2023 | rated PG | starring voices of Jackie Chan and Ayo Ebebiri | directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears | 1h 39m |
The latest reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes in with such a wave of universal praise that it has me wondering if I saw the same movie. I feel like I did in 2001 when everyone fell over themselves for Shrek and I was completely mystified as to what everyone was seeing in the movie. I grew up watching the cartoon, seeing the movies, playing with the toys and hearing the stories of how the original comics were way more adult and violent than the cartoons we saw. This movie – which went on a Seth Rogen-led publicity spree that touted how it was “made by and for fans” – did nothing for me, either as a nostalgic fan of the turtles or as a new way to breath life into a franchise that has had more reboots than Spider-Man.
Also like Spider-Man (pre-Homecoming) Mutant Mayhem continues to regurgitate the Turtles origin story. It is trapped in a time-loop of reboots, trying to find an idea or animation style that sticks so that it can build a toy-selling franchise out of. In the meantime Mutant Mayhem retells the story of how 4 turtles were exposed to Ooze created by Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito), were taken in by a rat (Jackie Chan, leading the film) and turned into karate-fighting, pizza-eating sewer-dwelling heroes. Donatello (Micha Abbey), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr) and Raphael (Brady Noon) meet would be school reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Ebebiri), seek acceptance from the humans that Splinter fears and fight off an underground population of mutants in New York lead by Baxter’s son Superfly (Ice Cube) who seek to overthrow humans.
The question of why this movie was made seems to be answered in the opening: because Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a hit. Director’s Jeff Rowe (a talented guy of the terrific The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Gravity Falls) and Kyler Spears jump into the Spider-verse animation style, look, sound and feel and wear it around like a skin suit. Even pumping the movie with a musical score that was appropriately ominous for this year’s Across the Spider-verse and comes off out of place against the sheer cartoonishness of Mutant Mayhem. Where a real way to breathe new life into this franchise might be to embrace the bloody, R-rated superhero parody origins of the comic, Mutant Mayhem simply makes another kids movie where the turtles act even less like actual teenagers and more like children then they ever have. In previous versions Leonardo was the leader, Raphael was the weapons expert, Donatello was the scientist and Michelangelo was the goofball. In this version, they are all goofballs, mocking Leonardo’s attempts to lead. Now they’re theater kids, video game nerds and Attack on Titan fans. They’re children in a pop culture world where teenagers are more accurately depicted as pop culture savvy high schoolers of Scream or desperate boner-comedy geeks of American Pie.
Instead of darkness or irreverence we get cringe-inducing dialog that’s either hyper-self aware (the turtles compete to see who has more Rizz) or name-dropping hyper contemporary pop references (Attack on Titan plays a big role in the film, but Avengers Endgame and the Hollywood Chrises get mentioned). This supposedly comes to us from the script polish team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who at one time had their own trademark style, one that injected an earnest, but self-aware irreverence into genres like the sex comedy (Superbad), the pot/buddy comedy (Pineapple Express) and the apocalypse horror movie (This is the End). From their airball Pixar parody, Sausage Party, and forward, I cannot tell what these guys are trying to accomplish with each successive project being less personal and more a studio product. Mutant Mayhem is as faceless a studio product as they’ve ever made. The story is an absolute mess, from it’s origin story first act, to the Turtles befriending their traditional mutant enemies like, Beebop and Rocksteady, to the Kaiju finale.
Nowhere are those studio mandates more obvious than in the design of April O’Neil. Looking nothing like voice actress Ebebiri or any previous version of the character, this egg-shaped, nerdy, projectile-vomiting version of O’Neil was cruelly designed in a castle by dark wizards to make sure young boys don’t develop a crush on a girl for as long as humanly possible. At least 2016’s messy Out of the Shadows had Megan Fox. Naturally, the turtles fall for her instantly because this is just how movies are now.
With a visual style wholesale ripped off from another movie series, a script full of painful one-liners, messages of acceptance right out of any kids movie, a story and action with no set-ups and payoffs and a voice cast full of named actors in cameo roles just to pad out the cast list and rope in the adults (Shrek style), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is one of the ugliest, most obnoxious movie experiences of the year. We’ve tried Guys in Suits in the 90s films, we’ve tried full CGI (TMNT), we’ve tried live-action/CGI mix with the Michael Bay-produced versions. And yet, Mutant Mayhem is the worst version of this franchise to come along in it’s entire history.