When Viacom acquired the Ninja Turtles franchise back in 2009, it may have underestimated the strength of the Turtles fanbase. Certainly, the last few years has seen a renaissance for the terrapin heroes, managing to appeal to both the older generation who grew up with the Turtles as well as nouveau viewers who are being introduced to the TMNT franchise for the first time.
For executive producer Ciro Nieli, an unabashed TMNT fan in his own right as he is quick to tell anyone, this current season is somewhat bittersweet since it will officially end this animated iteration. From the beginning, Nieli has said he always envisioned the show lasting at least 5 seasons, and has known for more than year that this would be the final season. Rather than leave angry, the significance of working on the TMNT is not lost on him and is determined to leave gracefully and end on a high note. Voice actor Rob Paulsen (who played Raphael in the original 1987 TMNT cartoon and voices Donatello in the Nickelodeon series) never imagined taking a second tour of duty with the Turtles and called it a “humbling experience.” Paulsen also attested to Nieli’s deep love of the Turtles lore and described how rare it is to work on a franchise that is not only financially successful but is deeply satisfying to the fans. Nieli compared his time as the “keeper of the Turtles” to managing the Beatles. Both Paulsen and Nieli jokingly agreed that Donatello is probably the “George Harrison” of the TMNT.
This final season dubbed “Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” takes its name from the titular Mirage Studios anthology companion comic series and seeks to mirror those Mirage comics by bringing in different creators and guest stars. One such guest star is Miyamoto Usagi, everyone’s favorite samurai rabbit from legendary creator Stan Sakai, who has actually appeared in various media with the Turtles in the past. Usagi was a character Nieli had wanted to use when he first came on board, and so started the discussions very early. Unfortunately, Nieli wasn’t able to get all the characters on his wishlist such as, perhaps most surprising to hear, Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot. “Nobody wants to see a guy with a carrot for a head,” Nieli said he was told by Nickelodeon. “But a handsome samurai rabbit is a much easier sell.” What sets this version of Usagi apart from previous animated versions is that it has the honor of having Stan Saki more directly involved, with Sakai writing an actual TMNT episode featuring his creation.
The Turtles will find themselves transported to Usagi’s world in order to aid him in protecting a chosen pug child and encountering some classic Usagi Yojimbo characters. Fittingly, this year marks the 30th Anniversary of the very first TMNT/Usagi Yojimbo crossover in comics and to celebrate a new TMNT/Miyamoto Usagi crossover one-shot was released this week.
Usagi is voiced by Japanese actor Yuki Matsuzaki. Despite being his first voice-over role, Matasuzaki was already deeply familiar with the character having read the original Usagi Yojimbo comics when he was learning English in America, mistaking them at first for translated Japanese manga. Matsuzaki admitted he had anxiety to portray a character that meant so much to him and others but was incredibly gratified to hear Sakai tell him his performance was “perfect and nailed it.” Despite not recording together, after hearing Matsuzaki, veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen “predicts great things for him.”
Looking ahead, Nieli teased what to expect as we get closer to the finale of this TMNT incarnation. Just in time for Halloween, the Turtles will meet some classic monsters such as the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and Dracula. As for the FINAL episode, Nieli revealed that it takes place 50 years in the future in order to ensure nobody else could go in and change the timeline of what he and everyone else involved in the show had built.
Whatever the future holds for the TMNT, it’s obvious the green machine won’t be disappearing anytime soon.