Directed by Jeff Rowe (co-directed by Kyler Spears)
Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Jeff Rowe
Fittingly enough, in the last 24 hours (though not actually in direct connection with my viewing of today's subject), I've had a conversation about whether Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most important work of CGI animation—I think "CGI feature animation" was implied—of all time. I don't really hold to that: 1995's Toy Story has been rendered so quaint and cozy in our memories it's easy to forget it was honest-to-God revolutionary; and it's too soon to say if Spider-Verse's invitation for CGI animators back into a realm of greater abstraction will ever actually outweigh the pivotal significance of the bundle of iterative technical innovations that went into 2010's Tangled, from hair physics to skin translucency to the reintroduction of painterly textures to the backdrops to the intricacies of granting the old illusion of life to a collection of rigging points, innovations which have, by and large, defined what (good) mainstream CGI animation has looked like for the past thirteen years, not always "photorealistic" or even just "realistic," though we use those as terms of convenience to describe it. (I also like Tangled a bit more than I like Spider-Verse, and perhaps that biases me.)
Into the Spider-Verse has not, as yet, had so many followers: there's 2021's The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which "counts" but more as Sony (or maybe Lord & Miller, in their role as animation slavedrivers) semi-simultaneously pursuing what Spider-Verse was pursuing (the other bad news is that The Mitchells vs. the Machines sucks); there's of course Spider-Verse's own sequel, if that needs to be mentioned; and last year DreamWorks fielded The Bad Guys and particularly Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, both going for a "what if watercolors were CGI?" type of style that perhaps can't be laid squarely at Spider-Verse's feet except to the extent that the latter film—it has numerous more admirable qualities—is bandwagoning so freaking hard on Spider-Verse's comics-inspired "action equals reduced framerate" that while still perfectly cool to look at, it's a little embarrassing in its imitative trendiness. We could maybe point at the way the cosmic beings are depicted in Pixar's Soul, but maybe that's its own thing. (There's Entergalactic, the TV show, which from clips looks like if Spider-Verse were much, much cheaper; and there's Arcane; but I'm getting tedious.) Anyway, now adding weight to the case for Spider-Verse, we have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, another comics-derived property (we often forget that before it was an age-defining TV cartoon and something of its own self-parody, it was a comic, dryly parodying 80s comic book trends) that, like Spider-Verse, uses 3-D animation to tack towards the aesthetic of a definitionally 2-D form. Remarkably, this form is not comic books, or at least not comic books exactly.
The kneejerk response—I assure you that I share it—would be to declare Mutant Mayhem a Spider-Verse knockoff and call it a day, and while it very patently, very obviously would not exist if Spider-Verse didn't, "knockoff" isn't fair, despite an enormous amount of similarities above and beyond "doin' a graphic art": it's teen comic book heroes, in New York, done in a way that is self-consciously youthful and forward-looking and "street" (significantly more self-consciously and non-automatically in this instance considering that 40% of its writers are Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and one of the things about their vision of "New York life" that blared out at me was the concept of the city—I guess the whole city!—potentially being put on "curfew" due to a series of what amounts to armored car robberies, and... if you got to point where you were putting New York on curfew, the National Guard is already escorting these convoys in the middle of an mechanized infantry column anyhow). One thing that's different from Spider-Verse—either one—is that it's much more of a lark: technically, the stakes of the film wobble between "the fate of the entire human race" and "at least the fate of all humans inhabiting New York City"—it's maybe even testament to what I'm saying that the "New York" part comes off bigger than the "entire human race" part, and the film agrees, using the threat to the city as a dramatic reversal and climax—but it feels more like a small and even intimately-scaled story to give our heroes on the halfshell their first adventure. And in many respects I prefer the un-epicness of this to the "what are you even talking about anymore" cosmic-industrial interrogations of an Across the Spider-Verse.
This un-epic, then, centers on a new iteration of those ninjitsu-wielding mutant turtles who've reached the point of their life-cycle that most approximates teenagerdom, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Raphael (Brady Noon), and Donatello (Micah Abbey). (I am not nearly enough of a TMNT scholar to tell you which iteration this is. I could look it up, but it's more fun to estimate that this is the fourth in theatrical features, and the twelfth or so in moving images generally.) These turtle lads, exposed in their infancy to a mutagenic ooze dropped down a sewer drain by, in this telling, the chaotic-good scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito, astoundingly overqualified for this role with three lines), have been raised by Splinter (Jackie Chan), in this telling a now-eldery rat who was simultaneously exposed to the same substance. Splinter, whose life experiences as a rat made him mistrustful of humans (and whose life experiences as a man-sized talking mutant rat have only tended to confirm this mistrust) has isolated his wards in their sewer abode for their own safety. Splinter has provided them something resembling a teen boy lifestyle—with the exception of arming them with their traditional Japanese weapons and providing them intensive ninja training based, principally, in this telling, upon Chinese martial arts cinema—but they naturally long to go aboveground and, you know, be part of our world.
They get such an opportunity during a chance encounter with one April O'Neil (Ayo Edibiri), April being, in this telling, a human teen nerd who wants to be a journalist and sees in the turtles a big story; impressed that April doesn't fear or hate them, albeit on the basis that they used their ninja skills as violent vigilantes to help reunite her with her stolen motorbike, the turtles determine to become superheroes to ingratiate themselves into human society. Happily, another band of mutants made by the same scientist, led by his eldest "son" Superfly (Ice Cube), is on a supervillainous rampage, stealing scientific equipment that they aim to use to mutate Earth's entire animal population just as they've been, removing, in one swoop, humans as the so-called dominant species of our planet. They'll probably just kill all of us, though Superfly is open to other ideas, so long as they're painful, humiliating, and end in human extinction.
As previously noted, I am not a TMNT scholar, but I did refer to their 90s cartoon (quite possibly just "one of their 90s cartoons") as "age-defining," and so you can see why I felt the compulsive need to pepper that summary with the phrase "in this telling," or, perhaps, you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about and to Zoomers this is just the canon now. I can, honestly, even appreciate the streamlining that Mutant Mayhem has done for streamlining's own sake—though it was annoyingly unclear at the time and has remained unclear even now whether the in-dialogue callout that Mutant Mayhem makes about its new Turtles origin, buttoning Splinter's exposition with an "it makes complete sense if you think about it," was supposed to be merely a winking joke at us elder Millennials' expense, or the actual foreshadowing of a twist that just never happened within the bounds of this franchise entry.
But regardless of any nostalgia, this is so simplified that it damned near takes all the baroque and parodic joy out of the tortured contrivances the writers originally had to create in order to possibly get to "mutant turtles, who live in a sewer, trained as ninjas to fight crime by a giant rat," a premise that we're maybe too overfamiliar with if we don't continue to find it altogether fucking ridiculous. Now there's no reason besides convention that Splinter's even Asian. Maybe I missed a brief line, but I'd be confident enough to bet a small amount of money this new origin story forgot to explain why this Splinter would have named his sons after Italian Renaissance masters. (I'll spot them "they magically know English," but I'm dead certain it doesn't come close to explaining how a rat ever became familiar with the Italian Renaissance.) I doubt it's a spoiler to tell you that a post-credits sting teases the Shredder—but why? Shredder doesn't mean anything anymore. I guess you'd have to go with Shredder, though, inasmuch as Mutant Mayhem decides to neutralize a pretty big fraction of the Turtles' rogues gallery in one go, notably the most reliable of their villains' henchmutants, Bebop and Rocksteady (Rogen and John Cena, a non-intuitive pairing and one that adds less to the proceedings than you'd hope). It's a reimagination where the change of April O'Neil from a hot grown-up Lois Lane analogue to a dumpy loser teenager (I assume this is the change that received Discourse, since it also involves a race-swap) is the most utilitarian of the zigs it makes in lieu of the old stuff's zags; though given that this zig appears to have happened in no small part in order to open up the possibility for Leonardo's crush to be requited, and thereby create the potential for this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continuity to become its own erotic fan fiction, I can't say it's to my own, personal taste.
As far as it goes on its merits (overall, that is, not the TMNT erotic fan fiction part), or maybe it'll still be me bitching about how it's not the same as the old stuff—it's always hard to say—I at least like better the vibe established for these extremely-teenaged teenage turtles. It's a good vibe, and they work terrifically well together as a always-loving, sometimes-fractious sibling unit. I can't tell anymore if the script from Rogen, Goldberg, and the other three guys (including director Jeff Rowe, graduating from co-directing on, huh, The Mitchells vs. the Machines) has dumped this many pop cultural references into the dialogue as a form of teenaged naturalism, or because they genuinely consider them to be jokes, and a lot of the rest of the humor is a variation on "so that just happened," but despite and sometimes even because of five not-teens attempting to write teens, they're still fun to spend an hour and a half with whilst they learn the ways of heroic bloodshed. (Obviously there's not very much bloodshed, so at least this is the same as I remember it, though I also remember them getting to fight a lot of robots so it didn't matter. In this one, anyway, I don't know why Leonardo even has katanas, as they're obviously not ever going to let him use them; and one action scene makes so sure that Raph gets disarmed that it almost seems to want you to be aware that it's not going to allow Raph to use his sais, and that only Donatello and Michaelangelo, equipped with readily-lethal weapons which only cause internal bleeding, get to do the cool things. Yet, to my understanding, sais are already not weapons built to cause actual puncture wounds.)
The downside here is that they blend into a mass that never quite individuates (despite some individuated character designs that aren't pure palette swaps this go-'round). There's a trailer for this movie where they have Chan tell you what their personalities are, in a voiceover that I'm pretty sure is not in the movie itself, yet I think there's an argument to be made that it should've been. So: Donatello's erudite pretentiousness is tamped down into a slightly-more-pronounced form of the nerdishness that they all share (and I'd hate to find out that Abbey isn't twelve after I say this, but his Donatello voice sure doesn't sound like a teenager's, and this is even good because in the absence of Donatello's pedantry you still won't mistake who's speaking); Michaelangelo comes out fine, maybe just because he was always my favorite and less because this Michaelangelo is still a party dude in any strong sense of that term; but at least Raphael pops out of the ensemble thanks to Noon's happy warrior bloodlust, which is in fact probably an improvement on the brooding jerk that I recall; Leonardo, though, gets flattened very hard, his stoicism dissolving into a stereotyped everyteen. He's designated the leader but it's no mystery why his brothers don't respect this, since a five-person screenwriting team failed to notice that his very first character-revealing moment involves him not only ratting out his brothers ("don't use that word that way!" is funny; "it's 2023, man," very funny), but also attempting to palm off all the blame on them. Leonardo's next character-revealing moment, incidentally, is throwing away all discipline after getting hormonal for a mammal. Even so, I call it a downside, but maybe it's just a side-effect: as a quartet, Cantu, Brown, Noon, and Abbey's half-enervating/half-exhilarating teen energy, even just the overlapping overenthusiasm of their dialogue—all of it presented in mercifully right-sized chunks—basically ensures a good time. (The truest standout, then, is Ice Cube as Superfly, mostly thanks to a monologue about the future of humanity that takes us down a startlingly dark passage for a kid's movie that, everywhere else, is only willing to get Nickoledeon-gross.)
But of course what recommends Mutant Mayhem at any level beyond "another Ninja Turtles product amongst many, and probably not your favorite" is its animation and design, which, hell, might make it your favorite. I said, many moons ago, before I got sidetracked into incredibly lame and potentially-ignorant nitpicking about the concepts behind a franchise I've barely thought about in three decades, that it's "not exactly" comic books. The style adopted for Mutant Mayhem is more like an adolescent who wants to do comic books, and might have the talent for it, though he practices mostly just by doodling in his notebook while not paying attention in math class, drawing things dredged up from the id of a boy on the cusp of puberty about what he thinks being a teen might be like, though mostly he's still into monsters and gross shit. And that describes the idea, though it's even more like "what if an actual comic book artist did it," because, you know, it's actually good. So there's this wonderfully scrawly composition to the characters that becomes even scrawlier still in the backgrounds—backgrounds being something our notional young artist would obviously only care about to the extent they helped make his foregrounds look grodier—and, in a testament to the untapped animating talent out there, they handed this design mentality over to B- or even C-tier animation studios Mikros and Cinesite, who have basically never been asked to do anything like this, and they did a sterling job of translating this amazingly 2-D style into 3-D models and environments that are amenable to the wildest possible manipulations of the "camera." There's all sorts of details I like, though I think the one I like the most is the lo-fi cycling of the flares of light around streetlamps and other light sources.
It's a bit of a shame that it could not be a tad more violent—the x-treme little kid who drew the rest of this would definitely put a lot more blood in it—and as far as directing this, or not to put it all at Rowe's doorstep, doing the lay-outs for all this, one wishes the action we do get were better-staged. (The best thing in the whole movie is a time-collapsing, match-cut montage of the Turtles whaling on random criminals to work their way up the chain to Superfly, and it's great; what ought to be the best thing is undoubtedly the chase sequence set to presumably Rogen and Goldberg's choice for an ironic, nostalgic counterpoint of a pop song, 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up," that feels like Rowe and company suddenly realized they weren't actually up to the challenge of doing pop song action staging. To wedge it in, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross's electronic score is excellent.) The humans here are a mixed bag: they somewhat necessitate Superfly's plan being active human genocide, because merely mutating this bunch would in almost every case just be a lateral move; but it actually fits the aesthetic very well, insofar as our kid artist probably would be less interested in drawing humans than he would be his mutant creations that, outside the Turtles, don't uniformly require more advanced artistic skills like "symmetry." That's probably the real missed opportunity with April: believe it or not, I don't actually give a good Goddamn whether April O'Neil is hot, but just being the best-looking of these freakshow humans is a lot less interesting than how our notional artist—who, I don't want to completely essentialize here, so I'm comfortable with only saying "he's straight male-coded"—might go about trying to draw his sex fantasy, and I think the movie would've gotten more use out of "what if Holly Would, but incompetently drafted?" On the other hand, this movie has some wonderful on-camera puking, which I will never not be impressed by; and the final form of Superfly—our kid has seen a Max Ernst—is outstandingly Nickolodeon-gross, which is a phrase I would use whether it was a Nickolodeon film (it is) or not, and despite how I made it sound earlier, I mean it as a compliment.