Reviewing Mutants and Yokai from
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Having been around for the debut of its first-ever cartoon series and watched almost all of every incarnation since, I definitely qualify as someone who "grew up" with the Ninja Turtles, so like all fans, I'm quite pleased that 2018's Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is enjoying the massive, ongoing success that it deserves as the clear-cut best-ever incarnation of the franchise.
....Wait.....WHAT? Turns out, a lot more people hate fun than I even thought they did, because the most visually stunning cartoon in American television history and the most whimsical, lovable take on the turtles to date was ruthlessly panned by older critics and failed entirely to inspire enough action figure sales in younger children, resulting in only 1.5 seasons and an extremely condensed series finale that aired just earlier this year, at the start of my Halloween season.
I'm already mourning this cartoon harder than I ever did Invader Zim in 2001 or the original, mostly actually good run of Futurama when it ended in 2003, so the very least I can do is send it off with one of my Seasonal Critter Reviews, especially because this is the first Turtles series to split focus more evenly between the biological "mutants" and supernatural entities that both featured more heavily together in various comic stories.
And because this is the most visually stunning cartoon in American television history, and I will absolutely not back down from that statement, I'm going to present our selection of monsters and villains with actual series clips of up to a minute each. Word on the street is that Nickelodeon obsessively took down anything and everything - even little clips! - that fans uploaded to Youtube, and I gotta say that more than likely only harmed the show's chances of ever taking off, but I feel they're unlikely to mind me sharing a few minutes of a series they already threw out into the cold anyway...right?
Baron DraxumOne fan complaint about Rise is the use of almost entirely new villains, but I kind of loved the main antagonist at first sight. Baron Draxum is a Yokai biochemist tired of seeing his fellow spirits, demons and monsters forced to live in hiding from humans. Draxum is the one who develops the Mutagen Ooze in this continuity, and ingeniously unleashes it upon the world in a swarm of mosquitoes, or "Oozquitoes!" (Okay, the official spelling is "Oozesquitoes," but "Oozquitoes" better demonstrates how it's smoothly pronounced, alright?)
Draxum also believes that the Turtles are "perfect" creations of his mutagen, and it's a pretty refreshing change for the villain to actually admire and respect them enough that he isn't actually that keen on killing them if he doesn't think he has to. There's only so many times you can hear Shredder gloating about his undying hatred before it loses all impact...a villain with a reason to hold back and even kind of want his enemies to thrive is much more intriguing.
Also, he's canonically a humanoid sheep, which is adorable, and he also has two sarcastic little gargoyles that ride on his shoulders.
Some people were put off by this frantic pacing, and that's understandable - it can even be physically uncomfortable for how someone processes stimuli - but personally, this is the most I might have ever actually cared about action sequences in a TV show made by my own country before.
Rupert Swaggart, or "Meat Sweats"How hilariously wretched is "meat sweats" for a villain name? As far as pig monsters go, I immediately found this character more interesting than Bebop, and I say that as someone who respects Bebop as much as anyone. Formerly a Gordon Ramsey parody, Rupert is now a mutant capable of absorbing DNA (and therefore various powers) from other mutants with his Akira Tentacle arms, which is a thoroughly delightful gimmick for a cooking themed and especially meat-themed character.
Meat Sweats is also one of the cooler looking mutants in the series; he's "just" a pig man with snazzy red goggles, I suppose, but when you hear that a villain is both a chef and a big, fat pig man, your mind probably conjures a goofy looking gag character. Instead, he has a menacing presence that's relatively easy to take seriously.
He's also treated as Michelangelo's personal villain, but only because Mikey in this series loves cooking and considers Rupert his idol. He even keeps considering Rupert his idol, which is another thing I love about this show; these Turtles are so enthused about the world around them, they can barely muster a permanent grudge against their own villains, and are all too eager to team up with them whenever an excuse arises. That's so, so much more enjoyable to watch than the usual bitterness and angst.
I have also seen parts of the series' small but dedicated tumblr fandom refer to this slimy pig monster, named Meat Sweats in case you forgot, as "a daddy," and that's not my thing, but I mean, I see it. Sure.
Repo MantisAnother great name, but a critically under-used character even in a series this short-lived. Repo Mantis is a lovably scuzzy middle-aged man who runs a junkyard and his own impound business. The fact that his mutation was a mantis brings me utter joy, because most mantis-based characters tend to fall somewhere between Elegant Samurai Assassin and Draconic Space Monster. Repo Mantis is the kind of character most cartoons would turn into a fly or a cockroach, and I love flies and cockroaches, but I love this greasy sleaze and his pomp so much more with giant scythes for arms.
Plus, he has a junkyard cat that mutated into an even bigger mantis, and is constantly trying to kill him, and he still loves his kitty kitty very, very much. I guess that's why tumblr deemed this one "Husband Material." These are important distinctions to learn if you're going to keep up with modern society.
Hypnopotamus and Warren StoneI know this isn't an action sequence or anything, but I had to pick something with these two both together and happy, where they belong. Warren Stone is a vain, egotistical news anchor who mutated into a tiny, regenerating Earthworm and somehow only became even more vain and egotistical, while Hypnopotamus is a similarly self-congratulating, British magician capable of real, actual magic who mutated into a hippo man.
These two characters had little to nothing to do with each other, until one of their last few appearances established that they just suddenly live together and are "best" "friends." The number of moments clearly indicating they are more than that is fairly undeniable, and it's a shame the series didn't get to do anything more with a romance this charmingly mis-matched. There admittedly wasn't much else to these characters previously, besides the running gag that Warren thinks he's a much more frightening and powerful mutant than he actually is, though I also enjoyed the fact that April looked up to him in a similar fashion to Mikey and Rupert.
They're "villains," but they're not particularly nefarious ones, and I feel like they might have stopped being villainous altogether if the series had continued; they had friendlier moments with the turtles much more readily than any of their other foes.
RobeartoIt's interesting to already see the popularity of Freddy Fazbear trickling out into the rest of popular culture. I'm not sure I totally buy the origin of this villain, who was simply modified by Donatello's Artificial Intelligence program without the supernatural influence already important to the series, but his half-wrecked design and his thematic animatronic minions are a lot of fun in their sporadic series appearances.
StinkbombThis is a more minor one-off, but notable as the first cartoon character I've ever seen based on an Amorphophallus Corpse Flower. I like how the huge central cone of the actual flower becomes this guy's "tongue" as well as how his whole head can contract, but the best thing about him is that he's just a goofy old gardener who runs with his new lot in life even after a mutation sequence as painful-looking as it is hilarious. OKAY! HERE WE ARE!
Even with the constant silliness, you have to also love the darkly dramatic score and intense overall directing of every fight scene; the way the mood swells even over the humor and inherent absurdity of this situation makes me feel genuinely pumped up and invested.
Miss CuddlesAnother one-off, there's never any backstory given for why this plush toy is also a fear-eating demonic entity, but she's apparently the star of a television show for toddlers, and it apparently serves as some kind of prison or punishment for her. I like her design and mannerisms a lot, even if it's "just" a cutesy, stylized plush bunny, and she also just has some great animations and poses!
PiebaldFormerly a fish Splinter kept as a pet, Piebald seemingly comes back with murderous vengeance against her former family before one final, silly plot twist, and I really wish we had gotten to see more of her. Chelsea Peretti's voice acting here is a ton of fun, and they really pulled off making her seem threatening while still looking like an adorable, buggy-eyed goldfish. I especially like that she obviously still has a fish tail under her cloak that she just sort of flops around on, and that she fights with an enormous "fish hook!"
More of that visual and musical intensity over "silly" events and dialog, too. I just realized how unusual that actually is. A lot of cartoons will halt the dramatic elements when they want to inject humor, and vice-versa, only combining the two when that's meant to be ironic in some way. Here, the darker elements feel like they're still sincere even as the jokes keep coming, and actually...I like that way, way more than pretty much any other option.
The LibrarianI include this particular segment not just for the great giant bat woman, but for the excellent designs of the yokai children in the "kiddie room."
Also because just the facial expressions throughout this single minute are funny as hell.
A bat is a really novel choice for a librarian, with the library itself like a vast "cave" and a bat's sensitivity to sound. We get only one momentary glimpse of it, but she also has two pairs of clawed arms in addition to her wings. A lot of bat creature designs have both normal arms and wings, which makes them four-limbed by pure aesthetic oversight. Giving this one a third pair ensures that we know she's supposed to have an unnatural number of appendages.
Sloppy JosephThis one I include so you can enjoy another Akira reference as well as the knowledge of where Baron Draxum ends up by the end of the first season. I stand by my sentiments that Draxum made a genuinely badass villain, but he eventually suffers a defeat so profound that he finds himself banished from the Yokai realm, alone and miserable until Michelangelo, recognizing him as their "other dad," finally wins him over and turns his life around.
Draxum somehow still manages to be badass as a school cafeteria worker, entirely too lovable for how seriously he takes a job that he believes ranks much, much higher in human society than it actually does. While trying to adapt to our civilization however, he still can't resist experimenting with mutation (who could??) and accidentally creates this blobfish-faced ghoul from sloppy joe meat.
The final scene of the episode reveals that Draxum has kept a tiny, baby scrap of the creature, and we get a quick glimpse later that Joseph, now more human-size, has been working in the kitchen!
It's a turn of events that never would have been believable for the Shredder or most other classic villains, so I appreciate all the more that they developed their own new Rogues Gallery with a clean slate.
Big MamaI had to save one of the best for the near-last. Actually a bigger deal than Draxum well before he starts wearing a hairnet, Big Mama is the yokai world's most powerful and feared crime boss, operating an underground (in both senses) arena where monsters battle to the death despite her "Mary Poppins" mannerisms and similar habit of making up extremely cute but meaningless words.
She's also a huge, demonic spider with a highly original design; most spider-themed monsters emphasize long, thin legs, and spider-woman monsters almost always tend to have relatively slim humanoid features as well as more humanoid faces. It feels like they deliberately designed Big Mama's spider form to be the exact opposite of these norms, fat and hulking with a monstrous face that doesn't look like either a human or spider, but if anything, calls to mind a multi-eyed horse skull.
Big Mama, too, seemed on her way to a redemption arc when the series was cut so cruelly short; we eventually find out that she once had a romance with Splinter when he used to be human (and, in this series, a kung-fu movie star), but even with Splinter transformed into a sewer rat and Big Mama constantly trying to have his adoptive sons assassinated, the two still have some feelings for each other, and her very final scene in the series has her sweetly giving the boys some critical information they need to find and save their dad. To think, just one more season, and the turtles might have had more parents than they even knew what to do with.
Hueso and PielHueso is a suave, dashing skeleton man who just so happens to run a yokai restaurant with exceptionally good pizza, entangling him repeatedly in the Turtles' lives whether he wants to be or not - and he really, really doesn't.
Every scene with Hueso is a good one, but his best by far comes when we meet his hated brother, Piel, who is conversely nothing but an empty, floppy skin that lives as a pirate...and as his own pirate's flag.
Eventually, the two reconcile their differences, and what ensues is this, the funniest "battle" in the entire series.
...We never did find out what Big Mama's bug minions looked like under those oni masks, though.
There's a lot more I could say about this series beside a few brief character and creature reviews. I didn't even get into the Foot Clan or FOOT RECRUIT and their origami ninja minions, the exploding slime people or the fact that, actually, Shredder does factor into this series, but not at all like he ever has before...and so does Krang, in an even stranger way revealed by just one single shot of the final two episodes.
I'm not kidding when I say I loved this animation and art style more than quite possibly any other animated show to air in my lifetime, including any other animated show I've ever previously said the same exact thing about, I love the humor so many reviewers thought was "too stupid" to endure, and this is frankly the most I ever really cared about any of these characters - even its especially divisive take on Splinter, who starts this series as a washed-up, slovenly old man who consistently forgets his own son's names.
It's that silliness, however, that made the not-as-silly moments land so much harder for me than they would have in a series with a darker tone. They screw up constantly and act like a bunch of children, but that's just why these turtles felt written more like regular people. This Splinter may have at times been an alarmingly apathetic parent, but when we learn that he's just been living in a hopeless, depressive funk from, you know, losing everything he had and becoming a rat in a sewer, he actually makes as much sense as a character, if not more, than any other Splinter. I'm basically one of the "original fans" of this franchise, I suppose, but the truth is...I don't know if I can ever go back quite the same to any other version.
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