Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation

4 out of 5

Developed by: Dan Clark

Yes, you have to know what you’re in for, but that rating ain’t a “so bad it’s good” wink: The Next Mutation is legitimately a lot of fun, especially once it fully settles in to its own kookiness.

Timing was the main issue here, at least in my mind. A lot of us fell in love with the bubbly stupidity of the Fred Wolf animated series, and then had gleaned onto awareness of the “serious” Turtles – i.e. the original comics – with the first movie, though the more kid-geared iterations would certainly hold their luster at least up through the second film. And then: Power Rangers. Something about the market being awash with TMNT-ish cartoons, leading in to the live action – which should be cooler! – goofiness of Power Rangers becoming the next big obsession seemed to signal it was time to either dig in on one’s Turtle love, or move on. I definitely did the former, but that meant continuing down the path of discovering the originals, and being disappointed with the way the cartoon trudged on (despite some attempted changes during later seasons to go darker) and the third movie – while not horrible – ultimately fell flat.

And I would hate the Power Rangers for signaling this end of an era. So a live action Turtles that claimed to be more in line with the movies but was a whole lot closer to the Power Rangers and Fred Wolf in spirit and tone – it was produced by Saban, after all – just rubbed me the wrong way, and I would hang on to that bias for years.

Returning to it now, though, with my Turtle fandom still intact but in a much more “what will be will be” zone of comfort, that Power Rangers / Fred Wolf mash-up is often pretty delightful. I’ve certainly become more appreciative of the tokusatsu format of Rangers (while maybe never warming to the show itself), and that it was married to this bizarre blend of American 90s Cool, Bro tone and Benny Hill slapstick results in a frequently jaw-dropping attack of kooky ‘tude and some pretty good gags!

The budget is, of course, questionable at points, with eyeholes and seams on the costumes poking through, but once the team figured out the best way to shoot things and work around the limited fighting choreography they could do, I sincerely can sink in to the show, and “see” them as Turtles and not dudes in costumes. This is also where the complete lack of human characters (i.e April, Casey) ends up working in the show’s benefit – with everyone in Halloween-store dress-up, there’s no drastic comparison to set it against, and when there is, those characters are often slathered in so much makeup or slapstick that it all becomes a live action cartoon anyway.

And that’s the key: the hilariously over-dubbed sound effects on everything and the way the Turtles love to peel out in their jeep and motorcycle at the drop of a hat and can walk around town pretty care free – there was never any attempt at being anything other than ridiculous, and once the roster of villains has been built up, you could even argue that Next Mutation is the only iteration, comics or cartoons, to have successfully moved past Shredder.

Yes, there are some episodes that overdo all of the already overdone elements – these often feature creature hunter Simon BoneSteel (Scott McNeil), who is the most “human” and thus perhaps the most obnoxious when he has to act down to the same illogical dumb levels of the other baddies – but then you get some surprisingly brilliant episodes (y’know, relatively), like when Mikey starts up a radio station, or when new team addition Venus discovers a “good” dragon amongst the evil Rank dragon soldiers who are the main baddie’s posse. And her “turtle with breasts and a ponytail” design aside, the general Turtle and set design is inspired, as-is the smart use of NY-scene setting shots stitched in to the non-NY sewer and lab sets and whatnot.

Revisiting the old cartoon takes some patience, and often – first season aside, perhaps – pretty thick nostalgia glasses. Even accepting it on its own terms means taking it in small doses. Next Mutation, while having that “know what you’re in for” caveat, doesn’t need all those same exceptions – it’s a totally valid, entertaining variation on the Turtles, wholeheartedly celebrating its own ridiculousness.