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'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem' Review: Beautiful Squiggles, When We Were Young
Animated in a distinctly different style, the movie captures the teenage spirit of its heroes.
Now Streaming: In my youth, Gigantor, debuting on U.S. television in January 1966, was the first show that caught my fancy, that made me want to fly, that made me want to draw, that made me want to dream. The giant robot! The young boy that controlled him! The adventures they enjoyed together! (All 52 English-dubbed episodes of the original show are now streaming on The Roku Channel, free with ads.) That was my favorite show of my generation.
People born much later than me are likely much more familiar with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an animated series that debuted in syndication on American television in December 1987. At that time, I was an adult, fully occupied by adult things, and did not pay much attention to the show, beyond knowing of its existence.
The series made the transition to the big screen in 1990, followed by two sequels, and then reborn in 2007 and again in 2014 (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), birthing yet another sequel, which I didn't even remember reviewing at the time. Funny how time slips away; sometimes it's a blessing.
None of the films left much impression on me, so I was doubtful that a new animated version, especially one co-authored by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, would play any differently, even after reading glowing reviews, including this one by Kyle Logan for Screen Anarchy. Well, wonders never cease, as I realized when I finally caught up with the film, now that it's reached the Paramount Plus streaming service.
"Primarily influenced by school notebook sketches," according to Wikipedia, and "seeking to explore the teenage aspect of the Turtles, the filmmakers drew inspiration from teenage coming-of-age films." The distinctive look of the film is what first caught my eye, especially in contrast to the more traditional animated fashion favored by the folks at Disney and Pixar.
Set in New York City, the city looks like it did when I lived there back in the mid-80s and early 90s, dirty and very much in need of a bath, which the film provides in the form of its characters, four teenagers, all about 15 years old, who were born mutants and raised under the city by a rat named Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan), who sought to protect them from the evil actions of the humans above.
Eventually, the four lads come into contact with April O'Neill (voiced by this year's outstanding shining standout, Ayo Edebiri), a budding teenage journalist who is scorned by her classmates. Together, the five teenagers join together to defeat the evil mutant Superfly (Ice Cube) and his nefarious plans to destroy all human life so mutants can live free.
Directed by Jeff Rowe, who co-wrote and co-directed the marvelous The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021, now streaming on Netflix), the film is infused through and through by a teenage spirit, by which I mean it's fresh, vibrant, sometimes rude, sometimes obnoxious, sometimes self-involved, and sometimes surprisingly thoughtful. It's also quite funny, but not in the juvenile, obscene manner I expected from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. (The full screenplay writing credit includes those two, but also Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit.)
Instead, the humor bounces off the teenagers' age-appropriate jokes and hijinks; the four lead turtles clearly care about and support each other, while still listening to and honoring their 'father' Splinter and treating April in a completely respectful manner.
For all the squiggles, it's quite a beautiful and joyous film, and it flows easily throughout its 99-minute running time (including many, many closing credits.) It's the first animated coming-of-age movie that feels authentic to its characters and very funny for adults too. [Paramount Plus]