Review: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem'
The two gold standard TMNT movies, at least for me, are the original live action version and the original animated version. Going the other way, I think the most recent live action movies, plus the third movie in the original trilogy, are a bit over-hated, but still weak. Meanwhile, the movie that most resembles the newest movie, Mutant Mayhem, at least in my reaction to it, is The Secret of the Ooze. They’re both fine, and a lot of fun, and I think a lot of both casual movie-goers and series fans will enjoy them. But they’re not my favorites in the series.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears, is only the second animated feature for the Ninja Turtles (at least theatrically; various feature length spin-offs of the animated series have gone direct-to-video/streaming/television, but I’m ignoring them), which is surprising, because if there’s one franchise that feels like it just needs to be a cartoon, it’s this one.
A Rebooted Story
This is yet another continuity reboot, starting from the beginning. If you’re not familiar with TMNT lore, the movie explains what’s going on well enough. For those who are fans, the previous version of the story this iteration most resembles is actually the continuity of two previous live action movies. Like in those movies, Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan) is neither mutated human Hamato Yoshi, nor his pet rat, as in previous incarnations, but an unnamed wild rat who happened to be mutated along with four baby turtles by glowing green ooze. He was inspired to learn ninjutsu and other martial arts after an early attempt to join human society had him and his adopted children chased back into the sewers as a monster. His isolationist fear of humanity is the driving force for both his character, and the thematic keystone of the movie.
The four turtles are portrayed as possibly the most youthful version of themselves so far. Or maybe I’m just getting older, myself. Technically, most versions of the turtles, if they’re given an age, are said to be 15 years old, but they’re usually voiced by adults, and sound and act like older teenagers or even immature twenty-somethings. For this movie, actual teenagers voice the turtles, with Micah Abbey, Nicholas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr. and Brady Noon voicing Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, respectively. If they weren’t living in a sewer, and weren’t mutant turtles, they’d probably fit right in a high school setting. In fact, this is their character goal; they would actually really just like to attend high school as regular kids.
Other than that, the standard characterization applies, with Donatello the smart one, Leonardo the morally upright leader, Michelangelo the funny one, and Raphael the angry one, though the movie does forgo the usual subplot where Raph gets angry at Leon and leaves the team in a huff. Instead, the plot involves the turtles befriending a young April O’Neil (voiced by Ayo Edebiri), who in this continuity is also a teenager, but is a struggling student journalist. The turtles decide to take down a crime boss known only as Superfly (voiced by Ice Cube), which will make them heroes acceptable to humanity, while April will get to break the story.
Superfly turns out to be a literal fly, obviously inspired by the fly mutant version of the recurring TMNT character Baxter Stockman, though in this version, Baxter Stockman (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) remains human and Superfly is his mutant “child”. Stockman is in fact responsible for the ooze, and has purposely created a large group of mutant animals, of which Superfly is the leader. These mutant animals are all new versions of past TMNT mutant characters, voiced mostly by a series of overly starry celebrity cameos. They follow the characterizations of the original cartoon series, though a few have had their gender changed, so there are now a few female mutants. The original series mutant population was a bit of a sausage fest, in hindsight.
The guiding aesthetic for these mut-animals seems to be purposely gross, in a fun, 90s-throwback way, where toys and cartoons, especially those aimed at boys, were often marketed as disgusting. The upshot is these are not pretty characters, not even the new female characters, but it is an appropriate take on series whose main characters backstory heavily emphasizes mysterious goo in sewers. On one hand, I find the character designs compare favorably to the purposefully ugly designs of 2011’s Rango.
On the other hand, the aesthetics of Mutant Mayhem and Rango could not be further apart when it comes to other choices. While Rango’s heavily stylized character designs were part of an almost photo-realistic CGI world, the CGI of Mutant Mayhem evokes the sketchy style of underground comic art and even graffiti. I have been a bit ambivalent about this new trend of CGI animated movies attempting to look more drawn. I am all for stylization, even extreme stylization, in animation, and the pushback against more photo-realistic trends last decade feels overdue, but I can’t help but point out that making animation look traditionally hand-drawn might be better served by just using traditional, hand-drawn animation. Also, as Rango showed, it’s not impossible to be both hyper-realistic and hyper-stylized, at the same time. But, as far as Mutant Mayhem is concerned, the aesthetic fits, is appropriate, looks great, and is furthermore just well animated in general. (Not naming any names, but before the movie started, there was trailer for a CGI movie trying to look hand-drawn that did look awful and inappropriate, so I’m still leery of this trend.)
Some Minor Spoilers Ahead
Now, I usually try and avoid spoilers out of politeness, so I’m going to bring this up down here at the bottom and warn you, so you can leave now and still get the main thrust of the review, but given my audience, I feel like this is something a lot of furries would want to know. Spoiler, but, no, Splinter, despite some rumors, is not gay in this movie. He does start up a romantic relationship with one of the other mutant animals (so, there is at least, finally, some unambiguous “cross-species pollination” going on), but the character is female. The confusion stems from the fact she was one of the characters gender-switched, she is mute in this movie and has a pretty gender-neutral character design, oh, and also, she was pretty explicitly misgendered in the marketing campaign, which isn’t great. So that’s what’s going on there.
Well, while we’re here and sharing minor spoiler-y trivia, a side human villain has the surname of Utrom, which doesn’t come up in this movie, but anyone familiar with past iterations of the franchise will see this as obvious sequel bait. Meanwhile, there is also a mid-credits scene which more explicitly teases a sequel.
No points for guessing which character shows up in that one.