The turtles in a half shell are back on the big screen to meet a new generation in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT): Mutant Mayhem, as written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jeff Rowe and directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears. When a lonely scientist attempts to create a family for himself by creating mutant animals, he gets attacked by a shadowy group that’s out to use the transformative ooze to breed mutants as militarized weapons. Some of the ooze goes down the drain into the sewers where four turtles and a rat get caught up in the ooze and transform into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as we know and love them.
There’s plenty to love about this iteration of the foursome. Foremost, I adore this movie’s choice to make the turtles out as specifically a group of younger teenagers. It really shows up in their personalities quite thoroughly that these are kids of a very specific age going through some very specific parts of growing up. Their given age also makes a large part of the kind of humor they employ work excellently. It’s highly sophomoric most of the way through. Whenever the dialogue, especially the one-liners feel written for the kids in the audience, they land with an extra splash. There are very specific language choices that feel quite genuine to the way kids either actually talk or how they at least imagine people talk. When the jokes are being directed toward the adults, they’re a bit too culturally referential to my taste. A certain demographic who grew up on the turtles will surely find a good few of them landing, however; there are certain jokes that started off funny and overstayed their welcome a little bit after they were repeated for the umpteenth time in the same scene.
The other primary aspect of the movie that helps it stand apart, for better and worse, is its visuals. TMNT: Mutant Mayhem is animated with a very comic book-looking art style. As a whole, it’s a bold, creative approach to the visuals that helps set this 3D animation far apart from anything we’ve seen before. The coloring has an effect to almost look like it’s done by hand and as still images, it’s all very pretty. However, the movie is way, way too dark. It takes place in an ultra-grimy, crime-ridden version of New York City, so I truly get what they were going for by painting at least half the screen black at any given time.
It totally works to create the intended atmosphere. But in practice, it just left most of the movie looking dull. Had the movie been full of light and color, it would have been weird, there’s no doubt about that in the universe they created. But the cost of creating such a dark and gloomy world is that everything is dark and gloomy all the time, and that quickly stops being interesting to look at. I also had issues with the framerate, especially when the camera was spinning and everything became blurry, or when scenes were quite zoomed out and weird shadows felt like they were hanging onto the characters.
However, the character designs are all superb in this TMNT rendition. I love the shapes the characters all take, the way the turtles all have different body types from one another, and how all the other mutants look outrageous without being too over-the-top. Even April O’Neal (Ayo Edebiri) gets to have a design outside the cookie-cutter shape of a typical animated human while still looking a realistically proportioned person.
As far as the plot and characters go, it’s all fine. It’s sometimes even good. This is a kid’s movie, so all of the exposition is extremely on the nose. It’s kind of annoyingly so in the opening scenes as we get acquainted with this version of New York and its inhabitants. But for the most part, the lesson-learning inherent in a kid’s movie like this lands pretty well. The main source of the turtles’ struggles is that Splinter (Jackie Chan) hates humans and keeps the boys from going out into the human world. But all the four of them want in life is to be accepted for who they are. Same with April and same with perhaps the movie’s best character, Superfly (Ice Cube).
Superfly and the rest of his mutant crew were created by the same ooze that made the turtles, but his hatred for humanity leads him down a much darker path. He adds a large swath of the movie’s humor and character through the way he interacts with and treats the turtles and the other mutants. Their scenes together are some of the most fun the movie has. It does also lead to a totally contrived lesson-learning scene and a frustrating fake-out ending with one of the dullest action sequences you can bare. But at least it’s preceded and succeeded by substantially more exciting action setpieces.
That’s really the movie’s downfall, ultimately. It’s inconsistent. The visuals are unique and awesome as still images, but I can’t stand looking at them half the time because of how dark and lifeless they can get. The characters are often hilarious and aged just right and then eye-roll-inducing in others. This feeling was most exemplified by the movie’s sound design. I started off almost mad at the audio. Whether it was the theater I was in or the movie itself, the sound was too quite a lot of the time or mixed in a way where the dialogue was too loud when the music was important and too quiet when the music mattered less. But during the first few sequences, the music in the background was either mismatched with the tone of what was going on or just straight-up not good and nearly absent.
About halfway through the movie, one of the best needle drops ever hits and the entire theater was literally rocking in their seats and singing along to the song. Only, the action going on behind the song was a barely interesting montage that felt completely out of sync with the rhythm of the music and the tone of what was going on. The rest of the movie improved as more needle drops started coming in and the score started to fit what was going on a bit better. The final act of the movie had me totally reinvested on every front: the characters, the plot, the action, the audio-visual design. It just didn’t maintain that energy throughout.
TMNT: Mutant Mayhem is fun when it’s fun but dull when it’s dull. This inconsistency holds it back from being as good as it perhaps deserved to be. However, it offers a great foundation to build a new generation of Ninja Turtle fans.
TMNT: Mutant Mayhem is playing in theaters August 2nd.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
TMNT: Mutant Mayhem is fun when it’s fun but dull when it’s dull. This inconsistency holds it back from being as good as it perhaps deserved to be. But, it offers a great foundation to build a new generation of Ninja Turtle fans.