Part-Time Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Mutant Mayhem (2023)

Jerry Seinfeld had a joke about how boys didn’t see people like Batman and Superman as fantasies, but as possible future careers just like policeman or fireman. When I was young I wanted to be a crime-fighting teenage mutant ninja turtle. They ate pizza, made funny jokes, and most of all, sought out righting wrongs and bringing justice to crime in the city. I loved the character of Leonardo not only because he could fight in a cool way but because he was principled, sought to honor his master Splinter, and lead his team. Like the Seinfeld joke, Leonardo wasn't just fantasy for me, it was a future possibility.

This is going to sound a bit old man shakes his fist at the clouds, but it’s a little strange to me how the most recent series update Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem flips the entire calculus around. Instead of confident turtles who are secure in themselves living their best principled crime fighting lives, this contemporary adaptation film sees young ninja turtles who want nothing more than to be accepted by humans, attend high school, and go on dates. Their crime-fighting ways are just seen as a gateway to acceptance in the human world rather than some sense of bringing justice into the world. Rather than follow Splinter's lead as a wise master preparing them to do good in the world, he's just an old bigoted dad who so happened to teach them ninja training for self-defense. Even most of the villain mutants here are also just looking for acceptance (and wind up living with the turtles by the end of the film).

Is there a better example of how children/teen entertainment like this has changed with the culture than that shift? I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with telling stories with these themes, acceptance and tolerance are both powerful and needed themes in our entertainment. However, the prevalence and often contradictory presentation of this theme throughout animated films is so ubiquitous nowadays that it’s become such an incredibly boring cliché to me. I get that franchises can undergo updates with new generations, but it always struck me that one of the most endearing and uplifting aspects of the franchise was how confident and principled the turtles were. Here they've become just saddled with the same basic identity issues so many other animated features. In making them more "relatable" and like current stories, they've also made them less needed and distinctive. 

There's a key moment when Splinter, played by Jackie Chan, changes his mind on the value of humans and says, "I love you boys. I want you to be happy. Even though I don't like humans, I want them to like you because you want them to like you. So we are gonna get that monster...We're gonna film it. We are gonna show it to the world. And the world will love you and accept you!" Yeesh, there's so many conflicting worldviews here about tolerance and love that it's tough to sift through it all. Was it really needed to take the idea of mutant ninja trained turtles and turn it into another vehicle for this kind of pablum?

There’s other minor quibbles I have with this adaptation. There’s an attempt to make the turtles much more “teen” inspired in their voices, humor, and general attitudes. I think they’ve gotten mixed results as they all feel distinct to their previous installments, but each of the turtles (outside Leonardo) comes off as pretty generic beyond their colors. Additionally, despite the skewing to contemporary youths (“rizz” being a clear example), the film is filled with old references as well (“No Diggity” and “What’s Going On” by Four Non-Blondes play in key action sequences as well as a Prius joke!). It comes off somewhat jarring to this viewer. 

The animation is fresh and exciting here and the film has an interesting plot with plenty of likeable and empathetic characters and fun action set pieces. I can see why this adaptation was well-received and admit it has a lot going for it even if I do lament at how it has been mutated into just another franchise telling the same flat story of acceptance.