By Karen Yossman
Nickelodeon's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" has proved that Turtle Power is alive and well despite a rocky re-boot for the franchise. Before the first episode of the new series had even aired, critics were vocal about the use of CGI over 2D animation and the jettisoning of Michelangelo's classic catchphrase "cowabunga" for Ali G's "booyakasha". And that's even leaving aside the PR headache of Michael Bay's big screen version, which was shut down in pre-production (although it's now back on track).
During San Diego Comic-Con, I sat down with the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" team (Sean Astin, Greg Cipes, Mae Whitman, Peter Hastings) to talk about fan reactions, season 2 and, of course, pizza.
The online criticism "TMNT" received before the first episode even aired would have sent even the most heroic turtle retreating back into its shell. How much fan feedback did the team take into consideration when they were making the show? “Probably the fanbase that we listened to the most was the fanbase of the crew and of the people really developing the show,” said Peter Hastings, one of the executive producers of the series. Sean Astin, who plays Raphael, agreed. “They [Nickelodeon] have had plenty of time to wait for true fans who are skilled in this discipline to be able to infuse the next generation so I just had an instinct that it was going to be great,” said Sean.
Given that Sean had also played Samwise in "Lord of the Rings," did he have any reservations about taking on another legacy franchise with such a vocal fanbase? “I had zero reservation taking the role but I had a lot of concern the fans wouldn't like it,” Sean admitted, “because of doing Samwise and being aware of the fact that loyal fans have a very critical eye towards something that meant something to them.” Since the show has debuted, however, the fan reaction has been “amazing”, said Greg Cipes, who voices Michelangelo. “Our show is rooted in the original comic book and the original series. It's just a personification of the roots of the show so 99% of people are just ecstatic and happy that the show is what it is and looks so cool and the writing is so fun and moving. People are into it.”
How much were the cast influenced by the original animated series? Sean hadn't seen it before he took on the role of Raphael. “The live action one was my first exposure to it [TMNT]” he explained. Both Greg and Mae Whitman (who plays April O'Neil) were heavily influenced by the original cartoon, however. “I grew up with the turtles, the '80s show made me who I am today in a major way,” said Greg. “I'm a walking Mikey.” Similarly for Mae, the original “was something I grew up with and I loved so much.” It also influenced her take on the character, “I drew from what I knew of April, who she was, who she turned out to be in the original series.”
One character from the original series who will be making an appearance is Casey Jones (voiced by Josh Peck, star of Nickelodeon's Drake and Josh). Like April, Casey will also be in high school and, according to Sean, will have a lot of interaction with Raphael. “It's a fun relationship to play, he's kind of a little brother in some senses and yet they're also competitive,” said Sean of the dynamic between Casey and Raphael. Sean also hinted at an upcoming Kraang invasion, revealing “I get to do Kraang speak” although he wouldn't give any further details. Meanwhile season 3 has just gone into production and, as Activision revealed during Comic-Con, a video game based on the series will be released in October for Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii and 3DS. And then, of course, there's the Michael Bay movie.
Sean said that they had met the team behind the movie at last year's Comic-Con. “They were really enthusiastic about what we were doing as a cartoon but my sense is that it's a very separate thing,” he explained. Peter Hastings also confirmed that Michael Bay had seen “some of our stuff and liked it, but they're in their own separate world.” While the big screen version may be beyond their remit, there is one spin-off Hastings hinted at. “We also have the 2D cartoon that's in the show, 'Space Heroes,' that the Turtles watch, which we have a blast animating. Everybody's like, I want to make that show as a full show!” Any chance audiences might see a "Space Heroes" stand-alone show soon? “We're a little too busy on the actual [TMNT] show at the moment,” said Hastings. But he agreed that a Space Heroes web-series “would be fun”. You heard it here first.
Finally, the million dollar Turtle question. What is their favorite pizza topping? “Pepperoni” for Sean. Pineapple and jalapeno for Mae, “because you get a little bit of that sweet, a little of that spicy.” As for Greg, the "walking Mikey" gave an answer worthy of the original ninja turtle: “I eat spirulina almost every day and that's basically what Mikey throws on his pizza, spirulina, algae.” And worms? “No worms though, I don't like worms.” Cowabunga, dude.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" season 2 will air on Nickelodeon later this year.