For almost 40 years, four heroes have dominated pop culture, seeing a ton of various adaptations as they garnered one of the largest fanbases in history. Yes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may have been a “lightning in a bottle” concept, but there is no doubt that studios and creators alike have always been ready to rebrand and re-release new tales for the turtles as new generations emerge. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is the latest, coming from Seth Rogen and Point Grey Pictures, with the packing of Paramount to boot. How does a lot of changes and a new take fare into film? Let’s find out.
There is a lot to chew on with the narrative of Mutant Mayhem. The film starts out with a small origin story, where the four heroes learn (via flashback) how they came to be, and for the most part, nothing has really changed there. A crazy scientist who is creating mutants to be his friends is infiltrated, and throughout the chaos, a tube of the ooze drips down into the sewer, soaking four baby turtles and a rat who happens to stumble upon them, turning them effectively into the Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello we all know of, as well as Splinter – their adopted father figure of sorts. 15 years later, we have our current setting in a busy city, where they all live in the sewers, surviving as teenagers.
If anything, this adaptation is about adolescence from top to bottom. The turtles now are very immature, acting and speaking exactly how most 15 year olds do. They sound younger, look younger, and constantly want to rebel against the small set of rules old man Splinter has enforced. Its a fomula that is definitely different, but one that finally respects the nature of what a true “teenager” truly is. If Mutant Mayhem does anything right, its how it finally shifts the narrative to capture that angst, which should have massive appeal to kids who all are pushing close to that time in their lives. Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan) proves to be the strongest character of the lot, as he pushes to provide his reptile children the safety and love they deserve, while still being accepted as their “friend”, a common trop with parental figures in modern cinema. April also comes along through chance, and while her looks have changed, acts as another strong, non-judgmental ally for the turtles – playing a lovable loser who has big dreams of journalism, hindered by her massive stage-fright.
As for the turtles – well, they are certainly 15 year olds who were raised by television and a rat. All four have a desperate need to see the world and be normal, and due to their mutant status, are constantly reminded of why they cannot go into the public. Their roles are ultimately about acceptance, which is a bit flat of a story – but one that works well enough for this film in general. The turtles are great, but never really stand out on their own. I mean, sure – they have different colors, but we have seen each character developed in the past with their own traits. Donny was always the smart one, Raph the tough one, Mikey the comic relief, and Leo the lead. That past knowledge and minor references to who they are supposed to be is really the only substance we get when it comes to individuality for these four, which feels like a missed opportunity. Regardless, the first act of the movie covers this all very well, and is very interesting and entertaining as we get to know our main players.
The largest issue of Mutant Mayhem is that it is good at developing its main cast well enough, but doesn’t really know what to do with its plot after the fact. Its supposed to be a superhero movie after all, and while there are not one – but two sets of antagonists these heroes are up against, nothing really feels well crafted enough to hold all of the ideas that this film creates to set up for its action. First, you have Cynthia Utrom (voiced by Maya Rudolph), an evil executive who wants to rule the world using the same tech that turned the turtles into mutants, out to get the turtles and drain their blood in order to make more mutants she can have under her control. Then you have Superfly (voiced by Ice Cube), a fly that was raised by the creator of the ooze, out to get revenge on a world who never accepted him – along with his mutant brethren of BeBop, Rocksteady, and several other familiar faces.
When it comes time for the turtles to square off and do battle with each party, we get a bit of action laced with comedy – and bam, we circle back into the “acceptance” plot and the film kind of ends. It feels like a stretched out episode of a Saturday Morning cartoon. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but the lack of substance throughout kind of leaves a lot to be desired. Some action sequences come by surprise, and the movie tries so hard to be funny – but ultimately fails due to some weak writing and lackluster payoffs. Most of this is due to the fact that the humor is made of references, which the turtles make non-stop due to their knowledge of pop culture. I get it, they know who Mark Ruffalo is and giving the audience a bit of a “metaverse” moment is the “in” thing right now. I just feel that Mutant Mayhem uses this formula as a crutch, instead of actually leaning on the well developed characters they had within that first act. The antagonists are equally as mundane, and never seem like a threat. Due to this, resolutions are thin and the audience fails to have much sentiment or tension in moments that could have easily called for them
Listen, I get I am a long way from 15 these days and I am not the target audience. That said, this could have easily been a better film if the writers would have held on to the build it made for itself, instead of gassing out halfway through with meme and pop culture humor that will only age the film further in time. This is a fun ride mostly, but one that doesn’t really feel climatic, lacking nuance and coming off as a forgettable animated feature shortly after viewing. I “got” all the jokes, they’re just not very funny, despite the strong voice work of a mostly exceptional cast.
Audio and Visuals
The animation style is exceptional. It can be a bit jarring to see the somewhat rough design of the turtles and the world they’re in at first, but it soon becomes a visual treat, as there really has never been a 3D animated feature with a look like Mutant Mayhem. You can see the inspirations from past adaptations and general pop culture in almost every frame, and the “sketch” animation works wonders to give this film an identity for itself. I still wish it was a better product because of that – but at least we have something unique for a franchise that absolutely needed a proper new foundation to relaunch on. Mutant Mayhem will be the future of the franchise for this generation if it maintains its odd, yet intriguing aesthetic.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem has a lot going for it. It looks phenomenal, there is a fantastic cast, and the groundwork for the narrative was laid perfectly, meaning Paramount have a lot of room to pump this well dry in the future. As its own movie however, it kind of loses itself before the first hour mark passes, and never really gains enough momentum to bounce back due to all of the weight it never seems to shed. There just are not enough resolutions and too many one-off jokes that do nothing for the film but add a bit of cringe. I do think kids are going to love this and while its far from the perfect reboot, Mutant Mayhem is certainly a flick that is sure to put these icons in front of the eyes of kids all over again.
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