Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM is exactly what I hoped we’d start seeing after SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE: more animated features feeling they have permission to go wild with their visual styles. Directors Jeff Rowe and Keyler Spears already took the baton and ran with it two years ago in THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES; MUTANT MAYHEM shares that film’s anarchic doodles-on-your-notebook spirit and preference for cartoonish exaggeration. But this time they’ve largely abandoned three-dimensional computer animation’s longstanding quest for realistic textures in favor of artistic flair. Not only the backgrounds, but even the characters look like energetic oil pastel sketches. Even objects that appear tactile are covered in lines, squiggles, smears. Light-colored scratches on swaths of black give the impression of reflections or lights, but also of lines drawn by human hands. Computerized precision takes a back seat to creative looseness and chaos. Every frame looks like the concept art that you see in the making-of coffee table books, as if they somehow removed that final step that polishes things but inevitably loses some of their personality. The personality is intact.

It’s also like SPIDER-VERSE in that it’s a fun animated all ages super hero tale with plenty of laughs, good music, and some emotional substance. And until we have too many of those, I enjoy that too.

MUTANT MAYHEM is a new take on the mysteriously enduring phenomenon of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, indie comic book turned cartoon, merchandising juggernaut and movie series. This version is produced and co-written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (SUPERBAD, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, THE GREEN HORNET, THIS IS THE END) and it fits with their other work, especially in the chemistry of its voice cast. It makes so much sense when you hear that rather than recording everyone separately like so many animated movies do they made a point of having most of the actors together, playing off of each other, writing things around their actual interactions. I think that’s how it became the historic first Ninja Turtles thing to consistently make me laugh throughout.

I noticed many changes to the concept and mythology, mostly not drastic. They use the mad scientist character Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito, NIGHT ON EARTH) as a starting point. He was raided while experimenting on animal test subjects, which escaped, and his “ooze” spilled into New York City sewer system, mutating four baby turtles into our guys and a rat into their father figure, Splinter. Though Splinter is voiced by Jackie Chan, he doesn’t have the martial arts background of the traditional Splinter – his boys learn to fight from watching Shaw Brothers movies and Youtube videos. But observing how humans treated him both as a rat and as a rat-man, Splinter keeps them hidden and sheltered underground except when they go out for groceries.

Traditionally Stockman turns into a fly creature, here it’s a separate creation of his, known as Superfly, and voiced by Ice Cube (all time great rapper, disappointing anti-Semite conspiracy dipshit, very good in this role). Superfly is behind a crime spree, uniting the other mutants to steal high tech equipment as part of a master plan. The story is pretty simplistic (especially compared to SPIDER-VERSE) – bad guy has evil plan, then turns into a giant, and they fight him. But there’s a certain wisdom to that approach because it allows it to be a little more of a character-driven movie. It’s an origin story to their crime fighting, but that feels less the focus than their journey from a sad, sheltered life to making new friends and having more fun.

The main thing that distinguishes this from any other version of the Ninja Turtles that I’m familiar with is that it emphasizes the Teenage part. In fact, I read that this is the first time ever that all four ninja turtles are voiced by actors in their teens – Micah Abbey (Cousins For Life) as Donatello, Shamon Brown Jr. (The Chi) as Michelangelo, Nicolas Cantu (THE FABELMANS) as Leonardo, and Brady Noon (GOOD BOYS) as Raphael. Usually they’re adult voices with Michelangelo’s “party dude” accent, a fixation on junk food and z-grade children’s sitcom jokes meant to represent youthfulness. Here they really do sound and act like kids, and they joke around with each other more in the tradition of Freaks and Geeks or SUPERBAD. It’s far more respectful of its audience than those beloved live action movies of the ‘90s, I gotta say. Being teenage mutant ninja turtles, these guys see other young people out having fun and they feel left out because they have to hide from them. They catch an outdoor screening of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF and speculate about what being in high school is like.

Along with this is the change of April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri, The Bear) from grown up famous TV reporter to high school outcast aspiring journalist. Not surprisingly I’ve seen more discussion of her being Black and having hips (a major disappointment for racists and people who don’t get off on that body type who had planned to jerk off to this cartoon) but her age is actually the significant change. I like this version because she’s funny and relatable, they are in some sense peers that makes their friendship deeper, and Leo having a crush on her is kinda cute, as opposed to the earlier movies where it’s kinda uncomfortable to hear them making horny comments about her.

The score for MUTANT MAYHEM is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (BONES AND ALL). It’s a very effective electronic type thing, and even has a bit of a Nine Inch Nails vibe a few times. But the best thing about it is that it makes me dream of traveling back in time to tell people that in the future there will be a Ninja Turtles movie with a score by Trent Reznor. Because you know they would say, “Oh cool man, I always said they should make it real dark like the comics. Like THE CROW.”

“Oh no, it’s not dark. It’s from Nickelodeon. He has two Oscars by the way, Trent Reznor.”

Earlier in the summer TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS had a soundtrack of untouchable New York hip hop classics of the ‘90s, and in my review I joked that this must’ve been what boomers felt like when they saw FORREST GUMP. Well, MUTANT MAYHEM does it too – “Eye Know” by De La Soul, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” by ODB, “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Ante Up” by M.O.P. two times… I love it, but the FORREST GUMP comparison is starting to hurt. Boomers got all those movies about the ideals they fought for during Vietnam, the civil rights era, their hippie years. Gen-Xers and Millennials just get nostalgia about the cartoons we watched and the toys we bought. Oh well. Putting together a greatest hits album is really the only way to balance out the overwhelming wackness of “Ninja Rap” (heard briefly here as a joke) and “T.U.R.T.L.E. Power” (not referenced as far as I noticed). Also abandoned: the original theme song. I don’t mind. I get it.

One prominent song choice is Paul Engemann’s “Push It To The Limit.” They use it for training montages, which I understand because I always thought it sounded like a training montage song. So much so I forgot it was from SCARFACE for a minute and was thinking it was from BLOODSPORT or something. (By the way, I believe the turtles have an actual photo of JCVD on their wall, and a drawing of a 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA poster.)

Of all the changes from previous incarnations, the one I’m a little iffy on is the turtles being self-trained, just because I like stories about senseis passing down fighting styles, training to fight other ninja orders and shit, and I think you want that serial martial arts movie stuff as a contrast with the absurdity of the characters. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice that Jackie Chan gets to play Splinter as a funny character instead of the familiar wise Asian mentor archetype. There is a scene where he has to fight and they did a really good job of making it seem like a Jackie Chan fight scene. I actually wondered if he had any involvement with it, but they probly just studied his movies.

It’s also a way to distance it slightly from the basic-ness of this origin story after so many years of super hero saturation. They’re not born to fight evil, mutated to fight evil, or trained to fight evil. The initial motive for going after Superfly is to be accepted by society so they don’t have to be excluded anymore. The emotional hook overshadows the comic book cliche.

It’s also interesting to me that the movie leaves things in a very different status quo from what I’ve seen in other versions. As far as I know they’ve always had to hide out from society, but here they out themselves and enroll in high school – that’ll make for a pretty different sequel! Also, the filmatists are too fond of all the weird mutants – including Bebop (Rogen), Rocksteady (John Cena, 12 ROUNDS) and Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd, GEN-X COPS 2: METAL MAYHEM) – to make them evil. I know at least some of these are traditionally bad guys, but they’re friends with the turtles at the end. Rowe has said in interviews that he was more inspired by the toys than the cartoons, which tracks. If a kid has an action figure of some obscure character they don’t necessarily know or care if it’s supposed to be a good guy or not.

I’m sure I’ve explained this before, but I’m just a little too old to have experienced childhood Turtlemania. I was in middle school when the cartoon started and I did watch the first few episodes, because when I was younger my friend Jerrod’s Dungeonmaster older brother had collected black and white comics about ninja turtles and barbarian aardvarks and shit. I don’t remember actually reading them, but we flipped through them, drew our own copycats like Technovark (a ROBOCOP parody) and bought an issue or two of Hamster Vice. So there was some appeal to this “they’re ninjas, but also animals, do you get it?” concept, but the cartoon was the domain of little brothers, and I didn’t have one. So that’s the extent of my Turtle nostalgia.

I’ve written about the first two live action movies, which are impressive rubber suit and stunt showcases, but really don’t do it for me as stories or characters, and I find them much more annoying than cool. The two previous Ninja Turtles movies that were the most my speed were the live-action-ish TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS and the DTV animated TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES VS. BATMAN, mostly because they’re the only ones with some jokes that made me laugh.

It’s fair to say MUTANT MAYHEM is now my favorite Ninja Turtle movie, for its visual artistry, for actually being funny, for even making me care a little about these turtles and their emotions, even if I can’t always remember which one is which. I really don’t know how the fuck this concept has lasted so long, but I don’t need to know how. I’m glad it has.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 15th, 2023 at 7:16 am and is filed under Reviews, Cartoons and Shit, Comic strips/Super heroes. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

9 Responses to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”

  1. Personally, I’ve never been a TMNT fan. That said, I’m definitely planning to watch this once it hits streaming because I want to support these more experimental animated movies. While I can appreciate a good Pixar or other “traditional” CG animated movie, I’ve really started to become bored of the style those all seem to have. Really happy that the excellent Spider-Verse movies are starting to inspire a little bit more diversity in big budget animated movies.

  2. I feel like I bounced off of this one. The impressionistic animation was interestingly original to me at first, but the coolness and novelty wore off pretty fast and I feel like the 3D presentation didn’t add that much and made parts of it murky. Maybe it’s just my eyes. But by contrast I’ve watched ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE twice more since it hit streaming and still haven’t fully consumed the visual feast; I want to watch it again.

    I don’t think this is a bad movie but maybe more successful for TMNT superfans; I remember it mostly as a black-and-white independent press comic with first runs that quickly soared to a couple hundred bucks on word of mouth. I read Kevin Eastman’s account of creating it as a lark to stave off boredom and have to say I’ve found its continued existence through multiple incarnations both quietly surprising and amusing in the decades since. As Vern notes there are twists to the “classic” origin story in this movie but it’s not a sea change, and I didn’t find them surprising or interesting enough to really merit the movie. It’s still basically 4 turtles and a rat that encounter radioactive ooze.

    It’s fine I suppose but ultimately forgettable for me. My kids liked it pretty well, but even they said SPIDER VERSE was easily better.

  3. I liked this one a lot. More than SPIDERVERSE2 (except on a technical level), a fair bit less than SPIDERVERSE1 (in all respects). And I’m also a non-TMNT fan (despite having seen quite a bit of the newer show, as my son liked it a lot.)

    One thing I liked about the way it borrowed from SPIDERVERSE’s aesthetics, is that it chose one of its styles and sticks to it throughout – On MITCHELLS and PUSS’N’BOOTS they also borrow the eclectic style switching. Here it’s more consistent, they make it more their own. Loved how it’s not just the paintjob, but the models that are all askew and asymmetrical. And the character designs made me laugh.

  4. I don’t consider myself a Turtles super-fan, and yet: I have the first four movies on Blu-Ray (and first three on VHS), I had a zillion toys, including action figures, Turtle vans, Pizza Throwers, etc. (but unfortunately not the blimp), I read a bunch of the Archie comics series and storybooks, I watched the cartoon, I played the video games, I was Leonardo for Halloween, I have the Coming Out of Their Shell tour on audio cassette, etc. So maybe I had a super-fan phase. But I’m not an expert, or a purist. I was not champing at the bit to see this, until I found out it was from the folks that brought us MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES, which is probably my favorite movie of 2021.

    I really liked this! The animation was great– exactly as you describe, Vern, as sketchbook doodles meets concept art brought to life, with some old-school Klasky-Csupo-esque Nickelodeon grotesquerie. I really liked the vocal performances of the four young leads, and the portrayal of the Turtles as modern teens. I didn’t mind the tweaks to the mythos. Ayo Edebiri is very good as April, and (on a gross personal note) I also suffered from anxiety puking in my youth, so I can relate. We do see some shots of Splinter training the Turtles, but he’s just basing his stuff off kung fu movies instead of being the pet of (or actually being) Hamato Yoshi. But we don’t see his backstory, so they could still bring that into Part 2. I thought Jackie Chan was great in the Splinter part, getting most of the best jokes, luring you into thinking he’s just a funny old man, and then kicking ass. Also, he’s correct on the best Chris.

    I didn’t find this as riotously funny as MITCHELLS, but take that milking joke– it starts kinda lame and silly and then they keep bringing it back until they quadruple-down on it and it becomes extremely funny and relevant to the story!

    My one nitpick is that I probably would’ve preferred Superfly to be Baxter Stockman, but I do think Ice Cube was very good even if I don’t really like him as a person anymore. My favorite of the Mutants was probably Paul Rudd’s Mondo Gecko, though I have a nostalgic soft spot for the manta ray guy (voiced by Post Malone [WRATH OF MAN]!). I hope the next one has Halfcourt and Cudley the Cowlick.

  5. I really liked this one. Brought my kid for the 3D show, and I’m pretty sure I had the most fun out of anyone in that theater. Every needle drop brought a grin to my face, all the silly gags were fun (I Love Splinter’s party for them that includes the Chris cutouts)

    And my kid is now into cool looking animation and ninja Turtles! And hopefully 90s hip hop soon…

  6. So there’s a story from the early days of Warner’s animation in the 30s, when they were working with that foul-mouthed rapscallion Bosko rather than Porky or Daffy or Bugs etc, where one of the producers asked their animators to go to the theatre on 4th Street & D or wherever, and check out this one particular bit in the latest Mickey Mouse. “So you want us to do something like that with Bosko?” the artist. “No” replied the big cheese, “I want you to do *exactly* that with Bosko”.

    What I’m trying to say in my roundabout way is that I find it kind of weird that a lot of animated films are straight up and kind of openly jacking their style from INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and everyone thinks it’s good and cool and not a bit of a cheek, but at the same time I have to admit that a lot of the animation I’ve always enjoyed was pretty plagiaristic too, so I can’t complain too much without looking hypocritical. However, and I know this is a cliché and probably “boomer” complaint now, it is starting to rub me the wrong way a bit that these films are using pseudo-hand drawn textures for “flavour”, which to me seems to tacitly concede there’s a certain charm or quality to traditional animation which has never quite been captured or at least superseded by CG animation, despite it being a medium which Hollywood pretty mercenarily axed long before most of the target audiences were born, and have only ever wanted to revive at the rate of about one film a year, and most years that’s a Spongebob or THE BOB’S BURGER’S MOVIE or such. Again, kind of hypocritical from me, because I haven’t bothered to see NIMONA or even KLAUS, but still, I hope Disney’s 100 year anniversary film WISH has more up its sleeve than the MOAZENANGLED with a sub-WIND WAKER filter that seems to be the case. I know this is mostly decisions made by the suits rather than the artists, but I can only really judge what comes out.

    So despite quite liking the trailers for MUTANT MAYHEM, I also had some apprehension. Add on that I’m not the biggest Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd fan in the world. Add on that, I’m sorry but while I can see why it’s a “good” film in many ways MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES might be my least favourite film of this decade so far. It made me feel so old! I was only 34! That’s just 3 times the target audience!

    Despite all that… I really liked it! I’ll always have a huge soft spot for the first three (yes, three) films and I honestly did like the Bay films and even the pretty weak 2007 CGI film was a fun cinema trip at the time, but ultimately it’s pretty hard to deny this is a big leap forward for these guys on the big screen/green. My grumpy pants takes up there aside, it is hard not to prefer this look to the now overfamiliar look featured in so many of the trailers beforehand, and honestly in some ways it comes closer to a more visually adventurous riff of the kind of pseudo-claymation style of the LEGO films and the PEANUTS MOVIE than SPIDER-VERSE. And while I’m suspicious about ready made discussion angles like “THE BATMAN focuses on the detective elements” and “the Turtles are finally acting like teenagers”, I admit, it is hard to discuss the film without talking about the focus on their youthful vulnerability and their relationship with their father. I was surprised by it having quite so many elements in common with the Bay films, but if it was only sort of broke, better to fix creatively than excessively.

    Incidentally April was retrofitted to being a fellow teen in the 2012 series, and black (and I believe a fellow teen) in the most recent series, RISE OF THE TMNT (a show which, like THE BASTARD MITCHELLS AND THEIR INFERNAL MACHINES made me feel about 100 years old) so it’s nothing new, but it is of course, still the most discussed part of the film. The character in the original B&W comics seems kind of racially ambiguous, she looks kind of like Lucinda Dickey to me, but that’s my eyes for you.

  7. Pacman – I don’t think it’s accurate to say that they’re jacking the style of SPIDER-VERSE. The SPIDER-VERSE movies use many different styles but the primary conceit is to mimic comic book printing techniques – zipatone dots, clean ink-like linework, panels, word balloons, sometimes the styles of specific artists. MUTANT MAYHEM is in the same spirit of applying drawing techniques to three-dimensional animation, but it’s a far sketchier, messier, chunkier look, with a very different color scheme and more contrast for less realistic lighting. They took the ball and rolled with it. They’re a bunch of artists building off of each other and being inspired by each other like any exciting explosion in an art movement throughout history.

  8. Well, I kind of came to the same conclusion. Apologies if that didn’t come across. I maybe sometimes try to be a little too colourful in my writing here and in this case my points kind of got lost.

    Also I only saw the film yesterday and I had drafted the first half after your review dropped and I didn’t know for sure that I would see the film. I guess they were more general thoughts I had about this trend than this movie specifically. Ultimately my thoughts were probably more about something like THE BAD GUYS than this movie, and it was probably unfair to the film for me to still post it upfront. I guess my general feeling is it’s feels kind of weird to see so many films piggyback off one specific one, but it’s also something I would have seen in many points in history (in animation and art in general) had I been there.

  9. Probably just stating the obvious, but what’s so exciting SPIDERVERSE is that it breaks away from the tendency of most CGI films to try to tend towards realism in their rendering styles – even when the character design is stylized, or when they try to ape claymation or lego bricks or whatever, they always go for photorealism and things behaving like in real life (cue each Pixar films technically focusing on fluid dynamics, realistic hair/fur, cloud effects, etc.) That the SPIDERVERSES pulled it off so perfectly, and to accompany such good stories, is just gravy.
    I won’t begrudge other people playing in that sandbox, and it’s probably going to take a while for something truly distinct to come off it, but as Pacman says, that’s normal and has happened before with other influential pieces of art. As I said above, I think MUTANT MAYHEM actually makes the style its own simply by sticking with it and the strength of its designs.

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