The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series ended in 1996, and my copy of Microsoft Word still doesn’t recognize cowabunga as a real word. Personally, I blame Michael Bay for this. The series, which defined my childhood is no stranger to modern audiences, who have seen the mutant turtles adapted into various live-action, animated, video game, and comic book forms. Fun fact: the heroes in a half shell started as a really dark and inappropriate-for-kids comic book. Given all of the turtles’ incarnations, this 80s animated series will always hold a special place in my heart. It still makes me laugh, and the theme song gives me nostalgic goose bumps.
I was worried that I had spoiled the nostalgia of the series as I dove into this new Cowabunga Classics DVD, featuring 10 fan-favorite episodes. The first episode is called “Planet of the Turtleoids,” in which the mutant turtles are kidnapped by a turtle-shaped alien, who takes them back to his planet so he can help him and his people defeat a two-headed monster that threatens to wipe out civilization. Unfortunately, the episode has a lot more going on, with Shredder kidnapping April O’Neil, building an artificially intelligent robot warrior, and creating two new mutant enemies out of a bull and a mole. There’s also a weird scene in which the turtles fight a sumo wrestler in a pet store, and he turns into a rodent after receiving an electric shock. No idea what that was about. The episode was a special hour long one and it felt like the writers had a hard time structuring for the extended format, so they filled time with whatever half-developed ideas they had pinned to a wall over the previous seasons.
Thankfully, the series picks up quickly with “Night of the Rogues” seeing the turtles facing 8 of their most fearsome foes at the same time. Then comes “Cowabunga Shredhead,” which is about Shredder getting endowed with Michelangelo’s personality, and fighting crime alongside his archenemies. The episodes are funny, action packed, and downright excellent. Although, I was disappointed that my personal favorite episode isn’t on the set: the one where shredder shrinks the turtles down to a harmless size. I don’t know why that one has survived in my memory all these years.
Watching these episodes as an adult has been an interesting experience. First of all, Shredder mentions that his super robot Chromedome is made out of adamantium, suggesting the turtles live in the Marvel Universe, and make me desperate for a TMNT/Avengers cross-over. I also didn’t remember how many times the characters in the series reference the fact that they’re in a cartoon. Every episode has at least a few jokes about how the turtles will have to chase after the wild animal because otherwise it will be a short episode, or ask the camera what they expect from a cartoon when the turtles are easily saved by simply unplugging the generator they’re strapped to. As an adult, I hate meta-based elements in pretty much anything. I can forgive it in something like Family Guy, which is constantly making a comment on popular culture, and so it makes sense to also comment on its own existence, but with TMNT, there’s a distinct action/adventure element that doesn’t lend itself to meta humor. The problem is that when one of the turtles is easily rescued and makes a comment about how inevitable that was because they’re in a TV show, it lowers the stakes of any conflict in the episode. Despite that one big criticism, I really enjoyed revisiting the series with this collection. It’s amazing to me how ingrained the series is in me; the voices of the turtles sounded so familiar to me, and I was certain that I knew the voices from something more modern, but as I checked out the voice actors’ IMDB pages I realized that the reason their voices sound so familiar is because of this show, which I probably haven’t seen an episode of in 20 years. I highly recommend this new release for any fans of the turtles of any age.
Special features include an interview with the original cast, an artist interview, a featurette focused on the TMNT fandom of the past 30 years. Available now on DVD from Lionsgate.