The Rise of Nardo

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

I have been a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. since I was a little kid. If you were a kid in the late 1980s and early 1990s then you likely got caught up in Turtle Fever. There was the classic TV show, the movies, the video games, all the toys, the concert series, the Pizza Hut promotions... it was hard to escape the TMNT empire. That era was prime for the Green Machine, and while the successive years haven't been as kind to the Turtles, with them never quite reaching the heights of their heyday, there is still love for the Turtles from the fans, myself included.

Of course, fans are always looking for just the right media to get them sucked back in again. The 2003 series was tolerable but not great, but the 2012 series was fantastic. Rise of the TMNT was lame, but there were still good games being put out. And while the 2014 films from Michael Bay's production company were powerslop, there was always the promise of the next film, the next show, to carry fans forward. And now we have the next one -- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem -- and for many fans it's likely what they're been waiting for.

Mutant Mayhem does play fast and loose with a few of the core ideas of the TMNT. But then, most of the projects that have come out since the original black-and-white comics have played fast and loose. The franchise as a whole has never really concerned itself with having one core continuity, one true set of rules that the stories have had to stick to. Hell, from the comics to the first cartoon, so much changed for the TMNT tonally that you'd be hard pressed to say, "this is the Turtles and this is the only way to interpret the Turtles." It's always been changing and readapting since day one.

As such, while the changes that Mutant Mayhem makes to the continuity might feel off-putting to some fans, by and large this is another fresh take on the story, as you would expect. The true core is there, though, with a rat named Splinter (Jackie Chan) finding four baby turtles crawling around in goo. They all grow into humanoid mutants. The rat-dad trains in martial arts and teaches it to his sons, the turtles, and they grow up and live in the sewer together, being a solid family.

It's the shading around the edges that gives this version of the story its hook. It seems that the people (aliens?) in charge of TCRI have been experimenting with ooze, and the mutant creatures the ooze creates. When one of their scientists, Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito), escapes with the ooze, and creates a set of mutant children, TCRI's agents come. They kill Stockman, but the mutants escape and, years later, they start to implement their own plan to get revenge. It'll take the four Turtles, who just want to be able to live topside and be accepted as mutant people, to fight the bad mutants, maybe win a few over to their side, and save the day for New York... and the world.

When it comes to the big changes made, the one thing I see Online, time and again, is that fans don't like that some of the mutants featured in this film -- Rocksteady (John Cena), Bebop (Seth Rogen), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou) -- aren't really villains this time around. Due to the way the story is setup, they're just as afraid of how humanity will view them as the Turtles are. Seeing their new friends, the Turtles standing up for the city, many of them eventually switch sides, becoming good guys and allies to our turtle heroes. This irks some fans because, well, the villains are supposed to be villains! But that limits storytelling potential and, frankly, new twists on old characters allows for a lot of future stories that could be interesting. Sometimes fans need to chill.

What I think works really well in this film, though, are the lead actors for the Turtles. The producers -- Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver -- went out of their way to find kid actors who had good chemistry together. The settled on Micah Abbey as Donatello, Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo, Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo, and Brady Noon as Raphael, and the team had these guys record all their lines together, letting them riff and play on the mic together. It creates real chemistry among the four, letting them act like brothers and selling that dynamic. You never doubt, for an instant, that these are four brothers who have lived together for years under the streets of New York. That have that palpable brotherly style.

Honestly, from the stories relayed about the production, the team went out of their way to try and make this the smoothest animated production in years. They let their animators set their own schedules, working whatever kind of times that worked for them. Set on forty hour work weeks with absolutely no crunch, this was a production that trusted and supported its staff. It became a labor of love and you can feel that in every frame of the film as it plays out on screen.

Now, I will say that the animation style is very weird. It's polished, in its own way, but this is not the kind of smooth CGI work you would expect from other studios. The team devised a style that looks like a cross between the pointillism style of Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse and the chunkiness of claymation. It's really weird, sometimes off-putting, but it absolutely does look unique. You see a single frame of this movie and you know exactly where it came from (even if there isn't a Turtle on screen).

As odd as the animation is, though, the script for the film is great. Yes, it's different enough from previous versions of the TMNT story that you won't know what all is coming. But the familiar beats are still there. The love between Splinter and his boys. The friendship between the Turtles and April (Ayo Edebiri). The ninja action and the comedy. This film is able to tap into what works about the TMNT all while giving us a weird, wild, fresh adventure for the heroes. It's one that delighted me in the theater while I was watching, and I have no doubt I'll go back and enjoy it all over again once it's out on Blu-Ray.

The other smart move the studio made: keeping the budget on the film down. Despite a huge cast with real stars, and a lot of time spent on animation, the film came in at a relatively cheap $70 Mil, which made it's $180.5 Mil haul at the Box Office a moderate success. After toys, and sales of the videos plus streaming, this film should make a nice profit for Paramount. Certainly the studio thinks so as they've already green-lit a sequel film, a two-season TV show, and a video game all to tie-in. Paramount has a winner here with this version of the TMNT and they know it.

The film was a modest success, but it's easy to see the franchise growing and expanding and bringing in a whole new generation of fans. This is a smart, well made movie that, hopefully, gets all the love it deserves over the next few years. And then those Mutant Mayhem fans can lament the changes made to the Turtles the next time the franchise gets a reboot. And thus the cycle continues anew.