Shell-tered Youth — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
When the trailers for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem first came out, I was a little bit skeptical, mostly because the 2007 animated film felt uninspired and later Michael Bay did his level best to destroy yet another beloved institution of my childhood. It had been a long time since the original TV cartoon and live-action movies with Jim Henson creations captured the experience of growing up when people like me did, and I admit I didn’t think it was possible to make this franchise work again.
But while I sat there listening to A Tribe Called Quest and admiring the unorthodox animation style, there was one bit of on-screen text that really drew my attention. The film was attributed to “Permanent Teenager Seth Rogen,” which got a brief chuckle. The more I thought about it, however, the more it gave me hope. On the one hand, putting the project in Rogen’s hands likely meant that the emphasis would be more on fun than anything else. On the other, highlighting the word “teenager” made it seem like there was going to be a specific focus on the actual adolescence of the “Heroes in a Half-Shell.” Because despite the foursome’s collective title, I never really thought of them as teens, more like enthusiastic young adults in their late 20s.
That gave me a renewed sense of intrigue and curiosity, and film more than delivered on this semi-imagined premise. While Mutant Mayhem is largely a success due to its silliness and sheen, what really made it work for me was in how, for the first time that I can really remember, it felt like I was watching teenagers who happened to be turtles, not the other way around. These are four boys living the average lives of young men their age. There’s humor, camaraderie, insecurity, and relatable angst… and THEN we also have to deal with the fact that they’re mutant martial artists forced into the shadows, desperate to announce themselves to the world and join normal society.
It’s a really interesting angle, and Rogen’s team of writers take the right amount of care to give the ninja crimefighters a well-rounded portrayal, while still leaving enough room for them to be distinguished as individuals beyond the colors of their masks. Leonardo (Nicholas Cantu) is the leader by default, as he’s the only one willing to obey the rules of their surrogate father Splinter (Jackie Chan), but his nervousness about being the odd one out often allows him to succumb to his brothers’ peer pressure. Michelangelo (Shamon Brown, Jr.) is not yet a “party dude,” but he is exceedingly mellow and diplomatic as he sports his braces. Donatello’s voice (Micah Abbey) hasn’t even lowered yet, and his crackling squeaks enhance his aplomb for just about everything around him. To go with his hormone-driven zest for fighting, Raphael (Brady Noon) is noticeably bulkier than the others (even as kids, when they look like green versions of the boys from South Park, he is clearly the Cartman of the group) and is missing teeth. There are hints of his more brusque attitude in other projects, but here it just manifests as him having cabin, er, sewer fever and wanting a life outside the family no matter how much he loves them. It’s all alarming sweet and perfectly believable.
It also facilitates a slew of great hijinks, from practicing their weapons skills while Donny records on his phone, to breaking curfew to watch a movie ( Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which is exactly the wrong message for their situation, but they don’t stick around long enough to realize it), to using stealth to snatch groceries from a local bodega. Their rapport is ripe for comedy and pathos, and Rogen et al rarely waste a moment in that endeavor.
Simmering beneath it all is a deep well of self-doubt for all four of them, as they want to be regular teens and live in the real world. Splinter has forbidden this however, harkening back to the one attempt he made to take the boys to the surface, where they were shunned by the startled people of New York. This undercurrent feeds into all the major character moments, on every side of the central conflict. The turtles want to show the world that they’re not monsters. Splinter hates humans because he’s seen the darkest side of them. When they meet April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), herself a high school student and aspiring journalist, she’s trying to redeem herself from a major social faux pas. Even the villains, led by Superfly (Ice Cube), operate their diabolical scheme based on the belief that people will never accept them as they are, because they fear what they don’t understand.
This is a massively salient point, one that just about every child struggles with at one time or another. And really, something as over-the-top cartoonish as TMNT is an ideal outlet for exploration on this front, because the youngest viewers can subliminally associate it with an enjoyable piece of entertainment, while the adults (and kids at heart) can be reminded that we all have a little darkness in us. How we choose to act on it is what matters most, and as we get older, we realize that there are some who will never like us no matter what we do, and part of maturity is learning how to let go of those fears.
Aiding this major theme is the absolutely wonderful art style. Feeling at times like layers of rough sketches in full color (especially if you see it in 3D), the abstract animation surrounds you with its sense of scale, allowing you to immerse yourself in the experience. The way the film plays with light and shadow is excellent, especially considering how most iterations of the franchise prioritize the art of invisibility from our protagonists. And in a really inspired touch, just about every character outside of the turtles, Splinter, and April is drawn in an intentionally off-model design, especially the other humans. Everyone has an awkward-shaped head, or misaligned eyes, or an impossible figure. The visuals are outright stating that there is no “normal” for the turtles to become part of. Everyone’s a little off. Hold up a mirror before you begin judging based on appearances. It’s a fantastic representation of the film’s emotional core.
There are a few shortfalls here and there. While I certainly enjoyed the catalog soundtrack (bonus points for including a brief clip of “Ninja Rap”), all of the needle drops were decidedly 90s, supplemented by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross providing the ambient score. That’s all well and good until you hear the turtles invoke the likes of Adele and BTS. So they’re teenagers in 2023 listening to their music, while the audience hears the stuff from when Rogen was one some 25–30 years earlier. I like the music fine (give me some “No Diggity” any damn day!), but it is a bit too odd of a tonal contrast to the rest of the moments where the turtles’ adolescence is front and center.
Similarly, some of the jokes work really well, like the boys ragging on each other about how they’d turn their mononyms into two names for high school, with particular attention paid to “Leo Nardo” as a funny rib. Others, however, don’t land, and those tend to go on way longer. For a prime example, April has earned an epithet from her classmates, and there’s a flashback that demonstrates how she got it. Initially it ends once we’ve implied the gist without getting gross, but then the movie cuts right back to it for full-on gratuitous ickiness.
The biggest fault is in the overall plot, though. I know we shouldn’t expect ironclad logic in a flick like this, but given the circumstances and the characters, it’s amazing to me how easily Superfly’s underlings are dissuaded from his plan. Just like with Splinter and the turtles, Superfly invokes a familial bond with the likes of Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Bebop and Rocksteady (Rogen himself and John Cena), and the rest. From the moment the ooze created them, he watched over them as the strongest of the group, fostering his hatred for humans and passing it on to them. You’d figure that 15 years of that would make the other mutants 100% on board, but after 15 minutes with our heroes, they all pretty much admit they never liked the idea. That’s way too convenient to be satisfying. Thankfully, most of the group is charismatic enough — especially Mondo — that we can largely forgive it, but it still smacks of a writers meeting where someone said, “Hey, we need a way to turn everyone good before the final battle,” and this was the best they could come up with.
One of the problems with legacy sequels and franchise reboots is that far too often they’re placed in the hands of people who either don’t understand the material or don’t commit to its fundamentals. The most recent Halloween trilogy immediately springs to mind, as Danny McBride’s affection for the series was clear, but he and his associates fell woefully short of telling a story worthy of Michael Myers’ mystique and menace. But here, you can tell that Rogen wears his love for these reptiles on his sleeve, and knew he could take them in relatively new directions that still honored the decades of fandom they’ve engendered. Mutant Mayhem is far from perfect, but it gets the important things right, shows us the actual kids behind the kick-ass, and definitely has a blast in the process.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which turtle was your favorite growing up? Can I kick it? Let me know! Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube!