Imaginative Mutant Mayhem delightfully Brings the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Life
I’ve relayed this story before, but the first piece of hate mail I ever received was way back in 1991 for a piece on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze that I’d penned for the Spokesman-Review. The hate mail was written by a kindergartener and hand-delivered to me by my sister. It called me a bad name but was so unbelievably cute that, three-plus decades later, it still brings a smile to my face.
I bring this story up for a reason. In the spirit of being perfectly honest, I’ve never liked a single motion picture based on creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s source material. Have I been impressed by some of the visuals, creature effects (especially those Jim Henson Creature Shop suits from the 1990 film), and vocal performances? Certainly. By individual moments of action, humor, and even sometimes an amiable mixture of both? Absolutely.
But entire features? Start to finish? Nope. Never. Not, that is, until now. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a heck of a lot of fun.
Leave it to director Jeff Rowe, co-director and writer of The Mitchells vs the Machines, co-director Kyler Spears, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and a cadre of talented animators, writers, and various other creatives to make Laird and Eastman’s classic characters come alive as they never have before in a theatrical setting. This latest adventure featuring Leonardo (voiced by Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) is a freewheeling, inventive, funny, and beautifully animated adrenaline rush. I liked it a lot.
This is yet another origin story, so anyone who has read the graphic novel, watched any of the animated series adaptations, or stood in line for the 1991 or 2014 introductory ventures knows much of this already. Anyhow, a big scientific experiment goes haywire, covering four baby turtles and a sewer rat in a mysteriously glowing green ooze. All of them mutate into animal-humanoid hybrids, and the rat — Splinter (Jackie Chan) — raises the turtles as if they were his own sons, teaching them martial arts, family values, and undying love for all things pizza.
Rowe’s take on the material does mix things up somewhat. Instead of battling against Shredder and the Foot Clan, here the intrepid heroes in the half shell are up against a fellow mutant, the gargantuan Superfly (Ice Cube) and his gang of like-minded hybrids of various species. April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) isn’t an already established television news journalist but is instead a teenage wannabe with regurgitation issues whenever she’s on camera. The human baddies are led by nasty government scientist Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), and she’d like nothing better than to get her hands on the four turtle brothers and milk their very life essence right out of them.
What’s great is how the filmmakers balance a zany impertinence with genuine coming-of-age emotional complexities. Not only are the relationships between the brothers authentic, but so are their interactions with their overprotective father Splinter and their budding friendship with the determined — if still resolutely good-natured — O’Neil. Early on, John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is referenced, and that’s for good reason as Rowe and company are resolute in their pursuit to balance comedy and drama with irreverent creativity.
The action is where things come up moderately short. It all looks great, the colors leap off the screen and there is an exhilarating fluidity to the character movements, but that does not mean the majority of the big set pieces generate an equal volume of excitement. Unlike the aforementioned The Mitchells vs the Machines or this summer’s hit Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the staging and visual language of the action sequences leave something to be desired. It’s all too familiar, and other than a lovely, unrestrained bit of nonsense in a New York chop shop that’s like an animated second cousin to John Woo’s Hard Boiled mixed with classic Looney Tunes shorts, there’s frustratingly not a lot to talk about, and this includes the kaiju happy climax.
We’re talking about a story whose martial arts protagonists are mired in subpar action and yet the overall movie remains hugely enjoyable — that says a great deal about how strong every other creative element of this production proves to be. Even with so many writers, the script is tight, agreeably empathetic, and surprisingly more intelligent than anticipated. The animation is continually eye-popping. The whole thing moves like a shot out of a cannon, Rowe maintaining a breakneck pace without sacrificing coherence or character development.
Look, if Mutant Mayhem is what we can expect for these iconic characters going forward, then I’m all for it. For the first time ever, I understand why both my siblings randomly shout, “Turtle power!” for no apparent reason and constantly give me dirty looks for my overall disdain for these characters, their world, and every one of their cinematic outings up until now. I finally get it, and after 30 years of indifference, I’m as pleasantly shocked by this turn of events as anyone.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)