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REVIEW: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES LEONARDO
By Thomas Wheeler

Sometimes, I find myself wondering why certain concepts become as popular as they do. And while I certainly have no objection to them, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of them. And there's certainly no denying their popularity.

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. Mutant 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 fortunes of the Turtles have risen and fallen over the years, it looks as though 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. And if there's any indication that there's still popularity in the Turtles, consider the fact that when I first discovered this newest incarnation, there was all of ONE character left hanging in an otherwise decidedly depleted display.

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 Leonardo.

Leonardo (or Leo) is distinguishable from the other Turtles by his color-coded bandana, which is blue. His signature weapons are two ninjaken (literally "ninja sword"), which are universally referred to as katana. Throughout the various media he is depicted as the leader of the four turtles and the most disciplined. He is named after Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo is depicted as the eldest brother and the calmest of the four. He never explicitly referred to himself as leader in the early stories, except issue #42 ("The Violent Underground"). He is the one to usually take charge of the turtles when Master Splinter is not present. He is often at odds with his more hot-headed brother, Raphael.

In Leonardo #1, Leonardo goes out for a run on the rooftops of New York City and is ambushed by the Foot Clan. He puts up an admirable fight against an army of Foot Ninja, but is eventually overwhelmed by them. Beaten to near unconsciousness, he is thrown through April O'Neil's apartment window. The remaining Turtles and Splinter are forced to continue the fight, but even with the aid of Casey Jones, the odds are against them. In the end, Shredder presumes them all dead, but they secretly escape to Northampton. During this time, Leonardo recovers from his physical wounds.

Interestingly, this was played out to some degree in one of the live-action movies, but with Raphael instead of Leonardo.

In the 1987 TV series', Leonardo is said outright to be the leader of the TMNT, and there is little disputing this; his orders are usually followed, and he is a very serious hero who hardly ever makes wise cracks. In one episode, he suffered a crisis of confidence and left the group to do some soul searching; his brothers all tried their hands at being the leader in his stead, only to find that none of them could match his leadership skills, and he came back to them.

Although the new IDW comic series is a complete comic reimagination of the franchise, Leonardo is initially portrayed as similar to his Mirage counterpart. Leonardo is once again depicted as the eldest brother and the calmest of the four.

Leonardo seems to have the most character development in the 2003 animated series. Leonardo is the de facto leader of the group and the most "spiritual" of the four. He has a very close bond with Splinter, and has a strong sense of honor, ethics, and Bushido. Leonardo is a more sensitive, self-doubting character than in previous incarnations. Raphael often quarrels with him and resents his leadership, sarcastically calling Leonardo "Fearless Leader", although the two are shown to be very close at times. Though Leonardo's relationships with his other brothers Michelangelo and Donatello are not as volatile, both have made comments alluding to the high standards the former has set, and his tendency to make them look bad. Despite this, his brothers view him as a pillar of strength and are at a loss when he is injured or absent.

At times, Leonardo is shown to be very hard on himself, as he feels that a lot is expected of him. As in the Mirage comics, Leonardo is ambushed and seriously injured by the Foot Clan and he feels he let his family and himself down. Nevertheless, he is arguably the most skilled of the Turtles, being the only one trained by two senseis and is capable of facing and defeating Karai, the new Shredder, in a one-on-one fight.

Through much of the fourth season, Leonardo becomes increasingly stern. His brothers worry about him and Splinter feels he must move on. It comes to a head when Leonardo loses his temper and nearly causes Splinter serious injury during a training session. Splinter sends Leonardo to find Master Yoshi's own sensei, The Ancient One.

In the live-action movies, Leonardo was fairly modest and sensitive, rarely issuing direct commands and seemingly much more relaxed around his brothers thinking of himself as more of an equal than a leader. It was he who first communicated telepathically with a kidnapped Splinter and seems the most anxious about Raphael's health after his ambush by the Foot Clan. In the sequel, Leonardo was much more prominent and his leader position was brought to focus. He is seen on many occasions bickering with Raphael as their sibling rivalry begins to become much more serious. Leonardo is once again sensitive, caring, and humorous in this adaption but he now appears more bossy and controlling.

He is once again the team leader in the new animated series upon which these figures are based.

So, how's the figure? Really very impressive -- which I'll admit may be an unusual thing to say about a turtle.

Now, granted, there's been no shortage of Leonardo figures over the years, just as there have been of all the Turtles. Playmates Toys built themselves into a significant player in the toy world on the backs of the Turtles. Thank goodness for sturdy shells. Admittedly, Playmates Star Trek line didn't hurt their business, either, but it was really the Turtles that made it for them.

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 (dare I say "mutated"?) as their various media incarnations did the same. The Turtles based on the live-action movie 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 the movie.

So now, we have the 2012 Turtles, including Leonardo. 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.

Leonardo stands about 4-5/8" in height. 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 Leonardo 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 blue-colored mask/bandana is in place, with Leonardo's eyes appearing blank white through the mask.

Leonardo's mouth is open, revealing two rows of teeth, and is slightly more open on the left side than on the right. This was one method that Playmates has always used to differentiate one Turtle from another -- facial expression.

Another method 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. Leonardo is a light olive green. The shell on his back is a slightly darker and more olive green, and his torso is yellow-orange.

Along with the blue mask, Leonardo 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. He also has a brown belt, and a strap that is attached to the belt and goes over his right shoulder.

Distinctly missing on Leonardo, 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 Leo is extremely 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, and Leonardo is no exception. His 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 Leonardo 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. Leonardo 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 Leonardo as well articulated as the last group of Turtles, although their articulation was sorted out somewhat differently.

Now, you can't really be a ninja without proper weaponry, and certainly Leo comes well-armed. Most distinctly, he has his katana swords, one slightly longer than the other, and both of which can fit into a double sheathe that attaches to his back. Beyond that, he comes with this little plastic "tree" (and when's the last time we saw one of those!?) that includes a third sword, a couple of throwing stars, and some other mean-looking bladed hardware.

The character description on the back of the package clearly lists Leonardo as the team leader, and described him as, "Hardworking, honorable, and respectful. Leonardo is the Turtles' fearless leader. Driven to be the perfect hero, Leo's inexperience and (often) rowdy brothers sometimes get in the way of his goal."

Interestingly, the illustration, presumably from the new series, gives Leonardo distinct irises and pupils in his eyes, something the figure lacks. Not sure as to the reasons there.

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 Leonardo. The detail and design are excellent, the paintwork is very well done (although could have been just a little neater around the mask), 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 sincerely 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 Leonardo!

The new TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES figure of LEONARDO definitely has my highest recommendation! (Anybody know if they still say "Cowabunga"...?)