I think that when I was growing up, I missed the hype surrounding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the TV show was one of the defining franchises of the 80s and a lot of people hold nostalgia for the early 2000s reboot, as a 90s kid, I never got into either show. So growing up, while I understood that people were in love with the brand, I could personally never find a reason to become one of those adoring fans. By the time I became an adult and a deluge of Turtles-related media began to be pumped out by Nickelodeon, I just ignored it, whether it be live-action or animated. That is until the most recent film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.
Even then, it wasn’t an extreme amount of interest. I wasn’t suddenly a wannabe TMNT fan who was claiming to have loved the franchise since its inception. I was just interested in the new aesthetic and reimagining of the turtles to be more like actual teenagers and not the perception of teenagers. So I went into the movie cautiously optimistic. While I was pleasantly surprised by it and enjoyed some of my time with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, I’m pretty sure its appeal will become increasingly niche over time.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Director: Jeff Rowe
Release Date: August 2, 2023
Like all incarnations of the TMNT, Mutant Mayhem establishes that the Turtles – Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) – are mutants that grew unintentionally from the experiments of Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito). They were raised under the careful guidance of another mutant, a rat named Splinter (Jackie Chan). As they grow up and learn Ninjutsu from Splinter, the four turtles want nothing more than to be accepted by humans and go to high school with them. However, Splinter has drilled into them that humans will reject them and they need to stay in the sewers where it’s safe. After saving a high school reporter named April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), the Turtles decide to work alongside her to capture a criminal named Superfly (Ice Cube) and use his capture to become heroes to all of the citizens of New York and gain acceptance. Once the Turtles discover that Superfly is also a mutant and has a whole family of mutants to look after, the Turtles’ quest for acceptance becomes more complicated, especially when Superfly wants to kill all humans and make a world of mutants.
If there’s one thing that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem excels at, it’s establishing the relationship between the Turtles. One of the things that I’ve struggled with about the franchise as a whole is how despite being teenagers, they’ve never actually felt like they are that age, instead using phrases and expressions that reek of what corporate executives think are hip with the youths. However, the bond that this incarnation of the Turtles shares feels genuine and makes them come across as actual teenagers. Yeah, there are moments that could be labeled “cringy” to classic fans of the franchise, but that’s not acknowledging that this is a new generation of Turtles for a new generation of fans. It’s a modern update that feels necessary.
That being said, while I can praise their relationship and character development, what I can’t praise wholeheartedly is the humor. I get it, there are a lot of cultural references in the film that include Beyonce, calling people sus, and BTS, but it dates the movie so hard. It’s reminiscent of an early Dreamworks film wherein a large percentage of the humor just comes from cultural references and nothing else. It’s a style of humor that is quick and easy to generate a laugh, but outside of viewing it at this exact moment in time, it’ll eventually become dated and not funny. The running joke about the mutants being milked is far funnier and will endure because it doesn’t rely on any outside knowledge to work, but the rest probably won’t. I know it’s an issue of personal taste, but it’s hard to overlook at certain points.
A lot has also been said of the animation used throughout the film and I’m a mixed bag about it. On one hand, I love the unique designs of the characters and think that certain setpiece moments are solid, like the mutant fight that takes place halfway through the film and when Jackie Chan’s Splinter gets more involved in the plot. However, I think that a lot of the film is overdesigned to the point where it’s distracting. The climax in particular looks like a mess, with parts of it being too busy and hectic, making it hard to distinguish anything in the chaos of it all. Setting it at night doesn’t help much for visibility, but that’s neither here nor there.
I guess it all comes down to a certain amount of energy present within the film. When the movie is hyperactive and trying its best to grab your attention, it comes across as a bit of a try-hard. It’s almost as if a switch is being flipped. When Mutant Mayhem wants to just be a film looking at the Turtles as teenagers and their issues of acceptance, bouncing jokes at each other like a family, that’s where the real magic is. The performances of the cast are also solid, with Raphael’s Brady Noon probably having the best range and comedic timing of the bunch.
But then Mutant Mayhem’s switch does flip and it feels as if the adults are trying to appeal to what kids like and overcomplicate things. Look, I know I’m not the target audience for the film and have never been a huge fan of the franchise, but I can at least identify the moments in the movie that come from a genuine place and moments that feel like they needed to be in there to hit some kind of a quota. It’s not as solid and consistent as Across the Spider-Verse was and you can tell from a mile away that this was Paramount’s attempt to replicate that film’s success. In that regard, I’m happy that Into the Spider-Verse has gained as much influence as it did to the point where we’re seeing imitators, but it’s still an imitation at the end of the day.
I really wanted to like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. I love seeing animated films like this and I had the hope that maybe, just maybe, it could sell me on the franchise. And in the first thirty minutes, it was selling me pretty hard. The characters were great and the humor was fine. Then the film began to take the easy way out with cheap jokes, a standard climax, and the animation trying to go bigger and not play to the aesthetics’ unique strengths. If you’re a part of the target audience, you’ll probably love the film and think fondly of it. If you’re coming back to it five years later, those positive feelings may not be as strong.