Cowabunga! Looking back at TMNT 2003, 20 years later

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of the biggest names in pop culture history. Over the years, they’ve received many adaptations ranging from comic books, video games, movies and television shows.

One of their most talked about adaptations is the 2003 TMNT series, which aired until 2009 on 4Kids Entertainment and lasted seven seasons.

With the series turning 20 years old next month, now would be the perfect time to look back on the show’s plot, characters and the impact it had on the TMNT franchise.

Like most adaptations of the “heroes in a half-shell,” the plot of this show is simple. The Turtles and their rat father, Master Splinter, live in the sewers of New York City.

Along their journey, they meet allies like April O’Neal and Casey Jones and eventually face off against their mortal and most iconic enemy, The Shredder.

Shredder isn’t the only antagonist the show has to offer. The Turtles also square off against the Purple Dragon gang, the Mystic Ninjas, Baxter Stockman, and Agent Bishop.

No TMNT show is complete without the Turtles relocating or traveling to exotic areas. Despite mostly taking place in NYC, the Turtles travel to New England, Japan and even the futuristic year 2105.

The series would end with two massive events, the marriage of Casey and April and Turtles Forever – a crossover movie between the 1987 and 2003 Turtles teaming up to defeat 2003 Shredder.

While the 1987 TMNT was more light-hearted and kid-friendly, the 2003 series took inspiration from the darker elements of the Mirage Studios TMNT comics. Because of this, the Turtles get great characterization.

Leonardo is the leader of the group and the eldest son. Leo is the most responsible and honourable turtle; his honour sometimes gets him into trouble as he tries to see the good in his enemies.

Leo’s character turns dark in the fourth season’s first half. In the season three finale, the Turtles and Splinter battle The Shredder and are almost killed by him. They defeat Shredder with help from members of the Utrom alien race.

This battle causes Leo to suffer from PTSD and act colder toward his family. This eventually leads to him injuring Splinter out of rage during training. After this, Leo is sent to Japan to train under The Ancient One.

Raphael is the muscle and hot-tempered one of the group. He doesn’t go through a character arc throughout the show.

Donatello is the brains and tech guru of the group. He’s the most peaceful turtle and doesn’t get into many disputes with his brothers. While his character doesn’t change, he gets a few episodes centred around him.

Finally, we have Michelangelo, the immature younger brother and comic relief character. In this show, Mikey is a fan of comic books and superheroes. He would develop his own superhero persona known as Turtle Titan.

Talking about every major character in the show would take forever, but there’s one last character I’d like to discuss: Shredder.

2003 Shredder might be the most interesting version of this character. During his first battle with the Turtles, Leo beheads Shredder. However, that doesn’t kill him as he rises, picks up his severed head and walks away.

He didn’t die because this Shredder isn’t human. The Shredder/Oroku Saki may appear human but is secretly an exoskeleton and underneath controlling it is the Utrom war criminal Ch’rell.

Ch’rell is the type of villain you’d expect from a Saturday morning cartoon. He doesn’t have a tragic backstory, he’s just a psychopath who lacks empathy, wants to conquer worlds and is willing to destroy anyone who gets in his way.

Overall, I think the 2003 TMNT series did a fantastic job of balancing the dark nature of the Mirage comics and the comedic tone of the 1987 show. Outside of the classic 1987 TMNT theme song, the 2003 series easily has the second-best TMNT theme of all time.

I’m glad this show was my introduction to this iconic franchise.