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One Scrappy Daredevil Knock-Off Brilliantly Avoids Reboot Fatigue

With Mutant Mayhem, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feel surprisingly fresh again.

by Nickelodeon/Paramount presents Turtle Power em...
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Ever since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko invented Spider-Man, the idea of teenage superheroes took pop culture by storm. While Spider-Man set the gold standard for adolescent acrobatics, few other teen superheroes are as popular as the various incarnations of Spidey, no matter how we all want to pretend that Robin, the Boy Wonder, is cool. But, in 1984, one superhero team of teens basically reinvented this subgenre. Four decades ago, in 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird published a quasi-parody of Marvel’s Daredevil in the form of the comic book Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the world was never the same.

And now, 40 years later, TMNT has been reborn again, perhaps in its best form in quite a while. In 2023, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, rebooted yet another origin story for the titular chordates. This animated movie just hit Amazon Prime Video, and if you slept on it, it’s worth watching ASAP.

Like the first origin story of Daredevil, the turtles in TMNT derived their powers from a radioactive ooze, and in Mutant Mayhem that origin story remains intact. In fact, what is so striking about the new animated film is how faithful it is to the zeitgeist idea of the turtles, while simultaneously making the idea feel fresh and vibrant. Part of this is the animation style; director Mike Rowe encouraged a kind of imperfect look, with the intention of making the film look like hastily drawn concept art. This jarring effect does two things for the movie: First, it captures the idea that this is a movie about adolescence, with the art adding to the outsized feelings of our star teenagers. Second, this art style is also, perhaps intentionally, beautiful, as it allows us to be reminded of the comic-book origins of the turtles — perhaps more than any previous adaptation.

While the 1990s movies simply translated the turtles into rubber suits and masks, and the 2014 and 2016 turned them into CGI monstrosities, Mutant Mayhem intentionally makes them look like what they are: comic book characters. Paradoxically, this design of the turtles themselves also feels more realistic, even when juxtaposed with the intentionally hand-drawn style of the animation. Unlike the famous 1987 cartoon or all the live-action film versions, these versions of the turtles aren’t ripped. The ooze turned ordinary turtles into creatures that walk upright and can speak English, but it didn’t give them the ripped physiques of bodybuilders. In terms of feature-film versions of TMNT, Mutant Mayhem refreshingly makes them look like real people, an absurd idea that nobody ever knew they wanted until it happened.

But, what really makes Mutant Mayhem cook is the writing. With a script from Brendan O'Brien, Evan Goldberg, director Jeff Rowe, and Seth Rogen, this superhero cartoon for kids sometimes veers into a kind of slacker-comedy with the ‘80s and ‘90s vibe. The movie itself invites this comparison, when, early in the film, Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael catch an outdoor screening of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. This small, early moment kind of tells you everything you need to know about the movie. It’s catering to the nostalgia of ‘80s and ‘90s kids who made TMNT a phenomenon in the first place, but it’s also re-creating the franchise for people who don’t understand the references, and have never read a TMNT comic or watched the show.

Seth Rogen, one of the writers on Mutant Mayhem.

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Because the 2014 live-action Turtles movie is now a decade old, there’s absolutely no reason why anyone should start their TMNT cinematic experience with anything other than Mutant Mayhem. While the plot is familiar to anyone who has seen an X-Men movie (how will mutants be accepted in society!) the pacing here is near-perfect, and the coming-of-age-themes help the movie, rather than making those themes seem perfunctory. Ayo Edebiri is a stand-out here as the voice of April O’Neil, who, unlike some previous versions of the character, is given an arc, and a real motivation for her alliance with the turtles. Again, realistic writing helps a lot here: Edebiri’s April is trying to overcome anxiety, mostly because of a viral moment that embarrassed her previously. Like the turtles, she’s afraid of what the world will think of her, which is exactly why she becomes their ideal advocate.

But, story details aside, the strength of Mutant Mayhem isn’t plot, because, in some ways, it’s impossible to spoil the plot of this movie. For many, we’ve seen this kind of thing before. The originality of Mutant Mayhem doesn’t come from how the story unfolds, or even in the specific character details. Instead, this is a superhero reboot that succeeds on the vibes of the movie informing nearly every other aspect. The wonderful animation style and the wacky teenage angst are the point movie, which is why this version of those heroes in half-shell will stick with you more than any version ever has before.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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