Dad had gotten home from a business trip. As he said hello and hugged me, he pulled out a new toy from his briefcase. It was a Ninja Turtle. Four-year-old me had no idea what this thing was, but I was immediately enthralled by how awesome it looked. (It was Metalhead, for all you curious TMNT fans) Shortly thereafter, I became obsessed with everything and anything having to do with the Ninja Turtles. Little did Dad know that gesture would be the defining moment of my childhood.
Fast forward to today, and here I am reviewing the latest TMNT movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. The theatrical turtle offerings have often been a disappointment. The first 1990 movie was awe-inspiring. I knew the turtles were nothing more than actors in rubber suits, but there was something magical about seeing them brought to life. After that initial movie, even child me was less than convinced about the sequels and reboots. “Why Rahzar and Tokka instead of Bebop and Rocksteady?” I asked myself. “Why do the turtles look so strange in part 3?”
By 2007, my childhood was long gone. The Turtles franchise moved to CGI. TMNT was not awful but mostly forgettable. The Michael Bay movies were void of any charm or humor the characters are known for and made the reptilian quartet look like monsters. These offerings all fell short of replicating “my” turtles.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have mostly made their mark through the various television series released since the initial 1987 show. The marketing machine has usually been strong, and the toys and products are consistently sought after by fans. This has helped the franchise maintain its relevance and popularity.
Directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears, Mutant Mayhem reintroduces the characters almost 40 years after their initial comic book appearance. The origin story is familiar yet adds several twists that allow the characters’ motivations to make more sense than has traditionally been the case. Splinter (Jackie Chan) teaches his adoptive sons martial arts as a method of self-defense. He is now a regular rat who was exposed to mutagen rather than the pet or the mutated version of Hamato Yoshi. The turtles are no longer his de facto army against crime, they are four regular teenagers who use their ninja skills to grocery shop. They have the same needs and wants as any other teenager, except for the fact that they really want to go to school.
The siblings have always been fascinated by the world they can only experience watching through the sewer grates. Splinter decides to take them out to experience this new world, only to have his worst fears realized. After being bullied and chastised by humans, Splinter vows never to allow his sons to visit the surface world again.
Of course, the turtles being teens do what teens do, rebel. They sneak around behind their father’s back and enjoy New York City from the shadows. They decide that through acts of heroism, they will be accepted by society. In one of these interventions, the turtles meet aspiring journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edibiri). She has her fair share of bullies in high school. Initially, she sees the turtles as a story she can break to gain acceptance.
Definitions of heroism are blurred when the heroes meet the villains. Having been created the exact same way the turtles have, Supafly (Ice Cube) more than makes his points in favor of human annihilation. He looks to bring the mayhem with his own family of mutant rejects. However, the turtles remain steadfast in their mission to stop him and find a greater purpose to their mission along the way.
Writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg have penned a heartfelt and often hilarious story about acceptance and family. Enveloping the heart is an impressive pericardium of animation and music. Inspired by notebook sketches, the animation style comes at audiences fast and furiously. It is a unique approach that helps the method stand on its own. However, much of the movie occurs at night, making the “in your face” action difficult to keep up with at times. Nonetheless, the unique look favors Mutant Mayhem.
The soundtrack at the hands of the dynamic duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is the best soundtrack on film all year. Using songs familiar to older audiences that harken back to the TMNT glory days is a genius choice. It is an absolute blast that will have feet keeping up with the beat and heads rocking for 90 minutes.
Of course, one cannot end a TMNT review without discussing your friendly city turtles. Certain characteristics have always defined each of the brothers. In Mutant Mayhem, these attributes are more layered. Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu) is still the leader, yet a fair amount of self-doubt and anxiety goes with his responsibilities. Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) is no longer a “surfer” dude. His maturity level is no more or less than his brethren’s, and he shows an interest in improv comedy. Raphael (Brady Noon) has all the rage, as always. With the help of his family, he learns how that might be problematic and learns how to channel that rage in productive ways. Donatello (Micah Abbey) is not only tech savvy, but he uses his intellect to formulate plans at a short moment’s notice.
For the first time on film, the turtles act and talk like real teenagers. After seven movies, it is refreshing to see more of the teenage part taking its place next to the mutant ninja turtle part. They are pop culture experts and have an affinity for BTS. Plus, they understand the effectiveness and power of social media. The revitalized vision makes a strong case for being the definitive version of the characters.
Mutant Mayhem is another animation gem for 2023. After a long and tried history, the turtles prove they are here to stay. The story of family and acceptance resonates loudly from generation to generation. Audiences have always identified with their unique and relatable personalities. And with this iteration, that will be no different. For what it is worth, these turtles are not “my” turtles, they are so much better.