As someone who lived through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles surge of the late 1980s, three theatrically-released live-action films, numerous video games (at home and in the arcade), multiple animated iterations, and a series of Michael Bay-produced films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is everything I could possibly have hoped it would be. Loose, funny, smart, and ultimately human, this new film has so much to offer old fans and new, sporting a reverence for the material while finding new ways to make these beloved characters fresh and exciting again.
For starters, writers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit have made the case that the Turtles have not been raised on television. Thus, there aren’t any “Cowabunga, dude!” or other outdated slang or affectations that, even from the first film from 1990, feel forced or perfunctory. Instead, we’re given four teenagers who speak with the rapid and carefree patois of excitable youths and are given ebullient personalities to match. This gives them a meek, relatable vibe that puts us right at home with them from the jump, enveloping us immediately thanks to one rigid theme this film espouses: For better or for worse, these Turtles are kids.
Kids with insecurities and misgivings like any other kid, especially in their high school-age state. They want to be liked for who they are, regardless of the fact that they’re mutated turtles raised by a similarly mutated rat. Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon) steal our hearts by being simply sweet-natured, caring, and, well, human. Their journey up from the sewers to the Manhattan rooftops – and their journey beyond themselves and into being heroes – is endearing and captivating, bearing an emotional rawness not evident in any other TMNT filmed or animated story.
All of them are fun-loving, wisecracking teenagers who’ve found a way to make their own fun while staying out of the public eye, and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in their collective and personal struggles, as they’re not outsized or exaggerated. Close your eyes and listen to their voices; they’re the kind you hear every day in every school across the country. Fascinated with the new, excited by dares or adventures, giggling with amusement, sullen when a parent gets angry, desperate in an “I forgot that we had a test today!” manner – Abbey, Brown Jr., Cantu, and Noon lend such an easy likability through their voicings, running the gamut between teenage exuberance and grumpiness.
Something else this film does to separate its scope from previous ventures is to make father figure Splinter (Jackie Chan) an anything-but-zen xenophobic. It’s a sharp contrast to Kevin Clash’s wise (and wizened) portrayal of the same character in 1990; the accepting, gentle voice of reason is gone, replaced by someone who’s taken the Turtles under his wing but has no idea how to be a father. He’s just rolling with it, protecting them the only way he knows how, and that involves keeping them away from humans, whose horrified and mob-like reaction sent them running for the sewers. In this, Chan is perfect as the ping-ponging Splinter; there’s a freneticism and well-meaning that Chan knows how to marshal through his voice performance, and you can almost see the goofy faces he might be pulling while recording his track.
(Side note: Instead of raising the Turtles on regular television as a way of showing them human interaction, Splinter decides to spoon-feed them martial arts movies to learn self-defense. Some of these martial arts movies feature Jackie Chan himself… There’s an interesting meta thing going on. I don’t know quite how to describe it, but I dig the hell out of it.)
Bringing them forward into the world above is the rise of Superfly (Ice Cube), a fellow mutant housefly intent on using the ooze that created him (as well as the Turtles, Splinter, and a host of others) against the human population. And like all established lore, the Turtles’ link to the outside world is reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri)… sort of. Here, April’s also a teenager, with her one shot at being a reporter – a closed-circuit high school TV reporter – spoiled by a horrible case of stage fright manifesting itself with an involuntary personal protein spill. (That’s George Carlin’s preferred euphemism for “vomit.”) Likewise shunned, she’s looking to do something that will vault her past being the school joke, and she’s onto something after a fateful run-in with the Turtles; their paths have crossed with her investigation of a spate of robberies involving objects from TCRI, the company responsible for the aforementioned ooze (or mutagen, whichever you prefer).
There’s a steadiness this film achieves in its opening minutes that never wavers. So many opportunities are present for everything to go flying off the tracks, tilting it toward more comedy or drama or action, but director (and co-writer) Jeff Rowe finds a wonderful balance that keeps everything tight and focused. He uses just enough of these elements to maintain progressive motion, never tripping itself or overdoing it. It’s a hard tone to achieve, but it’s like Rowe’s strategically placing bits of each track down just before the train rolls over it, and it works beautifully. Little nods to the Turtles’ past are strewn here and there, but those don’t even get in the way of how well this film moves.
The irrepressibly electric voice cast practically leaps off the screen, seamlessly and symbiotically powering the film’s funky animation style with buoyancy and verve. Colorful and bright, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem pays homage to the series’ hand-drawn origins by alternating between the smoothness of modern computer imaging and the familiar jerkiness of traditional animation, keeping the film visually arresting and popping with vibrant life. It’s a style that blends well with the story’s chaos; if someone said to you, “We’re gonna watch four kids in the hell of being teenagers that also have to fight a supervillain while trying to maintain a low profile and deal with their dad being a bit of a drag,” you’d think that was a lot to handle, yeah? Fortunately, a cracking script, its visceral look and feel, a strict adherence to making its main characters as human as possible, and a genuine reverence for the Ninja Turtles’ cultural legacy catapult this reboot into becoming a marvelous film full of a spiky, punky richness.