Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ 2003 Series Remains Underrated 20 Years Later

Like many, I grew up watching the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and was forever changed by its awesomeness, made into a lifelong fan. For most in this position, however, it became tough to look past that version of the characters, no matter how silly or different it became as the seasons stacked up. That means that a lot of people, even those who loved the Turtles, overlooked an excellent entry in the franchise. Some claim it could be the best iteration of the ideas found in the first comic run and may have even exceeded the original in some ways, whether we like to admit it or not.

One of the reasons TMNT (2003) had such a pedigree was because of who was working on it behind the scenes. Peter Laird, one of the original creators of the characters with Kevin Eastman, and Mirage Comics worked closely with 4Kids Entertainment to help make sure the show could entertain viewers of all ages and strengthen the brand. Laird supposedly read every episode draft as well as approved the majority of character designs and changes for the show. Many stories, characters, and even some individual scenes are taken directly from the original source material – even if it is toned down somewhat – helping to give this new incarnation some of its acclaimed material.

The general premise is basically intact with the Green Machines themselves, but many of the other characters’ backstories have been adjusted or brought back closer to the comics. Master Splinter is no longer Hamato Yoshi himself, but an attentive pet, while April O’Neil works as a lab assistant for Baxter Stockman instead of being the yellow-clad reporter many know. The Shredder has undergone the most change here, but unlike the source material, this version of him was meant to last a while and remain a more constant threat instead of a joke or fodder to be killed off. The crowd seems split on his updated origins, but it does help with explaining a few of the plots. Other minor players like Casey Jones, Leatherhead, and The Rat King had their personalities and histories expanded on or aligned closer to their original concepts, with everyone still working smoothly within the storyline.

The storytelling in this series is tight, especially with those first several seasons. Things happen to the heroes, but it feels like there are reasons for almost every interaction and they soon become involved in someone else’s tangled web, instead of events feeling too coincidental or overly linked together. With this type of world-building, the plot feels more fluid and much less out of left field. The cartoon is about the Turtles, but not everything happens because of or just to them, other forces are constantly at work. There are large overarching stories and smaller important tales mixed into all of that, leaving the individual and season-long arcs more exciting and engaging. Even the side episodes come off as somewhat meaningful and over time they begin to link into the world at large, so almost none of the adventures could be called true filler. The show excels at its build-up, barely throwing anything away, while having a ton of character evolution, and not just for the mutants.

Most of the animation is handled by Dong Woo, a studio that also worked on The Batman cartoon and it shows. The presentation is a huge draw for TMNT, especially in their use of shadows, crisp backgrounds, and it’s hard not to love the pure white eyes of the Turtles, complimenting that superhero style with the headbands. There are a few small aesthetic changes that don’t continue past the first few episodes, but nothing major. The big alterations came with seasons six and seven, and like many other shows, TMNT is guilty of reusing a good bit of footage as the series continued. The music is also enjoyable, there are recognizable character themes that start to stand out. Much of the soundtrack is mixed up slightly to try and keep it fresh, using stingers to shift the scenes, with the overall sound having a Japanese flare.  

The aspect that took me the longest to adjust to was the voice acting. None of what we hear is bad, but it feels quite different at first and that is by design. Some of the voice actors even discussed how they wanted to make sure that their voices were original takes on the personalities. It worked, but it took a little longer to get there for me. The standouts here go to Shredder (Scottie Ray/Scott Rayow) and Baxter Stockman (Scott A. Williams), who is simply a treasure through the entire run.

The characters truly are the strength of this version, with Splinter and Shredder both coming off as complete badasses. The majority of the major players feel more effective and there is a progression. At the beginning of the series, the mousers, Purple Dragon, and regular Foot Clan soldiers give the heroes trouble, but then there are upgrades. Enemies evolve and it isn’t always the same strategies, keeping the fight scenes themselves energetic. April learns how to fight, people train and improve, new threats are constantly introduced and this keeps everything interesting. When Shredder and the Turtles do have to team up, the tensions are still thick and most of the big events affect people and have weight.

Season four sees Leonardo mentally scarred from the huge fight of the previous season as he becomes depressed and goes through some form of PTSD-lite for a kids’ show, having even lost a chunk of his shell. Karai loses her father figure and becomes a female version of Shredder for a brief, but great, period. Casey Jones has shown his feelings for April for years and season seven finally concludes with their wedding. TMNT wasn’t afraid to explore the characters, show that there are consequences or domino effects for some actions, and get dark. Those more grim tones did cause some issues, however.

This is a kids’ show where Leonardo cuts Shredder’s head off (sort of), Baxter Stockman loses limbs whenever he fails his boss, people die in creative ways, like rapidly aging and falling to dust, and let us not forget episodes such as “Same as It Never Was,” arguably one of the best parts of this show, where we see the majority of our heroes and enemies die on screen. Going a bit more serious like this was something the original show tried to do in its last couple of seasons, but maybe TMNT did it a little too well, leading to their downfall.

There was also a little episode that most fans of the show are quite familiar with, “Insane in the Membrane,” because it wasn’t aired in the US during the initial showing and wouldn’t be allowed as part of the syndication runs until 2015. The only way to watch it until then was by viewing it on the 4Kids website or purchasing the DVDs, which were their own complex mess for those attempting to collect the entire series. This episode was deemed unsuitable for younger viewers and it’s hard to argue that the creators weren’t pushing a few boundaries here.

“Insane in the Membrane” focuses on Baxter Stockman having lost his body and growing a new one, only to have it slowly decompose as he attempts to hunt down April, who he blames for all of his mishaps. She breaks off his jaw at one point, among other bodily failures, and he is presumed dead at the end of the episode. This was mostly caused by the scripts and early designs going through one team of FOX’s Broadcast Standards and Practices group, while the finished product went through another after a personnel change. The shakeup caused the episode to be shunned and may have also been a major reason for larger changes that occurred as well.

4Kids was enjoying the popularity of TMNT and it wasn’t like most of their other shows, being produced mostly in New York and not subject to the same strict censorship as much of the anime they were bringing over, but the aforementioned grittiness eventually caught up to the program. At that same time, Playmates asked for the show to undergo some changes as well. This was the company that made all of the TMNT toys, which meant they were also a big part of the franchise’s ability to make money. Playmates wanted to sell more toys and re-focus on a younger audience, which meant that the show needed to change. With both groups wanting a tonal shift, there wasn’t much stopping it, but season five was already being worked on.

It’s rumored that season five was originally going to wrap up the series and bring a close to the overarching adventure for the Turtles, but after the finale of season four, the follow-up didn’t come, not for some time. The wait would eventually be over as FOX started to promote The Lost Episodes, 12 new installments known as The Ninja Tribunal arc. There were supposed to be 13 originally, but an origin story centered on Hun being a Siamese twin with a character known as Garbageman was canned early in development, as BS&P didn’t feel it was appropriate for children, with a couple of the scenes apparently showing a baby being thrown away and the villain falling to his death in a vat of acid. The majority of season five went the fantasy and ninja mysticism route, with dragons, a lot of exposition dumps, and a few retcons. So, even though this group of episodes feels like they belong with the rest of the show, it is the weakest of the first five seasons and a tale of things to come.

What aired as the fifth season was Fast Forward, a new status quo where the Turtles are transported to 2105 and must team up with Cody Jones, the great-grandson of April and Casey, to fight a new crop of enemies. There are some creative ideas mixed in here, but it also meanders since they originally planned to do two seasons, but it was cut down to one and fans received another shift in the run, Back to the Sewer. This attempt at a return to the present would see another redesign, one that seemed to take the 2007 TMNT movie as an inspiration, possibly for the toys or some sort of brand synergy. Both new takes within the show saw changes to the art and tone, aspects that were not received well by the fans. They have interesting elements and continue some parts of the story, but these entries make it seem even more like season five was meant to be the true conclusion.

That all probably sounds like a lot unless someone is already familiar with the show or has looked into it. There was one more adventure for the 2003 TMNT, however, Turtles Forever. It’s a production that deserves its own article, but needless to say, it brings the then-current Turtles in contact with the ‘1987 cartoon versions and even the comic book originals. Peter Laird may not have liked the original show, but it’s easy to tell those involved here were trying to pay homage to everything that came before them in the best way possible. The TMNT show has a ton of references to the 1987 run, so this isn’t hard to believe. Sadly, rights issues and not being able to get the original voice actors really hurt this effort. Turtles Forever is worth watching and it’s hard to hate on a movie that does so much with source material that was originally meant as a spoof.

TMNT (2003) did an excellent job of evolving the material and making it more cohesive. Those first four seasons are incredibly enjoyable, a shell of a time, one might say, and the rest is there for viewers who find themselves wanting more. The complete series is still a little annoying to obtain on physical media, but it is streaming on Paramount+ currently and there is never a bad time for what might be arguably the greatest TMNT show made.

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