It’s easy to forget that the absurdity was always the point.
Back in 1984, the comics industry was well into the so-called Bronze Age. It was a time when the Comics Code Authority was quickly losing relevance and everyone’s favorite colorful superheroes were taking on issues of mortality (Gwen Stacy’s death), drug abuse (Green Arrow’s sidekick getting hooked on heroin), and pretty much everything the X-Men and their fellow mutants were going through. (Thank you, Chris Claremont.) At the time of their creation by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were always intended to be a grimdark parody of this phase in comics history. And they were way ahead of their time — “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns” were still two years off by that point.
But then came the 1987 TV show, ditching the darker self-aware parody aspect to fit the tidal wave of colorful action-packed vertically integrated toy commercials that came with the Reagan Era. For better or worse, this was the take that cemented mainstream recognition of the Turtles as goofy and hyperactive cartoon characters with “attitude” (i.e. lingo and accents stereotypical of the San Fernando Valley) talking in puns and pizza jokes, fighting to stop a villain who made so many threats about turtle soup. But times have changed and the “mascot with attitude” archetype of the ’90s is now practically quaint. (Just ask Sega.) Kids and parents of today are more sensitive about half-hour toy commercials as kids’ entertainment with no artistic or educational value. Hell, even in the Turtles’ heyday, they were at the center of blazing debate about violence in kids’ media (priming the pump for Mortal Kombat, but that’s another story).
The Turtles of ’84 never stood a chance at maintaining relevance, not after Moore/Gibbons/Higgins and Miller/Janson/Varley did what TMNT was supposed to do for comics and did it infinitely better. And while the Turtles have always been around in some form or another, they struggled to stay relevant among so many children’s entertainment franchises informed and inspired by the ’87 cartoon. Hell, the world had seen so many imitators trying to ride these particular coattails (Street Sharks, Battletoads, Biker Mice from Mars, Samurai Pizza Cats, Mighty Ducks, Bucky O’Hare, Road Rovers, I know people will hate me for bringing Gargoyles into this but come on…) that the very concept had been watered down and rendered obsolete by the mid-’90s. And that’s not even getting started on how global politics and economics had moved on since the Berlin Wall and the Clinton administration.
The late ’80s were simply the perfect time for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There could never possibly be such a serendipitous time so ideally suited to revitalizing the franchise. Until now.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem comes to us from producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, both of whom were also among the six (6!) credited writers. We’ve also got co-writer Jeff Rowe making his feature directorial debut, alongside co-director Kyler Spears, both of whom previously took part in the thoroughly awesome The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
The cast is loaded with name actors, but I’ll direct your attention to lead actors Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown, Micah Abbey, and Brady Noon (respectively voicing Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael), with Ayo Edebiri voicing a race-swapped April O’Neil. Which means that for the first time in franchise history, we’ve got lead characters played by teenage actors.
To repeat, it took over 35 goddamn years for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be voiced by actual teenagers. Mr. Rogen, you have my attention. What have we got?
Let’s start with Splinter, here voiced by Jackie Fucking Chan, who now has a revised origin story sans Master Yoshi. This time, Splinter used to be a common street rat living on the mean streets of New York City, where everything and everyone is trying to kill him until he finds four infant turtles covered in mutagenic ooze from TCRI. (We’ll come back to that.) As a direct result of his lived experience, Splinter raises his adoptive family in the sewers and out of sight, with obsessive fear of the humans and what they would do to such mutants. For extra measure, they all find enough martial arts movies and instructional tapes to teach themselves kung fu for self-defense.
Cut to fifteen years later, and the Turtles are… well, they’re teenagers. They’re curious about the outside world, they’re fascinated by pop culture, and they want to be accepted and socially active with kids their own age. I might add that they’re four brothers pushing each other to do stupid shit that gets them in trouble, and they’re doing it with lethal weaponry that they’ve trained their whole lives to never use. So of course they start to chafe against Splinter’s domineering parentage.
Of course this angle is nothing new in kids’ cinema. (Just a month ago, I said as much with regard to Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken!) But it nicely adds to Splinter’s character in such a way that he’s not just a sagely font of exposition this time. Splinter has always been a father figure for the Turtles, and this movie emphasizes that in how they really do squabble and support each other like a true family. Splinter and his surrogate sons all use this angle for some nicely sweet character development, and it’s a surprisingly welcome touch.
But let’s get back to that ooze from fifteen years prior. The film opens with Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito), the mad scientist who invented the mutagenic ooze while working for the shadowy Techno Cosmic Research Institute. Then Stockman went AWOL to finish the project on his own terms, with the goal of creating his own animal mutants to make his own surrogate family. Things inevitably went awry when TCRI sent in their strike team to recover the company property. Stockman wound up (presumably) dead, his pet projects escaped, and his last prototype vial of ooze was lost to the sewers.
So many years later and we get Superfly, a mutated housefly voiced by Ice Cube. As Stockman’s favorite among his “children”, Superfly gets to be the de facto leader of his other fellow mutants. Of course Bebop and Rocksteady (respectively voiced by Rogen himself and John Cena) are the highlights, but we’ve also got Rose Byrne, Natasha Demetriou, Paul Rudd, Hannibal Buress, and Post Malone voicing others in Superfly’s merry band of mutant misfits. Incidentally, I had to look it up and confirm that Byrne really is a native Australian, which makes her cartoonishly stereotypical performance much less offensive in retrospect. And everyone makes fun of how Post Malone can’t sing, which is funny on a meta level.
Long story short (too late!), Superfly is putting together a doomsday weapon that will turn all animals on Earth into fellow mutants, thus leading directly to the subjugation and/or extinction of the human race. Thus we have our plot.
(Side note: If you’re wondering where flagship antagonist Shredder fits into all this, stick around for the mid-credits stinger.)
What’s genuinely fascinating here is that the heroes and villains are more alike than they’re different. Of course they have a shared origin, but it’s interesting to see how the parent figure/big brother dynamic is mirrored between Stockman/Superfly and Splinter/Leonardo. Even when the parallel shifts to how Splinter and Superfly are alike, it works surprisingly well. In both cases, Superfly serves to show our heroes what they could potentially be if they keep going as they are, thus motivating our heroes to develop in some other and more constructive direction.
All the mutants on both sides of the conflict have traumatic experiences with humans and they want to be accepted for who and what they are. It’s easy to see why the Turtles would want to hang with the fellow misfits who live to make trouble, rather than be good little boys and hide with their daddy in the sewers. Problem is, Superfly is too angry to see (much less admit) that he doesn’t really want acceptance — he wants dominance. The Turtles want to be accepted for who they are, and Superfly wants to be accepted as the biggest and strongest life form on Earth.
Then again, the humans themselves make a strong case for why Superfly may have a point. This is most clearly illustrated with Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), sociopathic head of TCRI, who wants to reverse-engineer Stockman’s formula for the purpose of crafting mutant supersoldiers. She’s greedy, immoral, violent, and played to the rafters by Rudolph as an irredeemable piece of shit who’s so much fun to hate.
But then we have April O’Neil, who befriends the Turtles after a series of events I won’t even try to recap here. April is a budding journalist whose catastrophic stage fright (and even that’s putting it mildly) keeps her from ever being on camera. Thus she and the Turtles both have delusions of catching Superfly and saving the city so they’ll be accepted and celebrated as champions. I might add that April makes herself supremely useful in providing the Turtles with information and leads while also boosting their profile as hometown heroes.
Oh, and Leo has an obvious crush on April, which gets him no end of pestering from his brothers. There’s gotta be a love triangle there with Casey Jones in the sequel, I’m calling it right now.
I can only assume that all four of the leading teenagers must have been having a massive pizza party together in the recording booth, because it sounds like they’re having the time of their lives. It truly is astounding how the four of them banter and squabble and horseplay and riff off each other in such a way that it leads to an infectious sense of fun without ever wearing the patience too thin. All four characters go through a lot in this movie, and kudos are seriously due to every one of these young actors for selling it all.
Alas, the overstuffed cast takes its toll on the third act. I get how every beat makes sense on paper. And I’m always a sucker for a superhero climax in which civilians are inspired to get involved, that doesn’t happen nearly often enough. (The Amazing Spider-Man comes to mind, of all pictures.) Even so, there’s simply no way to get the Turtles the development and impact that they need with so many other mutants — and April! — running around. And while we do get a massively impressive combo sequence with so many characters chipping in their contribution, that final crushing blow just doesn’t have the “oomph” it so badly needed. Though a lot of that falls on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the score they turned in here is nowhere near their usual standard.
Another huge problem concerns a gizmo specifically made to annihilate any mutant borne of the ooze. If TCRI was able to make such a device, that would make sense in a vacuum. If TCRI knew so little about the ooze that they had to capture and kill Stockman’s creations to reverse-engineer his work, that would make sense in a vacuum. But both ideas in the same film together, as utilized here, are incompatible. Everything about this plot device reeks of lazy writing, and it’s unquestionably another point against the third act.
But then we have the animation. I’m not convinced that the action scenes were quite where they needed to be, but it’s a valiant and inventive effort nonetheless. More importantly, these filmmakers obviously took the right lessons from the Spider-Verse movies and made the whole thing stylized in a nicely distinctive way that helps to tell the story. I might add that between Polite Society, “Ms. Marvel”, the filmmakers’ own The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and too many other examples to name here, we’ve seen so many recent movies that used a stylized hyper-kinetic style to get us into the headspace of a teenage protagonist. The approach works well here, and this trend is such a recent development that I don’t know if it would’ve been feasible with any previous iteration of the franchise.
It’s an outright miracle that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem works as well as it does. Like nobody else in franchise history before them, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were uniquely and perfectly qualified to uncover the beating heart of this premise without sacrificing any of the endearingly goofy comedy. It certainly helps that The Mitchells vs. the Machines had already proven these exact same directors could handle a balanced and innovative family action/comedy with style in abundance. Nobody else could’ve put such a phenomenal voice cast together, and the film makes such brilliant use of so many recent trends in cinema that there’s no other time when such an entertaining film could be assembled in such a confident manner.
The plot thins, the third act suffers, and the score isn’t quite where it needs to be, but the film is heartfelt and humorous and just plain fun where it matters. Time will tell if the sequel turns out to be just as good or if this is just a fluke. In the meantime, this is well worth checking out.