Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

I have committed in good faith to reviewing as many movies as possible this summer, and I take that seriously. But I think it's in the best interests of everyone involved—you, me, the fans, the filmmakers, and any anthropomorphized adolescent radioactive testudines who may be reading—if I keep this short.

Look, it was just a joke, folks. In the early 1980s—which happened to be my own halcyon era of comic-book reading—seemingly every Marvel Comics character was either a teenage mutant, or a ninja, or—in a couple of cases—both. X-Men—about a team of teenage mutants—was the hottest book, and after writer/artist Frank Miller's ninja-heavy work on Daredevil became popular, sensais, samurai swords, and sais started turning up everywhere, including in X-Men. Young aspiring comic creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984 to parody these already tired tropes, and the small-press book became an unexpected hit. Fast-forward a couple of years, and this inside-joke somehow led to a licensing deal with Playmates Toys, and then to several animated series, a number of video games, and—to date—six feature films.

To be clear, I'm not even saying this is a bad thing. I never read the comic, which may have been brilliant, and I never watched any of the cartoons, which may very well have been wonderful. I think I saw the first, silly-looking live-action TMNT movie at a drive-in double-feature when I was in college, but I have to confess I don't think I paid any attention to it. So I can't speak to the faithfulness of any particular adaptation, or to the relative merits of one talking tortoise movie versus any other.

What I am saying is that I had little or no interest in this franchise before watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023), and that the movie, regrettably, did not increase my investment one iota.

Allow me to set the scene—as recounted in TMNT:MM's first act—for those even less informed than I was. Fifteen years ago, a lonely scientist was doing experiments on various animals, trying to make some friends he would like better than humans. After a shady government agency tried to steal his formula so they could make hybrid super-soldiers, that formula—a radioactive sludge called "ooze"—ended up in the sewers, where it transformed four baby turtles into larger, intelligent, bi-pedal turtles with opposable thumbs. It also transformed a rat named Splinter, who adopted the turtles, named them after Renaissance artists, taught them martial arts, and raised them as his own.

(You know, like happens.)

In the present day, those four turtles—Leonardo (Nicholas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Donatello (Micah Abbey)—are restless teen-agers, craving more freedom and contact with the outside world than Splinter (Jackie Chan)—reasonably distrustful of humans—wants to allow them. One night, however, while skulking about the rooftops, they meet a plucky teen-age journalist named April O'Neal (Ayo Edebiri), who is investigating a crime-spree led by a mysterious figure called Superfly (Ice Cube), who is…well, he's a really big fly.

Could Superfly and his monstrous minions be tied to the Turtles' own origin? Will the Turtles and April thwart his evil plans and prove to the surface world that they're heroes? Will Splinter not only stop being such a helicopter parent, but perhaps find love with a giant cockroach?

(I don't know. Probably? To be honest, I gave up taking notes about half an hour in, and lost the thread completely not much later.)

Let's talk about what works, and what doesn't. First of all, TMNT:MM looks great, for the most part. Though undoubtedly computer-generated, the animation has a hand-sketched comic-book style (heavily influenced, one suspects, by the Spider-Verse films), and a rich, earth-tone color palette that makes it frame-for-frame far more visually interesting than most animated movies. There is fantastic depth and texture, and a careful, thoughtful play with light and shadow, that makes static and quiet scenes a pleasure to explore with the eye. This style, however, works less well in the film's fast-paced action scenes, which come with increasing (and eventually unrelenting) speed. In rapid motion, the detailed objects and characters become blurred, and the nuanced colors become muddied, making the action much harder to follow than it would be rendered in a simpler style. (Have about 100 characters jumping around in the frame—as the film's final act does—and it all turns into mock turtle soup.)

The film certainly does not lack for energy (directors Jeff Rowe & Kyler Spears keep the pace up to a hyperactive fault) or humor (the screenplay is by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, and others). There are steady gags to amuse the age-group the film is aimed towards, and enough relatively clever bits to earn a few chuckles from the adults.

The problem, from my perspective, is one of character. I don't know if the individual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have historically had recognizable personalities, but—to the uninitiated, at least—they are barely distinguishable here by their weapons and color-coded masks. (I get that Leonardo is the leader, and Raphael is violent. Of the other two, I think one of them is supposed to be smart—he has glasses—and the other one is…funny? Maybe?) I never knew which one was which, and I never knew which one was speaking—their appearances, vocal patterns, mannerisms, and senses of humor all seemed the same—and, not to put too fine a point on it, they were all incredibly annoying. If the film had slowed up the pace for a few minutes here or there to establish individual character traits and motivations, I might have managed to care about the film's simple coming-of-age story—but I didn't. (Honestly, Superfly and his crew of mutated frogs, geckos, rhinos, alligators, bats, and cockroaches seemed far more interesting and personable: I wanted to hang out with those guys. At least I could tell them apart.)

Though I never read any other reviews before I write my own, I am aware that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem has received largely favorable notices, a fact I can only attribute to the quality of the art design and the seriously lowered expectations generated by every previous iteration of these characters on the big screen. I am also aware that it probably sounds like I was deliberately resistant to the film's charms, but I assure you that's not the case. A comic-reading, animation-loving, action-franchise-friendly guy who just happened to have missed out on the Ninja Turtle craze, I could easily have been brought onboard the bandwagon by a quality re-introduction of these characters. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I am pleased Mutant Mayhem took stylistic lessons from the Spider-Verse films: there should be more animated comic-book movies, and they should take more creative liberties with the look and mood of their visual storytelling. I just wish TMNT:MM had also taken similar notes from Spider-Verse about character development and emotional stakes.

Did the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem make a better full-length toy commercial than the previous versions? Almost certainly. But as a stand-alone film, designed to relaunch this franchise for a new generation, I think they kind of cowabungled it.

(That was cheap. Sorry.)

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