When I was but a lad, I owned a huge collection of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. I’d blow my allowance on every plastic character that I could get my tiny, nail-bitten fingers on: Shredder, Krang, Baxter Stockman, Casey Jones—and, of course, multiple variations of the heroes in a half shell themselves, including cowboy Raphael, astronaut Leonardo, samurai Donatello, and pizza-launching Michelangelo. My personal favorite, though, was Mondo Gecko, an anthropomorphic lizard with the laid-back attitude of a skater dude. It was a genuine delight, then, to see him finally make his big screen debut in Jeff Rowe’s (redundantly titled) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem—alongside fellow veterans of the bargain bin Leatherhead, Wingnut, and Ray Fillet.
If what I’ve written so far makes the movie sound a bit like a feature-length toy commercial… well, that’s entirely by design. This is, after all, a franchise built on licensing and merchandising (it’s certainly come a long way from its humble roots as a black-and-white indie comic); it is therefore only appropriate that the story of its latest adaptation should resemble a child’s game of make-believe. Every scene is gleefully manic, energetic, and imaginative. An early montage, for example, utilizes precisely timed match cuts to condense several different brawls into a single seamless, continuous tracking shot that highlights the development of the turtles’ skills in battle. A later set piece revolves around Master Splinter making short work of approximately a dozen armed goons using a series of increasingly improbable improvised weapons (electrical cables, glass canisters, a spinny chair)—an obvious homage to the slapstick-inspired approach to cinematic martial arts pioneered by Jackie Chan (who happens to provide the kung fu fighting rodent’s vocal performance).
This abundance of creativity is not limited to the structure of the plot, either; it bleeds into the film’s quirky visual style. Every aspect of the animation—from the intentionally rough, sketchy line work to the deliberately unnatural flatness of the smoke, dust, and explosion effects—oozes personality, evoking the hand-crafted quality of the original source material.
“Nostalgia” has recently become something of a dirty word in the entertainment industry, with many critics dismissively using the term to denote a lack of “real” narrative substance. In this case, however, the nostalgic tone is substantial; Mutant Mayhem reacquaints viewers with the joyful simplicity of youth, thus immersing the audience in the perspective of the immature protagonists.
And what a wonderfully liberating experience it is to feel like a kid again!