On the face of it, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise might appear to represent all that's rotten in pop culture. The core concept is novelty overload. The aesthetic and finer points piggyback on current and past trends (the latest theme tune is hip-hop influenced). The storyline suffers from attention deficit, in that rather than leading anywhere definitive, it's repeatedly reset over a multitude of mediums, with each iteration being targeted at a slightly different audience. Character development is shirked in favour of largely sticking to broad personality templates. The same toys are outfitted with a different set of accessories to be sold again. Outside of the comics, it belongs in that expansive but troubling bracket of media that rely heavily on violence while resiling from showing the consequences of violence (much bashing, zero blood). Its past iterations have aged badly (cowabunga, anyone?).
It also, however, has much to recommend it.
(Mid-post disclaimer: when I was in year 2 at school, I was so Turtles-mad that my teacher refused to mark any work I produced that bore a connection in a futile attempt to dissuade me.)
In particular, we should be thankful for any popular franchise that emphasises the idea of wildly different and conflicting personalities having their place in a triumphalist narrative. The Harry Potter archetype of individual saviour is king, and the idea that certain types of individual belong front and centre, while others are fated to be bit-part players, is part of a pervasive social mythology that sustains selfishness and greed. One might ask what sort of responsible society plants the idea in children's minds that the best result for all is obtained through an inwardly focused drive toward personal success, rather than through cooperation and the fostering of productive relationships. In TMNT, there is no 'hero'; there are four, possibly five or six heroes who are reliant on each other.
Furthermore, the Turtles are outcasts through and through, restricted to living in a sewer of all places, barred from normal social interactions. It's not just their nature as 'freaks' but the extremeness of their personalities that factor into that status: Donatello is a geek whose bookish intelligence is lost on others, Raphael has a destructive and alienating temper, Michaelangelo is a simpleton and Leonardo a Don Quixote who sees windmills everywhere he looks. It's heartening that the essence of Turtles is the balancing of personal flaws, rather than their elimination, and that its focus is always on how we might survive on the very fringes of a supportive society, which is where most of us, in reality, live.
Nickelodeon's new computer-generated take on the franchise, while firmly aimed at youngsters, makes some significant strides. Visually, the Turtles have never been more individualised, nor looked as much like their non-mutant animal counterparts (terrapins, in English English). They finally have three toes, their shells are both suitably rigid-looking and correctly shaped, their eyes are widely spaced and their mouths incorporate just a hint of a beak. On closer examination, they're different shades, different heights and finished with small distinctive details: Michaelangelo's freckles, Donatello's missing tooth, Raphael's cracked shell. At the same time, the rubbery nature of the CGI style allows them a degree of bold expression hitherto unseen - a graphic fiction aesthetic, with Manga-style sweat drops, emanata and indotherms, is layered on top to emphasise extreme reactions, and a full ink-heavy comic panelling style is implemented for flashback sequences.
The writing so far (four episodes have been aired) employs genuine wit and wisdom in place of catchphrases and trite morality tales. The Turtles' mentor, Splinter, is a principle source of both. When Leonardo complains that a fight 'wasn't fair', Splinter takes him to task, asking why he expects fairness in a combat situation. When Raphael's temper gets the better of him, rather than scold him excessively, Splinter mounts a practical demonstration of the detrimental effects of his anger, before recounting a tale of where his own, similar flaws had resulted in tragedy.
As far as the violence goes, while it remains cartoonish, the show goes further than any other iteration of the franchise (including the 90s live action movies) in depicting plausible martial arts techniques, favouring subtlety over impact. Conflicts are rapid-fire and satisfyingly even-matched when they need to be. The wood gives a meaty thump, the metal a sharp schiing, and there are, thankfully, very few fists to the face (a trope that I do seriously worry about, since an attack that barely phases fictional characters could put real life people in hospital). The use of robotic facsimiles of human beings, as ever, provides scope for the deadlier weapons to be used to some effect. The robots also double up as vehicles for some enjoyable slapstick.
The voice work is uniformly excellent, with Sean "Don't you worry, Mr Frodo" Astin's Raphael being of particular note. The city of New York is rendered in suitably stylised fashion. The only real issue so far is the CGI rendering of humans, which is pre-Toy Story in quality. Plastic-fleshed, with moulded hair and mostly spindly bodies, they never quite convince as counterparts to the protagonists' charming freakishness - although they perhaps work as a visual metaphor for the blandness we equate with 'normality' in our own world.