If you were alive at any time between 1987 and now, chances are you've heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before that, the popular reptiles starred in their own comic created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, an oversized black-and-white funnybook that enjoyed its own enormous level of success. Essentially, TMNT was a true kitchen table project; two independent creators poking fun at a darkening industry from the sidelines, unaware that these creations would grow far beyond their wildest dreams. Spawning a near-endless supply of merchandise, a video game series and several feature films, Eastman and Laird's original characters mutated into one of the most lucrative franchises of their generation.
The most popular version of the Ninja Turtles' adventures came in the form of their first animated series. Premiering in December of 1987, it became one of the longest-running kids' shows in television history, clocking in at nearly 200 episodes over a span of ten seasons. Lionsgate's DVD release of the truncated first season was one of my earliest reviews for DVD Talk back in 2004; since then, I've covered more than half of the subsequent seasons in the eight years since. The tenth and final season finally saw the light of day just over two months ago...and though the series was a pale imitation of its former self by then, the fact that we finally got a complete set was reason enough to celebrate. Aimed squarely at those who only grabbed a few seasons over the years (or, of course, those who don't have any of 'em on DVD yet), Lionsgate has now compiled the complete original series in a fancy collector's
Don't get too exited, though. What's packed inside is pretty much the same stuff you'd get from the separate releases: no upgraded A/V presentation, no bonus disc, nothing. In the era of compact Blu-Ray releases and digital downloads, this type of release already feels a bit outdated. Yet our rabid devotion to 80s nostalgia persists...and any way you slice it, $100 isn't too bad for almost 200 episodes of green-tinted nostalgia inside a mini Turtle Van. Before we get to the technical portion of this review, let's take a quick journey back to all ten seasons and why you probably only remember about half of them.
Season One* (Disc 1) first aired in December 1987 during a one-week period; it's only five episodes in length but still a solid introduction to our main characters. Aside from the origin story of the Turtles and Master Splinter (which is different from the comics and, of course, the 1990 live action film), we're also introduced to April O'Neil, Shredder, Krang, Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman and more. Combining action, humor, mystery and colorful characters, this pilot season holds up pretty well 25 years later.
Season Two (Disc 2) didn't air until October of 1988 when the series really picked up in popularity; at just 13 episodes in length, this half-season stretches its legs a bit without straying too far from the feel of the previous year. Even so, there's an distinctly lighter tone and more dependence on comic relief that would continue during the next several years and, for the most part, eventually give TMNT more of a "monster-of-the-week" feel when our heroes weren't directly dealing with Shredder, Krang and company. Also during this season, minor characters like Irma, The Fly (Baxter Stockman's mutated form) and The Punk Frogs made their debuts, while those bratty Neutrinos also return from the first season.
Season Three (Discs 3-6) maintained the series' annual October-December lifespan but marked a major turning point in its level of exposure: new episodes were now broadcast daily instead of weekly, bringing this season's count up to a whopping 47. 1989 also saw the series approaching its first major height of popularity: a live-action film was right around the corner, merchandising was in full effect and more new characters were introduced to broaden the series' scope (and profitability). First appearances include The Rat King, Casey Jones, Metalhead, Usagi Yojimbo, Don Turtelli, Lotus, Leatherhead and more.
Season Four* (Discs 7-11) runs for 39 episodes and also marked the show's transition to CBS' Saturday Morning lineup in addition to weekday syndication. Familiar faces like Shredder and Krang are pushed further into the background---and for those hoping that change is good, you'll beg for their return once you're re-introduced to characters like Wilbur Weazell (evil toy mastermind) and Mona Lisa (a mutated female creature who pairs off with Raphael). As for Shredder and Krang, they've been re-banished to Dimension X---so along with Bebop and Rocksteady, we don't see them as often this time around.
Season Five* (Discs 12-14) scales back with 22 episodes that aired from September-December of 1991, when the series' impact had started to weaken. By now, TMNT leaned towards a younger demographic, as evidenced by a rotating cast of goofy, one-off villains and less focus on fighting. As with the previous DVD release, three episodes from this season ("Once Upon a Time Machine" and the two-part prime-time episode "Planet of the Turtleoids") appear on the Season 10 disc for unknown reasons. Deal with it?
Season Six (Discs 15-16) features just 16 episodes of comedy relief, slightly less action and plenty of fourth-wall breaking. Highlights include "Adventures in Turtle-Sitting" (in which a reverse-aging ray turns three of the four Turtles into tykes), "Krangenstein Lives" (the malfunctioning Krang's body goes on a rampage) and "Nightmare in the Lair" (Michaelangelo messes with Donatello's dream machine). A few clunkers don't work quite as well: "Too Hot to Handle", for example, revolves around a snot-nosed brat's science experiment gone awry. TMNT usually works best when kids watch it...instead of star in it.
Season Seven (Discs 17-20) sounds big on paper at 27 total episodes, but roughly half of them were taken from the "Vacation in Europe" side-season that originally aired on USA Network's Cartoon Express. This also marked the series' final year in its most recognizable form, as a relatively big shift in tone was just around the corner. The original DVD release for this season was equally frustrating, as it was split into four "slices" (named after our four heroes) with a collectible action figure packed in each one.
Seasons Eight, Nine & Ten (Discs 21-23) might as well be grouped together; not only are they known as the "black sheep" years, but each one contains only eight episodes. The series underwent a number of changes after most of the original fanbase graduated to darker comic pastures like Batman: The Animated Series and Gargoyles, which included a new theme song (complete with live action clips), a red sky and a more serious tone. Minor human characters like Casey Jones, The Rat King and the Channel 6 crew were abandoned, though April stuck around and got a new wardrobe. A teenager named Carter (who acquires a seemingly incurable mutant power and studies martial arts under Splinter's direction) also joined the team in Season Nine, while a major new villain arrives in the form of Lord Dregg. Overall, these are another step down from the repetitive years before them, but anyone who abandoned the show just before this point might enjoy seeing how things have changed. Proceed at your own risk, though.
Complete List of Episodes & Summaries by Season (via Wikipedia)
* For those chronologically confused about the original TMNT DVD releases (which were initially grouped into volumes and, eventually, proper seasons), this 23-disc collection is slightly better but not perfect. The disc art now clearly labels each one with its respective season number, but a pair of episodes from Seasons Four and Five are still presented one disc behind where they should be. Also, my head hurts.
NOTE: The content of these discs is exactly the same as previous DVD sets, from the A/V quality to the extras.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, these 193 episodes look passable with mild reservations. They have obviously been sourced from video masters like most shows from the era, which gives them an appearance not unlike vintage broadcast TV. Colors are faithful and black levels are usually solid, though heavy amounts of digital combing and compression artifacts can be seen on occasion. These problems are the most blatant during Season Two where, for some reason, all 13 episodes are still crammed on a single disc. It's a shame that problems like this weren't corrected this time around, but these are just recycled DVDs from the earlier sets with new art. Either way, the first couple seasons deserve better.
The audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, fares slightly better. Dialogue is crisp and doesn't fight for attention with the frequent music cues. Overall, it's about what you'd expect from a 1990s animated series: this isn't an overly dynamic audio experience, though any minor problems undoubtedly stem from the original source material. Each episode includes Closed Captioning support but no subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Menus are the same as before; smooth design, simple navigation, blah blah blah. This 23-disc set arrives in a Turtle Van case (seen below...and yes, it rolls), while the DVDs sit vertically on soft semicircle "lips", not foam holders. Though the discs might not stay in their holders quite as firmly as they should, this design seems to minimize---if not eliminate---the scratches usually associated with non-hubbed cases. The top half of the van just kind of sits in place and doesn't lock securely, but the discs probably aren't going anywhere unless you launch the van down your driveway. The fold-out insert booklet includes a complete episode list and disc contents, but it sits inside the outer box rather than the van itself.
As expected, everything from Seasons Four, Five, Seven and Ten is included with this collection.
Disc 11 leads off with a pair of Voice Actor Interviews featuring Pat Fraley (Krang & Slash) and James "Uncle Phil" Avery (Shredder); both men are casual and charismatic during these brief sessions, making sure to speak in character at least once. Also included is a worthless Pizza Recipe, reminding youngsters that ready-made pizza sauce and store bought crust should be good enough. Blasphemy, I say!
Disc 14 serves up "A Ninja-Tastic Look Back" featuring Turtle voice actors Rob Paulsen (Raphael), Cam Clarke (Leonardo), Barry Gordon (Donatello) and Townsend Coleman (Michaelangelo). These interview clips are loosely stitched together and not presented in a roundtable format, but there's a definite sense of continuity as each contributor shares their thoughts about the show and how it affected their career. It's probably the best extra included with this collection and fans will definitely want to give it a spin. Also tucked away here are two short Character Profiles for Usagi Yojimbo and Baxter Stockman, which include stats, origin details, highlight clips and very brief comments from each respective voice actor.
Discs 17-20 each include one quarter of the four-part "Shellabration" Featurette, which was frustrating enough the first time around and still is. Regardless, these four parts include a six-minute look at TMNT toys and other merchandise, a nice 11-minute chat with creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, more interviews with key crew members and a brief look at the cultural impact of the show over the years. Together, this is a terrific bonus feature...but getting each part on different discs was a terrible idea.
Disc 23 includes three Artist Interviews featuring Curt Walstead (storyboard artist from 1994-96), Paul Scarzo (storyboard conformist, 1991-96) and Scott Heming (storyboard conformist, 1991-96). These are relaxed but enjoyable chats, with each sharing a few details about their background, first impressions of the show and a few production experiences. All are presented in 480i or 480p without subtitles.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Classic Series Collection is a mixed bag. You're getting 23 discs and just under 200 vintage TMNT episodes (packed inside a Turtle Van!) for less than $100, but the uneven quality of the seasons and Lionsgate's habit of recycling old discs leaves a slight aftertaste. On the technical front, the shaky A/V presentation and lack of meaty bonus features also doesn't do this collection any favors...but pound-for-pound, it's still the easiest way to get the entire collection cheap. Unless you're willing to pick and choose your favorite volumes (or you've done so already and don't care about packaging), this 23-disc set still represents a decent value for the money. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey hailing from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.