Nickelodeon’s cinematic sequel The Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has arrived on Netflix, and critics are hailing the feature as a surprising showcase of high-octane animated fun. With crisp, imaginative visuals and hyperkinetic action sequences, The Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie continues the legacy of the short-lived children’s series while illuminating exciting possibilities for the future. One aspect that didn’t sit well with fans, however, was a shocking character change for Leonardo. Although Raphael, Casey Jones, and April have all been reimagined for this new adaptation, Leo seems to be the most unrecognizable to fans. But while it may have ruffled a few feathers, the change isn’t as bad as some make it out to be.
In the aftermath of the original series finale, the Turtles defeated Shredder once and for all and Leonardo was made leader by Master Splinter. Decades later, Leo is the greatest hero of an apocalyptic world overrun by the alien race, the Krang. With no other option, Leo sacrifices himself to send his student, Casey Jones, back in time to stop the Krangs from taking over. Casey finds working with a young team of turtles much harder than expected, with Leo being far from a master ninja. However, Leo learns to rise to the occasion, working with his brothers to defeat the Krang and save the future.
While reactions to the film were far from unanimously negative, a common gripe was Leo’s reinvention as a less than perfect leader. Fans of the series have got used to it, but the new film has attracted newcomers. And to these new fans, Leo had generally been presented as a rational, unwavering leader who made tough calls and commanded respect. In To go up, Leo is a failure – a young slacker who thinks being the leader is all about kicking ass and taking names. While it’s definitely a different direction for the Blue Turtle, this change puts Leo in a much more interesting place.
The point of most stories is to present a journey, to show a character’s struggle to move from one emotional point to another. But as a stoic, near-perfect leader, the Leo often doesn’t have much room to settle. TMNT exits. In fact, it’s often Raph or Mikey who get interesting character arcs because they both have the clearest character flaws to overcome. Raph – usually described as hot-headed and prone to violence – needs to learn restraint, while Mikey – often prone to unserious and chaotic behavior – needs to work better with his team. But by giving Leo a flaw to overcome, he has a rare chance to grow into a meaningful ability throughout the story.
This character change also allowed for an interesting reimagining of Raph. In some stories, tension builds between Raph and Leo by making their relationship a competition for Turtle leadership. But to give Leo an antagonist in Raph — a character to force change — the creators of To go up took that brashness and gave it more texture and purpose. Raph isn’t just intense to be intense — he’s desperately afraid his family will be taken from him, and his intensity comes from being responsible for their safety. Raph doesn’t need Leo to step in because he thinks he himself would be a better leader – he needs not be. He needs someone to share and possibly take on that burden, and Leo’s reluctance to do so is what drives Raph’s rage.
A good character changes, but a great character inspires change in those around him. By removing Leo from the pedestal he usually finds himself on, To go up features a new reimagining of a well-known character that enriches his relationship and grounds his motivations. While some fans may be upset that he’s not the recognizable leader they’ve come to know, it’s admirable that this movie tried to take him in new directions.
To see Leonardo’s change, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie is now streaming on Netflix.