax for no other reason than because the scene needed additional tension), and even the dialogue is half-assed and full of autopilot line readings (“It’s a LONG story! Ha Ha Ha!” Roll end credits). You could practically lift this whole script, take it back in time, have it animated by a shittier studio in 1992 and it could pass as a lesser installment of the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon.
My guess is that the writers got a mandate from Playmates to advertise the Shell Sub toy and this was the best plot they could come up with. As an advertisement for the Shell Sub, it certainly gives the product plenty of screen time, but the thing is just a fuckin’ sub. There’s no cute gimmick to it; the thing’s just a pod that launches torpedoes. The advertisement for the toy seems to have predated the design for the product, too, as the Shell Sub in the cartoon looks nothing like the Shell Sub that hit the shelves.As for the Garbageman, you’ll never see him again. And good riddance, as his motivations for wealth were shallow while his name and gimmick were way beneath the dignity of this series. He was planned to make a third and final appearance in the fifth season, in the aborted episode “Nightmares Recycled,” but I don’t really want to talk about that one until I get there. Needless to say, the fact that it was scrapped just before animation production is the only reason it’s noteworthy. Had the thing been made, it probably would’ve been another obnoxious mess like “Junklantis.”
I guess if there’s any interesting point about all this, it’s that Mikey and Donnie have absolutely zero compunctions about killing the Garbageman (and to a lesser extent, his Junktrooper army). First they knock him out and leave him on his robot whale, which they set on a collision course with Junklantis. When he survives that in his own minisub, they blast it with torpedoes and send him plummeting to his doom down a crevasse. There’s no compassionate plea for sanity, like, “Garbageman, stop! You have to abandon ship before everything explodes!” And they don’t try to stop his leaking minisub from dropping over the edge of the crevasse and into the crushing depths. The Turtles are pretty much of the uniform opinion, “fuck this guy,” and don’t give a damn about killing him. That’s how the 4Kids TMNT roll and I love them for it. Because I don’t give a damn that Garbageman is dead, either.
“The Golden Puck” (written by Michael Ryan)
When the Super Slam Hockey League championship trophy, the Golden Puck, is stolen by a gang of cowboys with laser rifles driving flying snowmobiles, Casey takes it upon himself to get it back. And the Turtles, in turn, take it upon themselves to keep Casey from getting murdered.Alright, as the story unfolds, the Turtles decide to foil a robbery by catching the bad guys and getting back the stolen trophy. So once they’ve committed to this virtuous crusade, what’s the first thing they do? They steal three snowmobiles from some dude and wreck them in pursuit of the villains. Sometimes you gotta commit a robbery to stop a robbery, I guess.
But that’s the sort of script coherency and forethought we have to deal with throughout most of this episode. I mean, there’s a part where a discarded matchbox proves an invaluable clue to the whereabouts of the bad guys. But wait! This is a kid’s cartoon! The presence of a matchbox might imply that a character smokes. So to facilitate the matchbox existing, one of the bad guys spends the episode randomly chewing on matches like no human being in the world has ever done. If you have to do something that stupid strictly to justify a plot device that’ll conveniently help the protagonists, then I think your entire story needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.
Funny thing is, that’s exactly what writer Michael Ryan did when he took TMNT (Vol. 1) #14 and adapted it for this show. “The Unmentionables” by Kevin Eastman sports some basic similarities to “The Golden Puck,” but otherwise the cartoon version is almost unrecognizable as an adaptation of the comic. And it’s a shame that faithfulness was discarded, because “The Unmentionables” is actually a really fun, exciting and comedic TMNT story.Essentially, in that version, it was a bronze cow statue from Casey’s old childhood neighborhood that was stolen by a gang of thieves. Having a nostalgic fondness for the cow, and also going through a noir detective phase, Casey decides to hunt down the crooks and get the statue back (with the Turtles tagging along to keep him safe). Being a detective parody, there’s much more investigative work in the comic version, as the characters follow leads (some bogus, some not) and eventually track down the thieves (turns out the bronze cow was actually made of gold). It was a very rapid-fire story and much of the humor came from seeing Casey trying to play detective.
But “The Golden Puck” ditches almost everything from its source material and that includes most of the fun. The detective parody angle is absent, which would have leant itself to this show really well for a running gag, and outside of that dumb matchbox, there’s no “investigation” to speak of. Everything is simplified to the extreme and it winds up being one long chase scene as the Turtles steal the trophy back from a bunch of laser-blasting cowboys (WHY cowboys?).To say something nice about “The Golden Puck” on its own merits, I guess Ryan does an okay job of trying to balance Casey out. I mean, at least by the standards of this season, which has been overblowing his comedy relief aspect to the extreme. Casey spends most of the story as a dunce who keeps screwing up, but Ryan finds places for his unique brand of competency to shine. During the climax, set in a hockey rink, Casey holds his own in the fight and doesn’t need anyone to bail him out, taking down as many thugs as the Turtles.
The animation, too, can look pretty good in places. I would like to point out how nice it is that all the cars and other vehicles are cel-animated. Most action cartoons these days do vehicle models in CG to keep their proportions and geometry consistent and the aesthetic always clashes badly with the cel-animated characters and environments. The mid-2000s was when cartoons really began transitioning to CG vehicles, so I guess TMNT was one of the last shows to cling to traditionally animating the cars. I bet the animators hated having to draw them, though.
“Rogue in the House, Part 1” (written by Eric Luke)
Now fully recovered, the Shredder reignites his bid for world domination as well as his war on the Turtles. New to his arsenal are the Foot Mechs, robotic warriors capable of being disguised as anyone. Hun has Baxter Stockman create a Foot Mech in the likeness of Splinter and sends it to destroy the Turtles. Meanwhile, the Turtles encounter Zog, a marooned Triceraton Commando who thinks they are his commanding officers.So if the Shredder creating a robot duplicate of Splinter and sending it to destroy the Turtles sounds familiar, that’s because that exact plot happened in the old Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon, in the episode “Plant 6 from Outer Space.” And even then, it wasn’t a very original plot, as the Shredder had previously created a robot duplicate of Irma and sent it to destroy the Turtles in “The Turtle Terminator.” So this is a rehash of something that was already a rehash.
Or is it? The evil Splinter duplicate plot line lasts only a couple of minutes, as the robot is dispatched quickly. Most of the story revolves around the Shredder getting back on his feet and being appraised of the Foot’s new technology developed in his absence, and then the Turtles using the remains of the trashed Splinter robot to track down the Foot’s new HQ (a cargo ship). So this two-parter was basically titled after the least-essential element to the story arc.
But it’s actually kind of a good thing that they don’t play with the actual “rogue in the house” for very long. It’s a cliche plot line at the best of times and even the Shredder immediately, IMMEDIATELY gets annoyed with the robot Splinter’s unconvincing attempts to prove its fake identity to the Turtles and orders Hun to just have the thing attack. Naturally, the real Splinter shows up, but we’re spared the “No, you’ll have to shoot us BOTH! It’s the only way to be sure!” resolution that no one should ever have to endure again. So yeah, I’m grateful that “Rogue in the House” spends very little time on the rogue in the house.Of the Foot-centric story arcs in this series, “Rogue in the House” is one of the more forgettable. It isn’t bad, but it doesn’t stack up against classics like “Shredder Strikes Back” or even “City at War.” To be frank, my favorite part in the whole arc was the beginning, when Shredder gets back on his feet and gets a sitrep from Hun and Karai. We get to see what’s become of Baxter Stockman and he’s now stuck as a brain in a jar. And even in that form, he’s still a blowhard who hurls insults at his employers. I love that guy. There’s also setup in this arc involving a change of power within the Foot, as Hun’s failures displease the Shredder and Karai moves in to take his place as second-in-command.
But then there’s the stuff with the Turtles. They encounter the Triceraton Zog, who was left behind on Earth during the “Secret Origins” storyline. Zog is a character from the Mirage comics, who took part during the “Return to New York” saga, primarily in TMNT (Vol. 1) #20. The 4Kids TMNT cartoon actually adapted “Return to New York” in season 1, but since the Turtles hadn’t gone to space yet, Zog couldn’t be included. They fit him in well for this mostly original story arc and his participation in the storyline plays out pretty much the same. If anything, “Rogue in the House” kind of feels like a redo of “Return to New York,” with the Turtles invading Foot HQ to confront the resurrected Shredder, albeit given a second go-around because now they have Zog on their team.The big letdown of this two-parter is the introduction of the Foot Mechs. They won’t do anything after this. I was thinking that maybe they’d be a means of replacing the human Foot Soldiers, thus allowing the Turtles to use their weapons on the cannon fodder bad guys, but that never plays out. The Foot Mechs won’t be getting anything but cameos after this arc is over and the Turtles will continue to defeat the Foot Soldiers by bonking them on the heads with the handles of their weapons.
“Rogue in the House, Part 2” (written by Ben Townsend)
The Turtles, Splinter and Zog invade the Foot Clan’s ocean freighter HQ, but are swiftly captured. The Shredder assigns Karai to execute the Turtles to prove her loyalty.We’re getting to that point in the series where the Turtles have fought the Shredder so many times that the encounters are beginning to lose their gravitas. When the Turtles find out that he survived the destruction of the TCRI Building, their reaction is less “shock and awe” and more “of course he did.” But that sort of thing is inevitable, so I can’t really hold it against the series. And they’ll actually remedy the matter of the Turtles vs. Shredder fights losing their impact in the season 3 finale, but that’s like 6 articles away.
I didn’t mention it last episode, but Shredder’s gotten a slight redesign. His new armor looks mostly identical to his old outfit, albeit somewhat more streamlined. There are now detail lines all over the chest which invoke a mech suit; fitting, since the Shredder being an Utrom in a robot body is now common knowledge. What I dig is that as soon as Ch’Rell got back in his robot body last episode, they kept him in there and we don’t see the Utrom side of Shredder again. Just a reminder that even if he’s a squishy brain in a robot’s torso, he’s still the Shredder and nothing’s really changed.Karai receives a test of allegiance and fails, much to Hun’s delight. At first it seems like a fakeout, with Karai about to execute a subdued Leonardo, then Hun freeing Leo so that he and Karai can have a swordfight (Hun hoping Leo kills Karai in the process). I figured it was going to be a cop-out so Karai wouldn’t have to make her choice, but Leo ultimately discards his swords and puts himself at her mercy. She refuses to kill him, which avoids the copout and was a nice surprise. An even better surprise is that her lack of loyalty to the Shredder is NOT going to proceed in the direction you’re expecting. At least, not at first. This show is still full of surprises.
And speaking of surprises, they actually pull one with Zog. He dies battling the Shredder as the freighter explodes, but it’s a different death compared to the one he received in the comics. In a way, it’s actually a bit more brutal. In the comic, he got hacked to death by the Shredder Clones. In this episode, the Shredder mortally wounds him with a slash to the back, but rather than collapse and die, Zog grabs Shredder and drags him over to a pit of fire. He then tells the Turtles a tearful farewell and leaps into the flames, committing suicide in a bid to take the Shredder down with him (Shredder survives in the final scenes, naturally). It’s a way more sorrowful death and a far darker one, too. Characters don’t commit suicide in kids cartoons very often, ya know.One thing the episode doesn’t dwell on is the rather unethical aspect of how the Turtles used a brain-damaged Zog to die for them. I mean, they manipulate him into sacrificing his life on their behalf, and while that’s something the Mirage TMNT might not bat an eye at, it’s pretty messed up for the 4Kids incarnations. Acknowledging the unethical manipulation of Zog was an interesting addition that the Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon made when they got around to implementing the character, but that’s getting wayyyy ahead of things.
The episode almost ends on a quiet, somber note as the heroes look out to sea and thank Zog for his sacrifice. We then see Karai rescue the Shredder and the episode is about to end on a dark note. Of course, it can’t quite make it and Baxter Stockman’s brain jar resurfaces as he gloats about surviving death before re-sinking. It was…funny, yeah, but I really do wish this show would commit to a dour ending when trying to showcase an emotional situation (I mentioned this problem when I reviewed “What a Croc”).
All in all, “Rogue in the House” is just a repeat of “Return to New York” but less interesting. Its hardly a bad story arc and they get a LOT out of Zog for two episodes (he has a GREAT fight with Hun and all of his ramhorning moves look fantastic), but it still reeks of a redo of something we got in the first season. The Foot Mechs provide a decent climactic battle, but they’re ultimately destroyed and the technology is lost. A quick toy promotion and that was really it.
“April’s Artifact” (written by Marty Isenburg)
While cleaning up the antique shop, April uncovers an old puzzle box that once belonged to her Uncle Augie. When solved, however, it transports her and the Turtles to another dimension. They’ll have to fight their way into a jungle temple guarded by weird monsters to find their way back to Earth.How could something inspired by Hellraiser go so horribly wrong?
What’s funny is that the episode, at least in the scripting phase, had a stronger Hellraiser vibe that didn’t quite make it through to the animation. The puzzle box that, when solved, opens up a doorway to another dimension is consistently described as a “cube” by the characters. However, whoever designed the thing didn’t get the memo and it’s instead like, I dunno, like a jagged flying saucer thing.
The episode includes other horror movie throwbacks, most noticeably a riff on Aliens, as the Turtles and April are constantly besieged by giant bugs (that look like praying mantises). When they storm the temple and make it to the chamber that can send them home, they’re of course confronted by the bug queen. April even delivers the sanitized dialogue, “Get away from him, you WITCH!” just in case the homage wasn’t clear enough. (Though that scene ends with April spearing the bug queen through the neck, on-screen, and killing it, which was pretty hardcore even for this show.)You’d think something that acts as a dual parody of Hellraiser and Aliens would be good, but jeez, this is the worst. They take an idea that should be fun and then do their level best to ruin it in every way they can. April spends the episode “going native” for no discernable reason, transforming into a “jungle girl” (her words) that swings on vines and chucks spears and does other sorts of Tarzan shit. She goes on repeatedly about how the dimension they’re trapped in makes her feel a change, but what exactly that connection is supposed to mean is never followed up on.
The worst offense of the episode is that it gives us our second musical montage of the season, and if you thought “Running Free in NYC” was embarrassing, you haven’t heard anything yet. “It’s a Jungle Out There” sounds like it’s trying to knockoff Phil Collins, but if you’re going to knock something off, make sure it’s something that doesn’t suck in the first place. Thankfully, this’ll be the last musical number in the series. I think someone at 4Kids realized how bad these songs were and decided to never do them again. I don’t know who you are, but you’re the real hero.
There’s also the mystery of April’s Uncle Augie, who was transported to the bug dimension and left behind notes on how to find the teleportation chamber and get back home (convenient for the protagonists). When the Turtles get to the chamber, they find he set the coordinates wrong and wound up being teleported to an unknown destination. If the fate of Uncle Augie is keeping you up at night, the show will resolve his storyline in the fourth season. Like you care. Like anybody cares.So this was a pretty rough stretch of episodes; certainly the worst of the season. Well, that’s not entirely true. I enjoyed a lot of “Rogue in the House” even if it retread too much ground, but the standalone episodes were all pretty wretched. In the past, I called season two the worst of the “good seasons” and these episodes are what stick in my mind the most when I say that. Season two is certainly still a good season, but shit like “Junklantis” and “April’s Artifact” are what really kills its grade point average.
Okay, so next time we sew up season two with another Mirage comics adaptation followed by a 4-part Usagi Yojimbo crossover. Now that’s something to look forward to.