Mutant Mayhem is a repackage of an old formula, jettisoning obligation to 80’s nostalgia and modernizing the material to potentially be more relatable to a new generation of young fans. What’s different: the Turtles (Raphael, Michaelangelo, Leonardo, & Donatello) are voiced by actual teenagers this time, the film resists the urge to ignore current popular culture, and the visual aesthetic (tell me if you’ve heard this before) is greatly inspired by Into the Spider-Verse and Arcane. Except, this is Ninja Turtles Year One, so to speak. They’re not crimefighters yet, just a bunch of jovial and wisecracking kids who don’t understand why they can’t enjoy life in the human world.
They’re forbidden from exiting the shadows by their adoptive father, Splinter (Jackie Chan). He offers his kids, and the audience, an exposition dump (you can lampshade it, but it’s still contrived) to recall the story of their origin – the five of them coming into contact with a mysterious green ooze, transforming them from a Rat and baby Turtles into a humanoid like monstrosities. At least, that’s how the public would describe them, as Splinter recalls a frightful night when he and the still baby Turtles were harassed and nearly killed by a hateful mob of humans. To Splinter, humans are prejudiced scum. His children are not so sure.
The movie offers not one, not two, not three, but no less than four different worldviews. The audience mostly sits from the perspective of the title characters, who are curious about the world outside their purview and don’t understand the decisions of those much older than them. However, they get a glimmer of hope when meeting franchise mainstay April O’Neal (rising star Ayo Edebiri), who (after some wacky encounters) begins to see the value in the four teenagers. April is a different species, but the fact that’s she closer in age actually makes her more relatable to the Turtles than their own father. That’s because she understands prejudice, understands being an outcast, and she knows being a little freaky doesn’t make you a monster. Meanwhile, what sends the conflict into accelerated motion is the vendetta of a mythical crime boss known as Superfly (Ice Cube). The villain is exactly what the name would entail, a fellow victim of the ooze who offers the Turtles a chance at a free life, one where they don’t have to apologize for themselves. The only catch is that they have to agree to Superfly’s deadly plan, which will target all humans.
This is where much of the movie’s plot shows its warts. For starters, the commentary is very much on the nose, although a children’s animated feature should (mostly) get a pass. It’s still worth noting that there are still better-written animated films, even ones directly targeted toward kids, that make superior use of metaphor and subtlety. But in addition to that, the presence of Superfly brushes up against the line of an archetype of a villain that is sometimes too common. That being the villain that is nominally on the side of the heroes, of the audience, and on the potentially right side of history, but wouldn’t you know, he just takes things too damn far! For contemporary comparisons’ sake, Marvel is one of the more well-known adopters of this archetype. In Black Panther (2018), the villain Killmonger is disgusted by how his people have been treated on a global scale. However, his idea to enact revenge and bondage is accurately seen as too destructive of a solution. But his motivations are explained by a traumatic upbringing, one in which was exploited by military powers to transform him into an instrument of violence; he’s been taught violence is the best solution because it’s the only solution that he thinks will bring him joy.
But then we look at a story as haphazardly written as the Disney+ show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. In that series, the villain (Karli) is a freedom fighter who rightly points out that global powers have not adequately provided enough resources for various communities in the aftermath of the Infinity Saga. However, this complex issue is dumbed down by having the character become cartoonishly evil and homicidal without doing the work to provide backstory to her violence – the very courtesy that was afforded to Kilmonger. She, for example, isn’t afforded a scene where we get to empathize with her, like when Killmonger re-visits his complex emotions surrounding his father’s death.
Villains that are depicted as rebelling against power structures are a slippery slope, as the creators must strike a balance between empathy while avoiding painting an entire cause or social movement in a negative light. Superfly has aspects of both Kilmonger and Karli in his DNA, mimicking some of their pitfalls while also improving on some aspects of the formula. On the one hand, his plan to avenge his creator and challenge the very organization that brought upon his family’s demise makes logical sense from a character perspective. But his ultimate goal, to enslave humanity, is too simplistic and easy. Of course the Turtles won’t go along with this nonsense, where’s the difficult choice in this? On the other hand, Superfly’s belief in community is an aspect we don’t often see with this type of bad guy – he keeps his fellow mutants around as he hopes to form a family with them, even if the power dynamic is tilted towards his side.
Perhaps the character would be better exercised as an escalating threat. Make his goal more welcoming at first – he wants to establish a home world for the mutants, one that’s separate from human interaction. However, once the Turtles showcase their affinity for humans, perhaps Superfly can’t handle the supposed contradiction, challenging his worldview, causing him to believe that the only way to convert the Turtles (and thus all mutants) to his side is to systematically eliminate the human species. Thus, you have a character whose longing for family and community seems actually appealing at first, but his fatal flaw of prejudice (the real bad guy in the movie) actively combats this goal. However, as currently constructed, Superfly is a villain that doesn’t really change much over the course of the story, as a result the metaphor as dramatized through the lens of his arc doesn’t really do justice to the themes at play.
Similarly, Jackie Chan is a bit underutilized as Splinter, as much of the comedy that can come from him being an aloof father who just doesn’t understand his kids isn’t utilized to its full potential. There’s a scene where the teenagers have come back home from the best night of their life, with their faith in humanity renewed by a burgeoning friendship with April. Splinter sees their upbeat nature, and blandly remarks “What are they up to?” Given how deluded Splinter is that his perspective is correct, maybe it would be more accurate for him to take credit for their jolly demeanor, saying to himself “Now that’s good parenting…”
Yet, Mutant Mayhem, to its credit, still succeeds in many other characterizations. If anything else, I’ve never seen a more accurate portrayal of how stupid and lovably goofy conversation can sound between a group of brothers. One of the highlights is some random aside about bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. They’re always hungry, they’re always making weird voices and inside jokes, and it’s the most authentic thing in the movie. Their friendship with April is genuine, and her experience and matter-of-fact way of speaking is exactly the blunt introduction to the real world the Turtles need to make them grow up. This is a coming of age story, one about realizing that bad experiences don’t mean you give up on your goals. The Turtles have their father’s memories, while April is battling a troubling reputation brought upon by the movie’s biggest (unnecessarily) gross out moment. The toilet humor aside, it takes guts to keep going after what you believe is right, even when the world repeatedly tells you you’re gross, unlovable, and you should shut up.
The animation is sleek and striking. I do think the actual action scenes could use improvement; they’re not creative enough, and they go on a little too long. However, it’s mostly forgiven because the film overall is picturesque, a vivid display of colors fighting for your attention. The New York setting feels like a character in the brief glimpses we get, seeming so vast as if this is just the tip of the iceberg for how visually exhilarating the heroes’ adventures can be. Director Jeff Rowe and the screenwriters (Seth Rogen, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Evan Goldberg) accurately portray the differences in personality between the four teenagers. Everyone is left wondering if Raphael (Brady Noon) is a burgeoning homicidal maniac. Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr), like always, is the coolest and most laid back Turtle. Donatello (Micah Abbey) is the most thoughtful, while Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu) fancies himself as a leader, but doesn’t yet have the courage to act on this.
They’re a strange tribe of skateboarders and pizza lovers, but their eccentricities match not only the reality of youths in past generations, but are a perfect analog for the eclectic, funny, weirdo interests of Tik Tokers and social media enthusiasts. Perhaps that’s partially why the movie doesn’t ignore the real world, having these Turtles occupy the same space as the likes of Chris Pine and The Avengers. If there is a sequel, I think there’s room for improvement on what is an admittedly fresh update for a well-worn property. Also, we’ve had our share of pizza, next time get these boys a breakfast sandwich.