As modern mythologies go, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) are relatively young but boy have they been busy, with four animated shows since 1987, seven theatrical films from 1990, along with dozens of toys, comic books and video games since the original comics was released in 1984. Fast forward to 2023, and there are many avenues to appreciate TMNT, from the most recent Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Nickelodeon animated series, to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the latest theatrical feature for the sewer-living, rat-guided quartet named after Renaissance artists.
By all accounts, this makes the latest film to be one of the most accessible of the franchise, as Mutant Mayhem makes great efforts to offer generations of fans a simple entry point, covering 80s pop culture references to contemporary takes, and works hard to fit all the elements into one cohesive package, though it does falter in defining what type of movie it wants to be.
Directed by Jeff Rowe (co-director of The Mitchells vs. the Machines), and co-written and produced by Seth Rogen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem taps on the familiar animation aesthetic established by 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with an explosion of colors and unique blend of 2D and 3D animation. It’s also an art style that can be described as somewhat lazy and messy, lacking the spit polish of Pixar, but given that 2007’s TMNT covered that to little success, you can’t blame the franchise for moving with the times.
The backgrounds are often cluttered and chaotic, with plenty of detail and movement, marking an overall effect that is visually stimulating and energetic, which perfectly captures the teenage energy of the Turtles. The animation also looks like it could have been born out of a teenager’s sketchbook filled with doodles and sketches. Armed with plenty of grunge and grit, the approach to have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem lean on animation as the medium of choice does so much better compared to the live-action iterations of the past, as it’s now able to shed its serious approach and lean into what makes TMNT appealing in the first place – inanity and sincerity.
Better yet, the art style can be best described as imperfect with artistic scribbles, which is also a clear homage to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. If you enjoyed the clean aesthetic found in Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume, Mutant Mayhem will find itself at the far end of the opposite spectrum as the movie is chaos right from the get-go.
Thankfully, there’s no need to get caught up with any source material prior this as Mutant Mayhem lays it all out for the audiences once again, with brothers Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Raphael (Brady Noon) rescued from the sewers of New York by the fatherly rat, Splinter (Jackie Chan), as the five are mutated after coming into contact with the Ooze, a substance created by scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito). If you’re familiar with all these characters, brace yourself as even more names are about to be thrown at you with plenty of exposition, even as this film retools one of the most unique origin stories in comic books.
On top of aspiring high school journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), we have Superfly (Ice Cube) who serves as the main antagonist in the movie. Together with his crew consisting of Bepop (Rogen), Rocksteady (John Cena), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), and Ray Fillet (Post Malone), the only one to be renamed from the original Man Ray, the entire gang’s and movie’s motivation can be best described as attaining acceptance by society.
This plot point is the weakest aspect of the movie and is threaded together with poor motivation from Superfly’s end. Lacking true agency, his goal is to create a world populated by Mutants in order for him and the Turtles to avoid being ostracised by humans, which is basically to do the one thing to others that he fears the others will do to him. This comes off as rather lame, because instead of gaining world dominance or establishing ninja clan rivalry, Mutant Mayhem decides that finding one’s place in the world is a priority. While it could have worked in other movies, TMNT doesn’t feel like the right place to explore such themes. If anything, what the movie truly misses out on, is how each of the characters are caricature of their former iterations. While the brothers are still distinguished by their coloured eye mask bandanas, each turtle is now told how they should act, as opposed to letting their personalities shine through. Oh, the film also changes how the quartet become skilled warriors and it’s mildly infuriating because, yes, it does happen in today’s context to a certain degree but mastery is another level altogether.
We’re missing what makes Leonardo great as a leader, Donatello with his inventiveness, Raphael with his raw unbridled rage, and Michelangelo with his quirkiness. The movie does push into such traits at times but also pulls back almost immediately as though giving each turtle a defining personality is a bane. Overall, the main reason why the turtles, April O’Neil, Superfly and gang, and even Splinter’s goals to feel welcomed by the world, feel weak because the film does little to cheer their unique standing as characters who should be celebrated. Why not be accepted for who you are?
As the movie culminates into a final epic battle, the loose nature of the movie and its development comes to a head. While visually stunning, the lack of relatability to the characters up to this point makes for a less impactful end. It seems as though the writers of the movie have a very superficial understanding of the material that they were referencing in the first place for the final scene, and made the battle as vanilla as possible. The lack of tension and the trials the turtles had to go through all the way to the end make it feel like their journey to achieve their goals was too linear and simple. At no point in the movie did the crew find themselves in dire straits or required character growth to overcome obstacles presented, all the issues resolved themselves easily and a bit too neatly.
Wrapping up in a pacy 99 minutes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem progresses along at an ideal stride. While some of that time could have been better used to work on endearing ourselves to the characters we’ve come to love over the years, most of the scenes transport audiences from fight scene to fight scene, which while are all brilliantly and beautifully animated in their own way, isn’t the reason why the franchise has been so well loved.
Ultimately, the movie is unable to ninjitsu itself out of its own bad narrative decisions.
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