“Maybe one day, everyone will love us the way they love Ferris Bueller.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a 2023 Paramount Pictures release directed by Jeff Rowe with Kyler Spears from a story by Seth Rogan, Rowe, Evan Goldberg, and Brendan O’Brien. Mutant Mayhem is the sixth feature film for the Turtles franchise, which was created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1983 for their self-published independent studio, Mirage Press. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ first printing was a short-run, ultra-violent, black-and-white issue that sold out swiftly. The Ninja Teens were both a parody and a loving pastiche of some of the prevailing industry trends, most notably Marvel’s adolescent New Muants, DC’s Teen Titans, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Frank Miller’s limited series Ronin as well as his work on Daredevil. Miller brought neo-noir influences to Daredevil and overlaid them with sensibilities borrowed from films like the Shaw Brothers Studio’s Hong Kong Kung Fu pictures to create a fever dream of a forgotten Sensei, the sudden appearance of ancient clans in New York and bloody ninja battles across the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen that make a messy splash into the secret life of staid attorney Matt Murdock.
Miller’s Daredevil is a big deal. His incredible work leads the industry to sit up and take notice. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are HUGE. Three years after the first issue went to print, Playmates Toys, Ltd teams with the Eastman and Laird on a licensing deal to produce action figures and an animated series. Playmates smoothes down a lot of the rough edges present in the more graphic comic book and aims the IP at children. Many of the details that are associated with the group originate from the initial animated show and toy line, like the team’s love of pizza, constant quips, the color-coded masks and monogrammed belt buckles as well as their more distinct personalities and characterizations that have persisted in almost every TMNT production to this day.
Ayo Edebiri, Brady Noon, Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr and Micah Abbey lead a star-studded cast including Jackie Chan, Hannibal Buress, Maya Rudolph, Giancarlo Esposito, Seth Rogan, Rose Byrne, Paul Rudd, John Cena, Post Malone, Natasia Demetriou and Ice Cube.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a new and interesting take on an origin story that has been told many, many times before presented with a cutting-edge animation style that can’t sit still. The movie is very busy visually; backgrounds breathe, lines scribble across the screen and action sequences writhe with eye-popping exaggerations. The script is witty, the characters’ motives are clear, their motivations universal, and the music is on point. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide the score and curate the soundtrack. It blends and seamlessly enhances the action beats, holds tension tripwire tight and breaks for comedy when necessary. Some of the song choices are perfectly placed. Mutant Mayhem is a fun, welcome return to form and a light, absurdist romp that is sure to spawn several sequels.
“Back off! I’ve got a big stick!”
Doctor Baxter Stockman (Esposito) is a lonely scientist who dreams of a family. Using state-of-the-art equipment stolen from the enigmatic Techno Cosmic Research Institute, he has created a mutagen with which he intends to evolve animals and create the family he longs for. He’s started with a fly as proof of concept, but unbeknownst to him, his work is being monitored from afar. The sinister Cynthia Utrom (Rudolph) sends in a TCRI SWAT team, but Stockman doesn’t go quietly and the bumbling gunmen set off a series of explosions that levels the lab. The fly escapes, the Doctor dies and a missed vial of the mutagen slips into the sewers, spilling its contents on whatever lies beneath.
15 years later, a series of robberies plagues the city. Sophisticated pieces of electronic equipment, shipments of wire spools, generator parts, and other components have all gone missing. Word on the street is that there’s a new player in town, but the cops don’t have any leads. Young April O’Neil (Edebiri) dreams of being a journalist and redeeming herself as a reporter after a mortifying incident left her abashed and ashamed, a viral laughingstock and a school pariah. She figures if she can solve the crime spree and steady her nerves, she can gain acceptance from her classmates. Running down a clue, she’s distracted by a bunch of rooftop hooligans, and her scooter is stolen from her.
The four hooligans are humanoid turtle teenagers who were doused by the mutagen, mutated, and were raised in the sewers by a rat who was also contaminated by the mutagen. They vigorously train in the martial arts and learn to be wary of humans. They live lives apart, but each longs to belong and leave the sewers behind. While it was brash Raphael’s (Noon) antics that interrupted O’Neil and led to her losing her scooter, Leonardo (Cantu) feels responsible. He also smitten by O’Neil and demands his brothers assist him in recovering her wheels. Cerebral Donatello (Abbey) agrees and nimble Michelangelo springs into action, followed by the others. They trail the thief to a chop shop and confront him along with the black market mechanics he’s in cahoots with.
In an intense trial-by-fire, the turtle boys learn that all that practicing has paid off. They subdue their foes with nary a scratch. However, while they find that their fighting prowess is formidable, the boys discover that they really suck at the Ninjutsu skills involving blending into the shadows or hiding. April bravely follows the bandit to the garage and though outside, completely hears the commotion caused by the combat. She enters the chop shop and confronts the turtles. They’re counting on the darkness to conceal them but she sees them easily. She swiftly realizes they’re not kids wearing suits but doesn’t freak out. She begins to sympathize with them after Leo tells her their story about the ooze that changed their lives.
April can see they have something in common. They’re all outsiders. They dwell on the periphery. The turtles live beneath the people, she’s been rejected by her peers. They share a yearning for acceptance and approval, the overwhelming urge to belong. She has an idea: If the turtles can help her solve the mystery of the missing machine parts, and she can get them on the news, they can gain the validation they hunger for and she can get the vindication her bruised psyche requires.
She’s only got two firm leads. All of the stolen material and components came from TCRI, and she’s got a name: Superfly. Scuttlebutt says he’s bad news and no one who’s seen his face has lived. The local fences are terrified, but they’ll move his merch. Leonardo and the boys start working their way up the ladder, trying to shake loose any actionable intelligence that will lead them to Superfly’s lair.
Will the boys stop ribbing Leo over his feelings for April? Can Leonardo gain the confidence he needs to assert himself? Can Donny stop overthinking everything? Will Raphael learn to channel his aggression in service of the team? Can Michelangelo improvise according to a plan? Will April develop the control she needs to keep it together on camera? Can the turtles manage to keep their father from finding out they’ve been lying to him for days? Who is the Superfly, what is he building and how many mutated minions will satisfy his megalomania? See Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem to find out.
“Then I knew what to do: I would kill all the humans, and the mutants would take over the world.”
“They should be pets.”
“Look, I’m open to all ideas.”
Many of the elements Frank Miller slots into Daredevil are mirrored in Eastman and Laird’s work. Matt Murdock’s Sensei is a man called Stick. He teaches Murdock how to control his abilities and become Daredevil. The turtles’ master is a rat named Splinter. He teaches them the arts of Ninjutsu. In Miller’s run, Daredevil battles against a dark ninja clan known as the Hand, while the nemeses of the turtles are an army of ninja known as the Foot. However, the connection between the titles runs deeper. In Daredevil #1, published in 1964, Matt Murdock loses his vision but gains his enhanced senses as a child when he selflessly saves a pedestrian by pushing him past an out-of-control truck bearing barrels of radioactive waste. The waste splashes on Murdock’s face and blinds him, but also alters him forever.
The event that irrevocably changes Matt Murdock is the same accident that spawns the turtle teens. That incident is reproduced from another perspective in the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as the radioactive material drains into the sewers, coating and changing the four young turtles and their rat guardian, who had been the pet of a Hamato Yoshi, a martial artist. Watching his owner practice every day, the rat, named Splinter absorbs his teachings. In a dispute, a rival, Oroku Saki, murders his owner. Splinter escaped only to get soaked by the waste while trying to help the baby turtles. Splinter takes his young charges under his wing and trains them in the martial arts as they grow older. Soon they start to skirmish with Oroku Saki’s minions in hopes of getting revenge. He is now known as the Shredder and his gang of henchmen is called the Foot.
Within the world of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Marvel comics exist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is mentioned several times. Mark Ruffalo gets a lot of love. However, Rowe and the writers are deft enough to alter the origins of the ooze mutagen enough to eliminate the Daredevil connections. While that’s unfortunate and might preclude a crossover with Charlie Cox who plays Daredevil in the MCU, it works within the context of the film’s own self-contained strange rules.
The film has strange rules indeed. The turtles live in the sewers, anonymously existing outside the knowledge of humans, yet they use smartphones and tablets. One of them must have a bank account to pay the bills. They’re not making their monogrammed equipment and weapons in the sewers, they must be delivered by Amazon or UPS. One of the turtles wears corrective lenses. One of the turtles wears dental braces. They dream of High School. They want to go to Prom. They speak English.
Eliminating the Daredevil/ Hamato Yoshi threads from the story leaves those issues exposed and left this reviewer asking questions at inopportune times. This rat doesn’t have any positive interactions with humans to teach the turtles why they should want to be like or help humans. This rat doesn’t have any experience with human artifacts like banks or currency or kung fu and just seems to know how to read. The rat takes one of the turtles to get his teeth straightened. Who was the dentist? What kind of Ophthalmologist saw the turtle kid, didn’t freak out, and was like, “Ok, cool! Check out this eye chart and read the top line for me.”
Those are minor issues of momentary hindrance, but they did come up repeatedly. Visually, the swirling, unsettled artwork feels heavily influenced by the work of the award-winning animator, Bill Plympton. There is an underlying structure to the layout of the characters and backgrounds but streaks and lines waver across almost every surface, adding layers of color and moving with the mood as if leaves blowing in wind. Nothing sits still. Action sequences are easily tracked even through rapid cuts. The beats are embellished and inflated but don’t feel like they overstay their welcome, even when things go Kaiju-big towards the third act. Liberties have been taken with Splinter, but the turtles are drawing heavily from the original designs from the Playmates animated show. As teens, the turtles are cute. As babies, even sploshed with ooze, they’re ADORABLE. April O’Neil gets a new vibe and a new look but keeps her iconic yellow jacket.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have crafted a magnificent score that superbly matches the music with on-screen movements. The individual songs selected for the soundtrack range across genres and are tightly tailored for the scenes they’re set with. During this reviewer’s screening, the strongest reaction the crowd had during the entire film came with the opening lines to an instantly recognizable song that fit the moment impeccably.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a fun, lightweight, summer action film. It’s a clever movie with a good message and great music. The picture is a feast for your senses with a sequel-bait stinger introducing a character that will somehow be shoehorned in to the new spin on the concept. The film builds on its own internal sense of absurdity until things just go completely off the rails and yet Mutant Mayhem is able to stick the landing. Even with all the chaos, the characters in Mutant Mayhem are driven by truly omnipresent motivations. Those incentives ground the spectacle and make it work.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is in theatres August 2nd.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and related characters were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.