The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back! But can their turtle power win over a new generation without alienating older fans?
Nickelodeon's animated revamp of the popular franchise premieres Saturday morning (11/10c) and will have to live up to the previous iterations that include a handful of cartoon series and movies all based on the original comic books about four anthropomorphic turtle brothers whose love of fighting crime is only rivaled by their craving for pizza.
"First I would say: Chillax, people!" says actor Sean Astin, addressing fans' concerns in an interview with TVGuide.com. "What sets this Turtles apart is that it's made by fans for fans. The people making this show loved this growing up, and they loved the comic books before the loved the TV shows. They have this depth of appreciation for it that goes beyond people being hired to do a job. If people love something and put themselves into it, it's going to be good."
Astin, best known as the titular character in Rudy and as hobbit Samwise Gamgee in the big-screen Lord of the Rings trilogy, provides the voice of Raphael, turtle sibling to Leonardo (Jason Biggs), Donatello (Rob Paulsen) and Michelangelo ( Greg Cipes). Rat sensei Master Splinter (Hoon Lee) raised the foursome and taught them ninja fighting skills in the sewers of New York City. When the series opens on their 15th birthday (mutation day as it were), the brothers venture aboveground where they encounter a girl (April O'Neil, voiced by Mae Whitman), pizza and villains for the first time.
Astin tested the new Turtles out on his toughest critics: his three young daughters. "At first they didn't want to watch it because they said it was for boys," he says. "I kind of insisted because I knew that dad's cool factor was going to go up... and I wanted it to go up as quickly as possible. When they saw the beautiful, captivating, alluring, smart, adventurous April O'Neil, everything changed. I didn't have to ask them to keep sitting there. They liked that the turtles, especially Donatello, had a crush on her. So now they're on board. I think that they get it can be fun."
Check out the rest of the interview in which Astin discusses ninja philosophy, a turtle crush and of course, pizza:
What is it about this new series appealed to you when you were approached to do this?
Sean Astin: I loved that it was going to be a fresh version. Nickelodeon loves this, which means we don't have to worry. We just feel like you're a part of something that's gonna last. Also, The Turtles are cool. It's a cool idea, a cool franchise, there are cool toys, the actors are cool, there's cool animation. You saw the animation, it's got a blend of that interesting dark, classic comic-book look and that bright, colorful Saturday morning TV cartoon vibe. That's wicked cool.
The series has been described as "ninja-ier," and executive producer Ciro Nieli assured critics that there would be more "real" fighting with weapons.
Astin: There's been a lot of development in the way that those action scenes are depicted in the movies, so our show benefits from that. I'm just constantly shocked at how detailed the fight choreography is and how things like the weight of the characters — how they land — is depicted. Do they have a kind of gravity or do they just stick there? Animation is hard, and these guys are doing a huge volume and doing it really well. There's something impressive when you watch a display of athleticism in martial arts. It's really captivating.
Is there more of a martial arts/ninja philosophy in this version?
Astin: You have to look to Master Splinter as the moral center of the Turtle universe. No matter what frivolity or action shenanigans the turtles get up to, they always return to sensei who wants to develop their moral compass, help them to develop a foundation of self-control and other really important life lessons. And then they jump into a taxi and eat pizza.
What's Raph's personality like? Is it true to the original?
Astin: Everyone knows that Raph is the bruiser, the brawler, the grumpy one. He's the most impatient, he's strong. He's good at fighting, not one for analytics. He's quick to anger as it were. There are moments throughout this season when he does defer to Leonardo's leadership, and sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes he wishes he didn't do that. But he is a member of the team. He's not like some totally rogue turtle.
How about your shelled brothers Leo, Donny and Mikey?
Astin: Donatello has this whip-smart brain and really loves technology and fixing things and solving problems. He's not so attuned to his outside environment. Donatello is a myopic genius. Leonardo is the most reasonable one — the one who's got his eye on the ball all the time, the big-picture turtle. Michelangelo is the heart of the show and is so funny. There's such a positivity in his spirit. Greg Cipes does his voice, and the guy is off-the-charts funny. We are all on the floor laughing throughout the whole session. That's my favorite part, just listening to Greg do his thing.
What can you tell me about this version of April?
Astin: She's younger. That's something they've done differently. In the early shows, she was this almost 1950s sophisticated noir ingénue. And now, Mae is doing it and the way they're drawing it, she's this cool contemporary of theirs. That may be one thing that jumps out at old fans. It's not so radical, but it's a subtle difference. Donatello is in love with her though.
Besides that crush, can you describe how the turtles are actually like typical teenagers, despite being mutated subterranean reptiles with ninja skills?
Astin: They bicker with each other all the time. They're constantly teasing each other. They're easily distracted by things like pizza. But they also have boundless energy. On some level, they think nothing can hurt them. When you're a kid, you feel like you're on top of the world and that you can do anything physically. So they do that. Of course, like reality, they're often brought face-to-face with their own limitations, which is another thing that teenagers have to confront.
Each of the turtles also has slight differences. Your Raph has the red bandana, green eyes and crack in his front shell plate. Can you discuss that attention to detail?
Astin: I love my cracked shell! ... We'll freeze-frame the show for a second and say, "Whoa! Look there in the back where the building curves around and it's in shadow — there's graffiti. What does that graffiti say?" You never see it. It just goes by. It's just part of the look of the show. But there's all of those kinds of things: the shafts of light, the shots, the angles. You'll get this low close-up angle of the eyes or of a face or of a hand. It looks more like a movie than a TV show as far as I'm concerned.
Now that their world has opened up to pizza, how will they get more? Will they buy it? Will Michelangelo broaden his recipe repertoire beyond just algae and worms?
Astin: The pizza just always happens to be there. But we did this promotion in New York for The Chew. They got this guy pizza expert in New York. The guy was incredible; he was like Rembrandt. I don't have a vocabulary to describe the depth and range of pizza that this guy showed. All I knew was that he should be a character on the show as the turtles' pizza dealer. I could just see Michaelangelo with 10 totally different types of pizza spread out in front of him and becoming a connoisseur.
Will there be individual turtle-specific plots?
Astin: At one point Raph is deathly afraid of spiders and has to confront that fear by a magnitude of scale. Let's just put it that way.
Didn't your Lord of the Rings character Sam also have a fear of spiders?
Astin: That thought did occur to me!
Between Sam and Raph, tell me who would win in a battle of wits?
Astin: Well, turtles don't go that far, so I have to go with Sam on that one.
Check out the catchy opening sequence to the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which airs Saturday mornings at 11/10c on Nickelodeon: