The Pitch: Stop me if you’ve heard this one — they’re heroes in a half-shell… and they’re green. They also happen to be teenagers, which is a major component of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the newest iteration of the comic book characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman.
Mutant Mayhem begins with the events that eventually lead to Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and Raphael (Brady Noon) evolving from baby turtles waddling on four legs to humanoid ninja-fighting pizza lovers. Fifteen years later, they’re tired of hiding from humanity in the sewers with their loving yet paranoid adoptive father, Splinter (Jackie Chan) — however, they have a plan for changing things, with some help from their new friend, aspiring teen reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edibiri): Use the martial arts skills they were taught as self-defense against the humans to help the humans, and thus win humanity’s respect and get the chance to join society.
Unfortunately, the mutant supervillain they attempt to bring down is tougher than he seems, and there are other forces as well which are interested in finding mutants and exploiting them. In short, there’s plenty to keep the Turtles from living out their fondest fantasy — attending high school.
It’s Fun to Lose and to Pretend: One of the most exciting choices Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem makes might not be one you notice right away, but it’s actually a pretty significant one: All four of the title characters are different sizes. Not in a dramatic way, but each boy has his own individual physique — Raph’s a bit burlier than the others, while Leonardo’s somewhat leaner.
It says an awful lot about the Mutant Mayhem creative team’s attention to detail, and their priorities: It’s a lot easier for an animation studio to animate characters who are the same shape and size; it’s literally four times the work to create four distinctive designs. It’s why so many past TMNT adaptations have depicted the characters as largely identical, save for the coloring of their masks (the recent series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being one notable aberration). However, making sure each turtle reads as unique from his brothers proves to be an essential choice, one which enhances the character-forward narrative in countless ways.
With the Lights out, It’s Less Dangerous: Mutant Mayhem comes from “permanent teenager Seth Rogen,” according to Paramount’s marketing, and adolescence is the vibe, in ways that elevate the new film above the many past iterations. Yes, I confess that I’ve never seen the Michael Bay-produced films for… some reason… (I didn’t want to.) However, the original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a fond childhood favorite, and Mutant Mayhem might just surpass that film. Not just on a technical level (though the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop animatronic suits hold up remarkably well), but on a character level as well.