It was 1987 when our pizza-devouring, ass-kicking teenaged mutant ninja turtles and rat-surrogate-father splinter first kowabunga’d their way onto our screens. Since then we’ve witnessed many iterations of our beloved scaly heroes, but the odour of 80s cinematic lawlessness thrums through our amphibians cold-blooded veins irrelevant of the decade. But rehashing material dog-eared with melancholy is never an easy task. As with any other remake, directing a good new Turtles film boiled down to retaining the magic of the original, whilst simultaneously making it modern enough to resonate with a contemporary audience.
An origin story we are far past familiar with, the ensemble of writers for the new TMNT, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, neatly handle long bouts of exposition with sly camera winks and parodic character outbursts: “just for that, I’m telling you the long version of the story!”. The film teems with the energy of a writer’s board with a childhood interwoven into the very world they now have the opportunity to reinvent.
Describing some of the humour in Mutant Mayhem as being ‘too childish’ is perhaps an undeservingly snotty critique to stamp upon a kid’s film, and yet stamp it I shall. I’ll readily admit that, for its intended younger audience, many of the jokes that stubbed the pacing of the film for me will surely pass below their ingenuous radars. But I often felt the sudden sparks of Seth Rogen’s influence in the script, conflicting with the film’s overarching humour and derailing the action with unnecessary remarks about ‘milking’ the turtles- an image that now seems permanently imprinted on my brain.
Beneath the scales, masks and shells though, the charming adolescence of each of the turtles shines through as clearly as ever. Leonardo, Donatello, Rafael and Michelangelo are sweet, dorky, charismatic teens that you desperately want to see succeed. Whilst they retain all of the important qualities which make their brotherly relationships so dynamic, Splinter and April are given valuable tweaks to help them stand-out from their predecessors.
The brooding battle master has been transformed into the doting father, dressing-gowned up and setting strict curfews for his boisterous adoptees. Scrape beneath the surface and the martial arts connoisseur is still there, but there’s layers of rust which make him slightly more amiable for a light-hearted children’s flick. A moment of silence in particular for whomever, in the most stellar feat of casting I’ve ever witnessed, managed to cast Jackie Chan in the role.
Continuing with the trend of the 2018 animated series, director Jeff Rowe has abandoned the boring white bombshell trope in favour of reinventing April as a young black nerdy teen hellbent on helping the turtles in order to overcome her embarrassment at vomiting live on the school’s daily news report. With the turtles there has always been a parallel of racism inherent in the xenophobia they experience, so it’s great to see a lot of black actors cast in the film to reiterate these themes. But although Mutant Mayhem has a relatively diverse cast, it would be interesting to see these parallels further capitalised on in future versions.
Suffice to say (and I truly cannot seem to say it enough) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and its sequel has certainly set a brand new precedent for modern animated films to go beyond the metrics of the standardised art styles. Whilst I cannot wrestle myself from the sense that the visuals of this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles iteration was certainly inspired- at least spiritually- by Spider-Verse, it manages to have the same aesthetic energy but in its own style, with perhaps not quite as much life packed into the frames.
One of the greatest assets of animated action films is their ability to have truly ludicrous fight sequences. Unburdened by the question of how the movements can by physically achieved by an actor, directors instead simply need to focus on how the battles can be visually enhanced by further layers of animation. Whether its stomping their way through their first scrap with clangs and clatters of equipment in a garage, or sliding through king pins’ offices to the sultry tones of No Diggity, the turtles generally deliver well-paced and creative battle sequences which are a joy to watch. The final fight could’ve certainly been better choreographed, but the rest are well-made enough that it is only somewhat of a criticism.
Compared to the microwaved sludge constructing many recent sequels and remakes, the writers of Mutant Mayhem prove time and time again that this film certainly deserved to be made. Whilst it is not as complex and thrilling as some of the other animated movies that have released in the last decade, any smaller criticisms I have are certainly drowned out by the overall exuberance of the characters and the gorgeous visuals.