Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the most recent television iteration of the world’s favourite terrapin heroes, generated a lot of buzz, from its initial announcement all the way through its two seasons on Nickelodeon. While the show did receive an arguably satisfying conclusion in 2020, it was later announced that an original Netflix film would continue where the series left off, bringing with it some shakeups in the Turtles’ team dynamic and the proper introduction of several franchise mainstays into the Rise universe. With the film set for release on Netflix August 5, i09 sat down with co-executive producers Ant Ward and Andy Suriano, who steered the ships for both the TV show and film, for their thoughts.
It was deep into the production of Rise season two that the duo was asked by a Nickelodeon executive to come up with a storyline for a feature-length Rise film. They received the phone call on a Saturday morning, batted around story ideas via text over the weekend, and pitched their favourites that Monday. The story that got the green light involved a mysterious stranger arriving from the future, warning the turtles that a nefarious alien species known as the Krang were set to invade the planet. Leonardo, having been given the mantle of leader from his brother Raphael, must guide the team against this intergalactic threat.
Interestingly, giving Leonardo his traditional role as leader of the team is something Suriano and Ward had planned from the show’s inception. “Leo and his journey is very much front and centre,” said Ward. “He’s on quite the arc, as it were.”
“The movie definitely was our opportunity to do that storyline justice,” added Suriano. “It bleeds into everyone else’s role. Raph was the leader for the series. Raph was the oldest. When that shifts to the younger brother suddenly in charge, that shifts everybody’s relationship.”
The shift is sure to be an interesting one. Longtime Turtles fans know that a franchise staple is Raph butting heads with Leo over the latter’s leadership style, something that Ward assured will be a plot point in the film: “We’re gonna see them butting heads in their own unique way that only Rise can bring.”
“We exploited the powder keg that was always there,” said Suriano with a laugh.
The film also gives Suriano, Ward, and crew the opportunity to introduce iconic characters that had yet to be seen in Rise — again, allowing them to build the universe as they’d always intended to do. This includes Casey Jones, the turtles’ longtime ally (and sports equipment enthusiast), who arrives from the future to warn them of the coming Krang menace. This will actually be the second Casey featured in Rise continuity, the first being the intensely energetic Foot Clan recruit-turned-ally Cassandra “Casey” Jones.
“Cassandra was always in the show and was always meant to be ‘Casey’,” said Ward. “We had to ramp that reveal up from where it was originally going to be, so as we were doing that, we were also doing this new Casey. We love Casey in the movie. Haley Joel Osment absolutely crushes it. I think there’s a sense of responsibility that might not be front and centre in previous iterations. There’s definitely a bit of ‘Goongala!’ in there. He’s not to be trifled with.”
The other iconic characters making their full Rise debut are the Krang, the pink, squidlike aliens who have seen vastly different portrayals from one Turtle iteration to the next. This time around, Suriano and Ward are pulling out all the stops with these classic villains — no silly gurgling noises, no comedian voice actors, and no need for human exosuits to put up a decent fight. These Krang are out for blood.
“Our intent was to create formidable adversaries to the turtles,” said Suriano, “something that would be terrifying. That meant adjusting their proportions and designs slightly so that they could go toe to toe with the turtles without any aid from their mechs. There’s nothing funny about them. Up until this point, the Shredder was their biggest obstacle. There are the people that created the Shredder.”
“We went so big in the season [two] finale,” added Ward, “that we really had to make sure the Krang here were such a formidable threat that there was no question that the turtles were in for the fight of their lives.”
Going bigger than ever really is the name of the game for this film, taking advantage of the medium to push animation and storytelling to levels unachievable in TV series format.
“Everything is a little extra,” said Suriano. “The colours, the shading, even just being able to move the characters in ways perhaps we were [previously] budgetarily limited. Some of the plotlines and character beats that we had set up in the series, we got a chance to pay off, some of the stuff we didn’t quite get a chance to do in the series.”
“When we went in to do the show, we were focusing on an 11-minute format,” said Ward. “I think with the very nature of an episodic schedule, you definitely have to make some creative concessions. Because of the kinetic nature of that kind of storytelling, it was very nice with the movie to let the characters breathe a little bit, let these epic events kind of unfold in more of a traditional runtime.”
At its core, beneath the epic fight scenes and wacky humour, lies the heart of what makes the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles special: the theme of family bonds. Suriano and Ward aim to portray this more fully with the Rise movie. “As long as we do that, with any story, with any franchise, with any characters, I think it will resonate with viewers,” said Suriano. “It’s not just a good Turtles movie. I think it’s a great family movie.”
It’s no surprise that the theme of familial bonds resonates so strongly in the Rise film. Virtually the entire movie was made during the pandemic, a Krang-like obstacle that the show’s staff had to bond together to overcome. As Ward said, “The crew really rose to the occasion.”
“I think I’m most proud of the family that we built,” Ward continued. “We pretty much had oil and water as far as a crew, and by the end of it, we were such a tight knit family that there was explicit trust at every level of the show, from coordinators through to supervising directors through to storyboard revisionists through to writers, really putting people outside of their comfort zone, but in an encouraging way of just trying to push the medium and push themselves as artists.”
“Everybody was empowered,” added Suriano. “Ant and I are big proponents to promote and empower every single person on our production crew. Like the series itself, and the characters within, it’s all about creating family, and that’s what Ant and I did with our team.”
It’s been almost two years — and a global pandemic — since Rise aired its final episode. One might suspect that interest in the series has waned during that timeframe, but interestingly, it seems that the opposite is true, especially with the show recently becoming available on Netflix. “It is nice, a few years later, to see that engagement, to watch the engagement build with Rise,” said Ward. “The audience seems to be growing. More people are trying it out and having a good time with it.”
“Everyone has their favourite version of the turtles,” said Suriano, “and a lot of people are opposed to change. They had something preconceived in their head of maybe what it was and why it wouldn’t appeal to them. I’ve seen a lot of people reach out saying ‘I didn’t give it a chance, but then I watched it.’ A lot of the themes in there, I think, resonated with audiences.”
With a growing Netflix audience and hype for the movie intensifying, now might be the perfect time to jump on board the turtle train, whatever your relationship with the franchise.
“This is going to be such a great jumping on point for any Turtles fan,” said Suriano. “For existing Rise fans, it will be a very satisfying payoff to a lot of the threads that we put into the series. Then, it’s just going to be a fun movie. I think it’s great for people who have never even seen any Turtles media. It’s going to be kinetic, action-packed, but also really funny, [with] a whole lot of heart. It’s a great journey. It was a journey making it, and it’s going to be a spectacle to watch. I hope people give it a look.”
And if the film does well enough, Suriano and Ward would love an opportunity to continue building the Rise world with one of their other film ideas. Word has it they might have some ideas for the Rat King…
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie premieres August 5 on Netflix.