The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The year is 2014. Five years after purchasing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property from Peter Laird’s Mirage Group, Viacom releases their first theatrical TMNT movie, via Paramount. The lead-up to the film engenders dread and apprehension among its fanbase as each announcement, trailer, and new piece of information (including an atrocious and allegedly genuine leaked script) fuels the horrible realization:
These people have no idea what they’re doing.
Fast forward to 2023; Paramount has their head in the game for their third at-bat. This latest reboot of the property is steered by comedic veteran Seth Rogen, a lifelong Turtles fan, producing and writing as usual with his partner Evan Goldberg. It’s amazing to see the difference in reactions as the response has been, for the most part, very positive. Each trailer and clip feels fresh and exuberant, with unique animation, a more youthful approach to the turtles, and a large cast of mutant characters and designs clearly channeling – for the first time in a movie – the 1987 cartoon (the property’s most familiar and, for many, most nostalgic iteration). Fans are actively anticipating, rather than dreading, heading to a movie theater because they can see that there’s some genuine passion concerning what they love.
Film review or criticism is usually supposed to be objective and impersonal, but that ain’t happening here. The Turtles are easily my favorite property or fandom or what have you. I’m that guy who knows every nuance, owns all the comics, collects the action figures, you name it. For this review I actually watched the movie twice before locking in my thoughts – first with my kids, and then again on my own.
From the beginning, Seth Rogen’s been vocal about his plan to make the Turtles more like real teenagers – thankfully he didn’t mean a raunchy Superbad approach, but rather portraying kids who react and behave like kids, and voiced by actual teens. Despite the “Teenage” moniker, the Turtles have always been kind of treated more or less like adults (not to mention their saga has extended well beyond their teenage years in every medium, and in many stories simply are adults).
In this, he nailed the approach and it works really well, and the boys (Nicolas Cantu as Leo, Brady Noon as Raph, Micah Abbey as Donnie, and Shamon Brown Jr. as Mikey) are fun and endearing as the four young turtles, ready to go out and explore the outside world but held back by their apprehensive father and teacher, Splinter (Jackie Chan), whose frightening experiences with the surface world have led to bitterness and cynicism against humanity.
The Turtles’ and characterizations are spot-on, each holding true to their classic personalities while reworked a bit to give them a little uniqueness in this new context, including visual nuances and, in terms of their design initiative, asymmetry.
As with every version, the story begins some fifteen years ago when a vial of mutagenic ooze is accidentally lost in the sewers, where it encounters four baby turtles, changing their lives forever. Some details of the origin story are slightly retrofitted and commingled with that of the film’s other mutant characters and scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito), but it’s no worse for these changes.
As the boys become old enough to go out on errands and food runs, it does little to sate their need for outside friendship and “human” connection. Things start to look up when they encounter their first human friend, April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), an aspiring journalist. It’s one of my favorite portrayals of April, who in recent iterations has trended toward being more of the Turtles’ same-age counterpart and less like a big sister or den mother. This April is more of an outsider than previous versions, which lends a slightly misanthropic spark to her partnering up with the Turtles – for once, she needs their friendship as much as they need her. Meanwhile, urban legends and increasing reports of a criminal gang run by a “Superfly” (Ice Cube) catch their attention, and together they hatch a plan to get the Turtles the human acceptance they crave, and April her big break, by taking down Superfly and his goons and having April broadcast it to the world.
Turns out Superfly isn’t just a name – he and his cohorts are mutants, including fan favorites Rocksteady (John Cena), Bebop (Rogen), Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), and Leatherhead (Rose Byrne) among several others. When the Turtles meet the larger mutant cast (or the “Mutanimals” as they’re known in other iterations), they discover they aren’t simple baddies but a sympathetic group of characters, and even a bizarre family of mutantkind which readily and openly embraces the Turtles (definite shades here of the X-Men and their relationship with Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants), shifting perceptions and casting doubt on the original plan.
Superfly, a new character spun off of Baxter Stockman (who in several TMNT iterations was himself transformed into mutant fly), is a definite highlight of the movie, brought to life by Ice Cube in a standout performance that capably points the needle from hip and friendly to darkly sinister.
The movie’s a blast. It’s all a lot of fun and the treatment is mostly both reverent of the material and high-spirited in the Rogen-Goldberg mold. The unique animation has a sketch-paint look that’s one-of-a-kind, both totally amazing and yet deliberately unpolished, giving so much character and style to a familiar story. The colorful palette and character designs recall the 1987 cartoon while also feeling a little more grounded in the art and world of the comics. And unsurprisingly for a Rogen-Goldberg joint, there were tons of laughs.
On the second viewing, I was also much more aware of how incredible the music is, mixing up old-school hip-hop with a brash, moody, and low-end-heavy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If there’s any weak spot in the music, it’s that I couldn’t pick out a “main theme” by ear.
While I loved the film, there’s one pretty major bummer that I’m not thrilled about, regarding one of my favorite characters, Splinter. He’s often the character whose adaptations have suffered the most over the years: unfortunately a lot of writers just don’t understand who he is, what to do with him, and to a smaller extent that remains the case here. Happily, most aspects of this character are spot on: a loving if overbearing dad, a wise teacher, and a devastatingly capable fighter, though showing his age. Jackie Chan is a wonderful fit in the role, delivering a sensitive and endearing performance that really expresses the relationship that Splinter shares with his sons.
But this telling also seems to strip him of his identity, repeating one of the worst mistakes of the 2014 movie and making him a seemingly random New York City rat with no mention of any Japanese or Asian ancestry, nor martial arts background. Splinter’s own relaying of his origin seems to sever any historical ties to Oroku Saki (the Shredder) or Hamato Yoshi (Splinter’s human companion or human identity, depending on the telling). This point is even driven home in a scene where the Turtles realize they don’t have a last name (suggesting they have not taken up the adoptive mantle of the Hamato family).
This might seem like a small quibble, or even as slavery to retreading ideas that have already been done, but these details are not just nerd-rage talking points: they speak to Splinter and the Turtles’ core identity. These points don’t really impact the narrative so far, but they are relevant to the future of this narrative. Inheriting a family feud is the primary conflict of the larger Turtles’ saga, and it would be a palpable loss, rendering far less relevance to the Shredder if he’s just some random villain stripped of these personal stakes (and doubly so another major character, his daughter Karai, who serves as a direct foil to the Turtles).
Being an immigrant family is also an important part of the Turtles’ cultural identity, and the potential loss of their heritage is not lost on Asian-American children of immigrant parents or grandparents – myself included. I remain hopeful, as the casting of Jackie Chan acknowledges at least that Splinter is coded as Asian, and his tale is left just open enough that maybe he simply hasn’t told us his full story and that fuller answers will be revealed in time.
One major gripe aside, this is not only a really solid Turtles movie but a terrific and highly enjoyable movie in general. My audience laughed and cheered, especially at the “Fan Event” preview which would’ve pulled in a more focused core group than a typical showing. I also found that I liked it more on the second viewing, which is a terrific indicator that it’s going to be one to watch and rewatch.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem opens theatrically on Wednesday, August 2nd