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'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' brings turtle power to Nickelodeon

The series, with voices including Jason Biggs and Mae Whitman, is a new CG-animated series with some changes (April O'Neil is 16!).

September 08, 2012|By Robert Ito
  • The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nickelodeon.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nickelodeon. (Nickelodeon, Nickelodeon )

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has become such an enormous global franchise — the action figures! the movies! the short-lived breakfast cereal! — that it's easy to forget that it began life in the early 1980s as little more than a goof.

Kevin Eastman was messing around with his friend and fellow artist Peter Laird, just doodling to pass the time, and came up with a sketch of a masked turtle, twin nunchaku at the ready. Even the title they came up with —"ENMV0002398">"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" — sounded like what it was: a joke told between fanboys.

Now, of course, TMNT fans are dead serious about their beloved turtles, so when word spread last year that Nickelodeon was planning to reboot the franchise, there were, well, concerns. It didn't help matters when "Transformers" director Michael Bay, who is producing a Turtles feature film due out in 2014, announced that his turtles, unlike the cartoon's, were going to be space aliens, not mutants, as one might expect from the franchise title.

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On Sept. 29, Nickelodeon will premiere the fourth and latest TV series. The cable network, which recently pushed out its animation chief in wake of a steep ratings drop-off, could use a new hit.

In this go-round, the turtles are still mutants, much to the relief of the Comic-Con crowd, still love pizza, and are still living it up in the sewers underneath Manhattan. Corny, turtle-related puns, like "shelling out justice," are still in the mix.

But producers have plenty of changes in store, primarily, one assumes, to juice up the franchise for fans not yet conceived when the original series first aired in 1987. These turtles are CG-animated, for one, speedier, sleeker and less cartoonish than their '80s counterparts. Master Splinter is still a mutated rat, but this sensei is taller and more robust, and better able to throw down with his young pupils if need be.

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And then there's April O'Neil. In the original series, April was a gutsy TV reporter, a career woman, equal parts den mother and resident crush. In the new series, April is 16.

"When I remember April, there was a lot of, 'I'm going to work now, don't mess up the house,'" says Ciro Nieli, an executive producer on the new series. "We're really playing on the idea of the turtles being teenagers, so it just felt appropriate that if April is going to be a fully functioning member of the crew, she should be a peer."

Supplying the voice of April is Mae Whitman, "Parenthood's" Amber Holt and the voice of Tinker Bell in the "Disney Fairies" DVDs. "My boyfriend is a few years older than me, and when he heard I got to play this, he couldn't process it, he was so excited," she says. "April was probably one of his first crushes. I've been getting that a lot lately: 'April was my first crush!'"

Jason Biggs, who plays Leonardo, the leader of the team, has gotten a similar response from fans. "Honestly, it's probably the thing that people get most excited about, because it's just such an iconic franchise," he says.

For his part, Nieli figures the show has all the elements of a hit. "People love turtles, people love pizza, there's something about the self-discipline of being a martial artist that's really intoxicating," he says. "And humans in general love pets. If they were the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Trashmen,' it probably wouldn't have worked as well."

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