REVIEW: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES DONATELLO
One of the most popular pop-culture concepts of the late 1980's, extending right into the present day, is also one of the most mystifying to me. I mean -- a foursome of ninja-trained humanoid turtles? Robots like Transformers I can understand. A paramilitary force like G.I. Joe, sure. Various super-heroes, definitely. But -- turtles? Still, there's no denying their popularity, and the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES are returning to the small screen once again.
It's not hard to see where most of the concept comes from. In the early to mid 1980's, when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first came up with the concept, three-fourths of their group name were extremely popular concepts in the pop-culture world.
Teenage heroes were popular because of an enormously popular revitalized "Teen Titans" title being produced by Marv Wolfman and George Perez for DC Comics. Mutants were popular courtesy of the ongoing adventures of the X-Men. Ninjas were popular thanks to everything from G.I. Joe characters like Storm Shadow, to the fact that Wolverine, one of the best known X-Men, was starting to have some ninja conflicts of his own.
But -- Turtles!? One has to assume here that Eastman and Laird took the three most popular pop culture concepts of the time, and assigned them to the least likely of animal-based, anthropomorphic characters. And somehow or other -- it worked.
Although the popularity and presence of the Turtles have risen and fallen over the years, they're back once again, with an all-new action figure line from Playmates, based on a new animated series that will air on Nickeolodeon. The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are turning up for the first time in several years, with a brand new line and a distinctly new look. And I decided to bring in DONATELLO for this review.
Let's consider some of the history of the Turtles, and then have a look at this representative of their newest incarnation.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a team of four teenage anthropomorphic turtles, who were trained by their anthropomorphic rat sensei, Splinter, in the art of ninjutsu and named after four Renaissance artists. From their home in the storm sewers of New York City, they battle petty criminals, evil overlords and alien invaders, all while remaining isolated from society-at-large. The characters initially appeared in comic books before being licensed for toys, cartoons, video games, films, and other merchandise. During the peak of its popularity in the late 1980s through early 1990s, the franchise gained considerable worldwide success and fame.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created in an American comic book published by Mirage Studios in 1984 in Dover, New Hampshire. The concept arose from a humorous drawing sketched out by Kevin Eastman during a casual evening of brainstorming with his friend Peter Laird. The young artists self-published a single-issue comic.
Much of the Turtles' mainstream success began when a licensing agent, Mark Freedman, sought out Eastman and Laird to propose wider merchandising opportunities for the offbeat property. In 1986, Dark Horse Miniatures produced a set of 15 mm lead figurines. In January 1987, they visited the offices of Playmates Toys Inc, a small California toy company who wished to expand into the action figure market.
Development initiated with a creative team of companies and individuals: Jerry Sachs, ad man of Sachs-Finley Agency, brought together the animators at Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, headed by award-winning animator Fred Wolf. Wolf and his team combined concepts and ideas with Playmates marketing crew, headed by Karl Aaronian and then VP of Sales, Richard Sallis and VP of Playmates, Bill Carlson. Aaronian brought on several designers and "concepteer" and writer John Schulte and worked out the simple backstory that would live on toy packaging for the entire run of the product and show.
Phrases like "Heroes in a Half Shell" and many of the comical catch phrases and battle slogans came from the writing and conceptualization of this creative team. Accompanied by the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987 TV series, and the subsequent action figure line, the TMNT were soon catapulted into pop culture history.
Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles premiered in May, 1984, at a comic book convention held at a local Sheraton Hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was published by Mirage Studios in an oversized magazine-style format using black & white artwork on newsprint, limited to a print run of only 3,000 copies. Through a clever media kit that included an ad placed in Comic Buyer's Guide #545, the public's interest was piqued and thus began the Turtle phenomenon.
When little known Playmates Toys Inc. was approached about producing a TMNT action figure line, they were cautious of the risk and requested that a television deal be acquired first. On December 28, 1987, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' first cartoon series began, starting as a 5-part miniseries and becoming a regular Saturday morning syndicated series on October 1, 1988 with 13 more episodes. The series was produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Film Productions Inc. The show places a much stronger emphasis on humor than the comics do. Here, the Ninja Turtles are portrayed as four wise-cracking, pizza-obsessed superheroes who fight the forces of evil from their sewer hideout, and make their first appearance in masks color-coded to each turtle, where previously they had all worn red. Starting on September 25, 1989, the series was expanded to weekdays and had 47 more episodes for the new season.
In 1997–1998, the Turtles starred in a live-action television series called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation that follows the events of the movies. A fifth turtle was introduced, a female named "Venus de Milo" who was skilled in the mystical arts of the shinobi. The series seemed to be a loose continuation of the movie franchise, as Shredder had been defeated and the Ninja Turtles encountered new villains. These Turtles even made a guest appearance on Power Rangers in Space.
In 2003, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series produced by 4Kids Entertainment began airing. The series was co-produced by Mirage Studios, and resulted in a cartoon that came across more closely to the original comics, creating a darker and edgier feel than the 1987 cartoon, but still remaining lighthearted enough to be considered appropriate for children. This series lasted until 2009, ending with a feature-length television movie titled Turtles Forever, which was produced in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the franchise and featured the Turtles of the 2003 series teaming up with their counterparts from the 1987 series.
The Turtles have featured in four feature films. The first three, produced in the early 90s and released by New Line Cinema, feature live-action, with the Turtles played by various actors in costumes featuring animatronic heads. The fourth, released in 2007 by Warner Bros., was an all-CGI animated film.
On October 21, 2009 it was announced that cable channel Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom, had purchased all of Mirage's rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property, and have announced that they are moving forward on development on a new CGI-animated TMNT television series consisting of at least 26 half-hour episodes. A teaser hints at some changes, namely the two Turtles who traditionally carry blunt weapons have had their weapons changed to similar bladed versions. Donatello uses a naginata instead of a bo, and Michelangelo uses a kusarigama instead of nunchaku.
It is this new series that is the basis for the new action figure line from Playmates. Let us now consider the character of Donatello.
In the Mirage/Image comics all four turtles wear red bandanas, but in other versions he sports a purple bandana. His signature weapon is the bo staff. In all media he is depicted as the most knowledgeable of the four turtles, often speaking in technobabble with a natural aptitude for science and technology. He is named after the sculptor Donatello.
In the comics, Donatello is originally presented along with Leonardo as one of the two calmer turtles and while the originals have no official command structure, in the early stories he is depicted as the second in command.
The second issue elaborated more on each turtles personalities and opened with Donatello soldering a circuit. Later in the issue, Donatello states that he is "familiar with some computer systems" and helps April O'Neil deactivate the Mousers. During the turtles' exile to Northampton, Donatello becomes obsessed with fixing up and repairing the many broken things within the farmhouse they were living in. Most notably he spent days and nights fixing the boiler to give his family hot running water and builds a windmill and a water wheel to provide electricity.
In the Shades of Grey storyline, Casey Jones encounters the turtle by a ravine as he was pondering "the fractal structure of natural patterns". Casey accuses the turtle of using big words and acting better than everyone else. Donatello suggests they should continue the conversation when Casey is sober. Grabbing a stick, an angry Jones continually pokes the turtle until he loses his temper and sends Casey careening into the water.
In the City at War storyline, the turtles return to New York to put an end to the Foot Clan's civil war. During a battle with Shredder's Elite Guards in the ruins of the Second Time Around Shop, Donatello falls through the floor and breaks his leg. Seeing their ally Karai subdued and about to be killed, Donatello grabs one of the Foot's machine guns and repeatedly shoots the Foot Elite. Donatello is visibly shaken by the violence and throws the gun away. At the end of the story the turtles, April and Casey move back to New York save for Donatello who chooses to stay in Northampton with Master Splinter to heal from his injury as well as reflect on everything that had happened.
Donatello's appearance in the Archie publications were largely based on the 1987 Fred Wolf incarnation, but with Mirage writers on board at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures such as Steve Murphy and Ryan Brown, a lot of references to his Mirage counterpart were made. Donatello was showcased to be pure of heart and soul, being able to pass through the Netherworld unscathed. He was also chosen of the Turtles by a group of Aliens known as the Sons of Silence to share their wisdom. He was one of the few who could telepathically communicate with them. Donatello was almost a pacifist, detesting every time he used violence.
In the 1987 animated series, The first animated television series depicts Donatello as a genius who invents many of the turtles vehicles and equipment including the Turtle Van, the Turtle Blimp and the Turtle Com. Unlike the 2003 series his other minor inventions often malfunction, but many of them end up serving a practical purpose. Despite an obvious lack of funding in subsequent seasons he made many revolutionary inventions, the most notable being the portable portal capable of opening gateways to other dimensions as well as an early warning system which warns of impending attacks from other dimensions or from Krang and Shredder. Despite Leonardo being the official leader of the team, given the sci fi nature of the series it is Donatello who comes up with most of the plans and solutions to the turtles predicaments. At times he displays little appreciation for human culture beyond the scientific community and he even earned a degree via mail.
In the 2003 animated series, Donatello has a complex personality in the 2003 animation and thus is a popular character. Several episodes concentrate on him, as well as his emotional and intellectual struggles. As in his other incarnations, he is intelligent, good with his hands, and very introspective, frequently becoming pensive over things he doesn't understand. He also displays closeness with Michelangelo akin to that seen in the original movie. Even more pacifistic than his other incarnations, Donatello shows a greater interest in technology than his ninjutsu training. Even so, Donatello will defend his brothers at any cost, and he frequently assists the team in many ways through the technology he develops, mostly vehicles and communication devices. In this animation, Donatello is generally well liked by all of his brothers, never engaging in major confrontations with them. In fact, Donatello was the one to reunite his brothers against the Shredder in the episode "Same As It Never Was", having been sent to an alternate future where the team fell apart after he vanished.
In the first three live action films, Donatello, like Leonardo, is arguably less mature than he was in the original comics and the 1987 animated series, as he is shown joking around more. The first film never officially identifies Donatello as the group's resident "whiz kid", though he is occasionally shown tinkering with various devices and is seen to have a vast knowledge of obscure topics (he is shown to be a master at 'Trivial Pursuit' when playing against the other Turtles and later astutely labels Casey Jones a claustrophobic).
He takes his time deciding on the most appropriate victory cheers, though his choices are sometimes quite perplexing. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, however, clearly established Donatello as the most scientifically-minded turtle as well as the most introspective, feeling dejected when he learns that the ooze that created the Turtles only exists because of an accident, although Splinter consoles his dejection by pointing out that the circumstances of their origins cannot define their present worth.
Donatello returns in Nickelodeon's upcoming animated series, now wielding a naginata, a spear-like weapon. which appears to be retractable. As the blade is retractable, Donatello will still have his traditional bo staff. He will be voiced by Rob Paulsen, who previously portrayed Raphael in the 1987 animated series. Nice bit of continuity there.
So, how's the figure? Very nicely done. Now, there's certainly been a substantial history to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, if nothing all that recent since the CGI theatrical movie several years ago.
The initial Turtles figures were based largely on the animated series, and showed it. They were rather cartoonish in appearance, and also rather limited in articulation. Over the years, the Turtles evolved (or perhaps "mutated"?) as their various media incarnations did the same. The Turtles based on the live-action movies were impressive, and probably the best detailed ever, but still lacked in articulation.
The most recent Turtles prior to this newest incarnation were those based on the CGI movie. Those Turtles stood nearly 6 inches in height, and finally made up for the limited articulation of their predecessors. Although perhaps not as detailed as some, they were good likenesses of the characters as they appeared in that particular movie.
So now, we have the 2012 Turtles, including Donatello. He, like his brothers, is shorter, and just a bit stockier, than his most recent predecessor, but design, and for that matter, scale, have always been somewhat more open to interpretation with the Turtles than with some other concepts.
Raphael stands about 4-3/4" in height. This is significant, because it wasn't until I had all four Turtles rounded up that I realized that, unlike many previous incarnations of the Turtles, these Turtles don't share a lot of body parts. This is categorically not a case where they all have the same basic body, just molded in a different shade of green and given a different head. All of the Turtles are unique. These days, that's especially impressive.
His overall design is somewhat cartoonish, relative to, let's say, his live-action counterparts, but it's less humorous in appearance than some of his early animated incarnartions.
The face is largely unchanged from how Donatello and his brothers have always been designed -- a rather oval-shaped head, with something of a nose-less muzzle jutting out slightly from underneath the eyes, with a fairly wide mouth. The distinctive purple-colored mask/bandana is in place, with Donatello's eyes appearing blank white through the mask.
Donatello's head looks slightly narrower than those of his siblings, and his mouth is entirely closed. This was another way that Playmates differentiated the Turtles over the years -- different mouth expressions. However, in Donatello's case this time around it may be just as well for another reason. Based on the CGI-art graphic on the package, which one assumes is derived from the animated series, it looks like Donny has a gap between his front teeth that would make even David Letterman cringe.
Another method of differentiation is skin color. The Turtles are all green, of course, but Playmates has been in the habit of using somewhat different colors of green for each Turtle. Donatello is easily the lightest green of the four, basically a very pale olive in color. The shell on his back is a somewhat darker, and slightly brownish olive, but still green, and his torso is a dark yellow-orange.
Along with the purple mask, Donatello is wearing protective elbow and knee pads, which are brown in color, and cloth wrappings around his wrists, fingers, and ankles. These are an off-white in color around his hands, and brown around his feet. He also has a brown belt, and a strap coming over his right shoulder with a space in the back to hold his weapon.
Distinctly missing on Donatello, compared to his original animated counterpart, is an initialed belt buckle. You're just going to have to remember who's who from mask color this time around.
Detail on Donny is most impressive. His skin has a somewhat leathery texture sculpted into it, and there are some dents in his armored torso. He's been in a few fights. There are also distinct textures sculpted into his shell, and the cloth wrappings.
The Turtles have somewhat limited digits. Donatello's hands each have two fingers and a thumb, and his feet have one large toe and two smaller ones. In an interesting bit of design for this incarnation of the Turtles, the lower arms and lower legs are actually wider than the upper arms and legs. It's not really manga -- I'm not sure what you'd call it. I believe it is somewhat reminiscent of the original look of the Turtles as created by Eastman and Laird. In any case, for Donny and his siblings, it works. It wouldn't work as well if attempted on a human, I'm rather sure of that.
Let's talk articulation. This is one poseable Turtle! This is one area very specifically where the newest Turtles have their early predecessors beat. Donatello has a ball-and-socket articulation to his head, and is fully poseable at the arms, elbows (including a swivel), wrists, legs (including a swivel), and knees (including a swivel). There's no torso or waist articulation, and no ankle articulation, but I think that would be virtually impossible given the figure's appearance.
This makes Donatello as well articulated as the last group of Turtles, the ones from the CGI movie, although their articulation was sorted out somewhat differently.
Now, you can't really be a ninja without proper weaponry, and certainly Donatello comes well-armed. Most distinctly, he has his naginata, the bo staff with the blades at the tips. Beyond that, he comes with this little plastic "tree" (and when's the last time we saw one of those!?) that includes a couple of small, saw-bladed wheels, very ornate, and a little too big for me to call them "throwing stars" just offhand, as well as what looks like some sort of nunchuks.
The character description on the back of the package lists Donatello as the "Inventor and Weaponeer" for the Turtles, so apparently he's maintained a lot of his technological expertise from previous incarnations, but is more inclined to apply it to weaponry than before.
The bio card on the package goes on to describe Donatello thusly: "Inventive and detail-oriented, Donatello may be the only mutant Turtle that doesn't mine a little time indoors. After all, where would the Ninja teens be without all his incredible battle creations? From the ShellRaiser to the robot Metalhead, Donatello's mind is just as sharp as the blade on his naginata bo staff!"
So, what's my final word? I'm impressed. I'm pleased to see the Turtles return, and I hope their new series and new action figures fare well. Playmates has done an excellent job with Donatello. The detail and design are excellent, the paintwork is very well done, and I certainly can't argue with the articulation. More fully detailed eyes would have been nice, but I'm not going to quibble that point.
Can the Turtles make a comeback? I certainly hope so. And if you're any sort of fan of them, then you'll definitely want to look for their new action figure line, and bring them in, certainly including Donatello!
The new TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES figure of DONATELLO definitely has my highest recommendation! Cowabunga, dudes!