The Ninja Turtles are back

TURTLE POWER: The pizza-munching ninjas are back again
TURTLE POWER: The pizza-munching ninjas are back again

At the heart of the billion-dollar Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise sits a strange fusion of popular culture, art, literature and ancient history.

The four turtles - leader Leonardo, free-spirited Michelangelo, the team's thinker Donatello and combative Raphael - take their names from Italian Renaissance artists. And their sensei, Splinter, a mutant rat who taught them the way of the ninjutsu, gently evokes Japan's feudal era.

If Sir Laurence Olivier was playing a turtle, laughs actor Sean Astin, he would play Donatello. In the latest iteration, Astin plays the tougher, less-sophisticated Raphael. ''I really see Raphael as a noir detective, a gruff guy. Not in terms of his thinking, but on the street corner, trenchcoat, hat down and ready to rumble. He's a brawler. He's the guy with his sleeves rolled up coming out of the bar.''

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created as a comic book in 1984, intended to satirise popular comics of the day. It has been adapted into two animated series previously (1987-96 and 2003-09), a live-action series (1997-98), three live-action films (1990-93) and an animated film (2007).

The new animated adaptation has just launched and stars Jason Biggs as Leonardo, Rob Paulsen as Donatello, Astin as Raphael and Greg Cipes as Michelangelo. (Paulsen previously voiced Raphael in earlier versions of the cartoon.)

Working on an animated series, Astin says, is a combination of two things that, at first glance, seem contradictory. ''You don't have to put a lot of thought into this. I am 41, so I have 35 years of experience watching, enjoying, being annoyed by and rediscovering cartoons,'' he says.

''But then you approach your work with seriousness and it's weird because you're sort of doing both at the same time. There's a lightness to considering it, you don't need to dig deep, but at the same time at the moment you commit to a line, you put yourself in the mindset of that.''

The series presented Astin with an opportunity to open a dialogue with his own kids. He has previously worked in literacy awareness campaigns and is an advocate of parents reading to their children.

''Any time you can find something to bond with your kids about, it's like a gift from the heavens and TMNT has been a vehicle to bring parents together with their kids for 20 years,'' he says.

Astin, the son of Patty Duke and stepson of John Astin, both actors, also hosts a weekly internet radio show, Vox Populi, which focuses on politics. ''Everything starts with your parents and my parents are very politically active,'' he says. ''We're not trying to convince anyone, or get them to change their mind, it's just a place where people can express ... ideas.

''My parents were divorced early, I had older brothers who were much older than me, I just grew up with a proclivity for standing up and talking and trying to grab people's attention,'' Astin says.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Mondays, Nickelodeon, 4.30pm

-Sydney Morning Herald

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