Mutant Mayhem’ Finally Makes Them Cool Again

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of the most enduring icons of American pop culture. Since their first appearance in the 1984 comic book Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there have been multiple comic series (the original lasting 30 years), five different television series, seven films, and over 40 video games, including arcade games and pinball machines. That’s to say nothing of merchandising—at the peak of their popularity (the late ’80s/early ’90s), TMNT action figures earned nearly $1.1 billion in just four years. And the first six films have grossed over $1 billion combined.

The seventh film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, now in theaters, is the latest piece of turtle-related media hoping to keep that love alive and kicking. Directed by Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) and written by Rowe, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit, Mutant Mayhem isn’t just great. It might just be the best exploration of what makes these turtles such a cultural phenomenon to date. It’s so charming, in fact, that I’m willing to excuse the fact that the title has the word Mutant twice.

The reason so many people across generations adore these mutated reptiles is simple: They’re so much fun to hang out with. They’re superheroes without an air of seriousness or pretension. At their core, TMNT is a group of four teens who just want to skateboard, crack jokes, and eat pizza. That’s delightful in and of itself. (I never skateboarded, but like all living people, I love pizza.) But it ascends to a staggering level of cool when you factor in their martial arts skills. Each turtle is gifted with a different weapon—a staff (Donatello), dual katana (Leonardo), sai (Raphael), and nunchucks (Michelangelo).

The turtles have never really gone away, there’s been a considerable shift in how they’ve been perceived in recent years—obscuring what so many adored about them in the first place. Whether it’s Hollywood being Hollywood or just a few high-powered creatives, the purity and joy of the turtles has been bastardized, making way for a cruder, creepier turtle—which is especially clear in the most recent live-action films. It sucked to see these charming dudes morph into something practically unrecognziable—which is why it brings me so much joy to see Mutant Mayhem restore their glory and then some, reaffirming why people love these characters so dearly.

A still from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Paramount Pictures

Like many others, I loved watching the original animated series—the theme song occupies a considerable portion of my brain—and spent far too many quarters playing TMNT arcade games. Growing up, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles felt to me like unproblematic frat bros. (Yes, I know they’re teenagers, and therefore not in a fraternity, but I was a mere child and everyone older and bigger than me was an adult.) These pizza-loving turtle dudes never felt judgemental; spending time with them felt like I was in a safe space, which felt especially important as the kind of kid who ran around wearing Spice Girls rings (one gal for each finger, naturally).

All I needed was a love of pizza and, in my fantasy, I could become a welcome part of their group. Their fighting abilities were an enticing benefit—should anyone make fun of me, surely Leonardo and company would jump in and protect me.

A picture from ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’  shows the turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was released in 2016 was a sequel to the 2014 remake, simply called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Courtesy Everett Collection

While the turtle movies had never had much in the way of critical success, they reached their nadir in the two most recent live-action films: 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the sequel, 2016’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. The films are bad, yes, but worse, they completely misunderstand who the turtles are. A far cry from the cartoonish puppets of the first live-action films, these new turtles were less teenage and more roided-out monstrosities, complete with eerily human lips, transforming once-loveable buddies into nightmare fuel.

Worse still, they’re lecherous creeps, who are obsessed with reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox). One of the first lines delivered when they meet her is, “She’s so hot I can feel my shell tightening,” which is the cringiest thing any ninja turtle has ever spoken—and this is the franchise that popularized “cowabunga” (which frankly rules). The very ethos of what makes these turtles special seemed to have been lost… until now.

A still from the 1987 ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ show

The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show premiered in 1987.

Everett

I’m thrilled to say that Mutant Mayhem isn’t just a total blast of a movie; it’s the perfect introduction of the turtles to a new generation. Essentially, the movie remembers something that nearly every iteration of TMNT loses sight of: These are teenagers! They’re actual teenagers voicing teenagers, at that! That may sound like a no-brainer, but there’s a long-established trend in Hollywood of having adults act like Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock.

But Mutant Mayhem has all four turtles voiced by teens—Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, and Brady Noon—which goes such a long way in letting the characters sound and feel like actual kids. The dialogue, notably written by adults, still feels tremendously current, assisted by the fact that the actors were encouraged to improvise.

The turtles pose with Judith Hoag from the 1990 film ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’

Judith Hoag, who plays April, poses with the turtles in the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Courtesy Everett Collection

Mutant Mayhem really hones in on the teenage identity of these turtles. They want to do teenage things: attend high school, rebel against their strict father, skateboard, watch movies, and hang out with their friends. That might sound simple, but this is a film about mutated super turtles, so there’s plenty of thrilling action and world-saving to do as well. But at its heart, this is a film about incredibly endearing turtles looking for their place in the world. For the first time in my turtle-y fandom, I didn’t just want to hang out with them—I could fully empathize with their experience.

The wild, anarchic energy you might expect from a group of sewer-dwelling ninja turtles is very much thriving in Mutant Mayhem. There are loads of unexpected and hysterical needle drops, from A Tribe Called Quest to Natasha Bedingfield. The script is a rapid barrage of clever jokes that make the turtles feel cooler than ever—not only can they beat up your enemies, but they can keep you laughing too.

A picture from ‘TMNT’ shows the turtles with Splinter

2007’s TMNT was the first animated movie in the franchise

Courtesy Everett Collection

Animation is where TMNT will always be best suited, and the style employed in Mutant Mayhem feels like a perfect reflection of the spirit of the ninja turtles. There’s a grittiness to the drawings, and a clear desire to not achieve perfection, embracing scratches and harsh lines that deliberately remove it from super-clean CG animation in films like Frozen. It feels closer to something like street graffiti, which couldn’t possibly fit these underground NYC turtles any better. Everything in this movie feels devoted to understanding why people love the ninja turtles so much, and it’s paid off massively.

The turtles (barring the 2014 and 2016 films) have always been some of the coolest bros around. Mutant Mayhem takes things even further, expanding on the basics of what we know about these turtles in thrilling ways, fleshing out these characters and finally bringing out their teenage side. It feels both gleefully nostalgic and forward-thinking, reminding everyone why it’ll always be turtle time.

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