New ‘Turtles’ Movie Feels Fresh but also Embraces What Fans Crave
Who would have thought that a franchise about anthropomorphic turtles, whose dad is an anthropomorphic rat, would have such a remarkable shelf-life? What started off as an underground comic book developed by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird meant to satirize the then-popular streak of Daredevil comics, subsequently blew up in popularity with the popular 1980s cartoon and corresponding toy line.
My personal favorite incarnation of the concept, the live-action film that came out in 1990, took what worked from the comic book and the cartoon to create a film that was accessible for audiences at the time, which helped to make it the most successful independent movie ever up to that point. It was a beloved staple in my house growing up, primarily because it remains to this day one of my mom’s all-time favorite movies.
More incarnations, including three additional cartoon series, all of which have their fans, have followed. The 1990 film was also followed by two sequels that couldn’t quite capture the magic of the original, opting for gimmicks like the turtles time-traveling to feudal Japan or a cameo by rapper Vanilla Ice at the peak of his popularity. A CGI-animated movie simply called TMNT came out in 2007 and was a fine, serviceable addition to the canon.
And then there were the Michael Bay-produced reboot movies. Though the two installments, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016) were directed by Jonathan Liebesman and Dave Green, the influence of Michael Bay and especially his Transformers films is abundant in these movies. While there were moments that made the turtles feel like their true, authentic selves, these movies were bloated, not the least bit charming, and felt hampered by studio notes and corporate directives. These movies were the proverbial square peg that never fit the round hole of the rest of the franchise.
This brings me to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. It’s the franchise’s first big-screen outing in 7 years, and the first animated one in 16. Produced by Seth Rogen, this most recent incarnation seems to be taking a lot of its aesthetic and approach from the two Spider-Verse movies, including this summer’s big hit Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
The typical template for a Turtles adventure is there for fans and newcomers alike. Leader Leonardo (voiced by Nicholas Cantu), genius Donatello (voiced by Micah Abbey), laid-back Michelangelo (voiced by Shamon Brown Jr.), and hot-headed Raphael (voiced by Brady Moon) are anthropomorphic turtles, trained in ninjutsu, who live in the sewers below New York City with their adopted father, a rat named Master Splinter, voiced by Jackie Chan.
However, after they sneak into a screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the four boys entertain notions of what it would be like to live a normal teenage existence by going to school and being able to blend in with humans. They also befriend one named April O’Neil (voiced by Ayo Edebiri), reimagined as an ambitious, but demoralized and socially ostracized high-school journalist. She turns them on to the existence of Superfly (voiced by Ice Cube), who is eventually discovered to be a mutant fly created by the same ooze responsible for giving the turtles and Splinter their powers.
Superfly recruits other mutated animals, including the surfer dude Mondo Gecko (voiced by Paul Rudd), and Bebop (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Rocksteady (voiced by John Cena), a duo who will be familiar to fans of the franchise. Their goal is to take over the world because they’re afraid humans won’t like or understand them, so it’s up to the turtles to stop them and save the world.
The animation is vibrant and fluid, taking full advantage of the animated medium to invoke a style that invokes everything from the earlier cartoons to the films of animator Ralph Bakshi. Another one of my favorite things about the movie is how the main stars feel like genuine teenagers. A lot of credit goes to the young voice actors, all of whom are actually teenage boys, which helps to easily convey the age our four protagonists are supposed to be.
From constantly being on their phones to even trying to sing a BTS song to keep their minds off of being tortured, this movie definitely wants to focus on and live up to the “teenage” aspect of the franchise’s name and what it means to be a modern teen in particular. Mutant Mayhem feels very of this moment, much in the same way the original film felt when it came out.
I also really like the soundtrack, the needle drops were fun and appropriate, and never forced. The combination of rap, particularly the music of A Tribe Called Quest, and the Ninja Turtles feels inspiring as both have their roots in the New York area in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
One of the worst aspects of the Bay-produced films is that they lost a sense of fun in trying to be so serious in keeping with the tone of other comic book movie adaptations. In contrast, Mutant Mayhem is extremely funny, full of everything from gross-out humor involving puke to the witty interplay between the turtles to the crazy personalities of the fellow mutant animals they encounter. It also maintains some of that ‘90s edge, which I partially credit to it being produced by Nickelodeon.
After the disappointment of the most recent live-action outings, I just assumed that any future movies would never again recapture that optimism and joy that has endeared so many people to the franchise. Thankfully, seeing how bright, amusing, creative, and thoughtful Mutant Mayhem ended up being has made me reconsider that quality stories can still be told with these characters, while still maintaining accessibility for newcomers.
The screening I went to was packed with kids, and I happened to be seated in between two of them. They seemed riveted, which makes me believe that part of the purpose was to introduce a new generation to the franchise in a way that was easy to understand and relate to. The ending of the movie helps to reinforce an ultimate message of acceptance that has been at the core of the franchise since its inception.
I love how creative and vibrant this movie is. I think the voice casting, whether big-name celebrities or unknown young performers, was inspired. I love how the typical Turtles story is there but with little tweaks added to make it seem more of this moment. This is easily my favorite movie in the franchise that isn’t the 1990 original. I expect to come back to Mutant Mayhem many more times in the future, and I can’t wait to see what directions they take to the eventual follow-ups to this bold, exciting new vision of this venerated pop culture institution.