TMNT: Mutant Mayhem — Evergreen Franchises & the Future of Original Animation

CEOs say the darnedest things. In an interview with Variety, Paramount Pictures CEO Brian Robbins said, “We’re not going to release an expensive original animated movie and just pray people will come.” Imagine the hard-working animators behind Paramount’s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. All their hard work on the new movie has convinced the brand never to make an original animated film in-house. Internally, this must have been a blow to morale. Ramsey Naito, President of Paramount and Nickelodeon’s animation department, of course, quickly walked the comment back, committing that they would make original animated films in the future. Now, we wait and see which statement will be reflected by reality. Last year, just ahead of Disney’s release of Strange World, then-Disney-CEO Bob Chapek (since replaced by the returning Bob Iger) implied that animation is only for children; when adults put their kids to bed they are ready for content made specifically for them and that is not animated content. Both Brian Robbins and Bob Chapek have dashed ahead of their studio’s animation releases and told us outright what their corporations think about the form of animation: original work is no longer valued at a theatrical level and when it does get produced it’s only for children.

Another thing that Paramount did before Mutant Mayhem could come out is they announced a sequel and a two-season television series that would fill in the gaps between the movies. The new movie, now that we have seen it, feels specifically suited for this goal: an origin story in search of a full arc to drive the newly-examined characters in new and exciting directions. It’s a setup for something. We’ll have that something soon but for now we have this, a movie in a half-shell. The design of the animation is a good design, pulling from the outsized success of the Spider-Verse movies. A new aesthetic brings a new attitude to the Teenaged Turtles. This time they’re squeaky-voiced and going through puberty. Like their beloved pizza, you can alter anything you would like about the Ninja Turtles, but they’re still going to resemble that thing you like. This movie happens to be the Pineapple Pizza of the Turtles world, either you’ll like it or feel these parts just don’t go together naturally.

Mutant Mayhem is either making references to major fixtures of pop culture or setting up exposition. It would be offensive, especially during a writer’s strike, to assume anything is being written by an algorithm (the screenplay is by director Jeff Rowe and the team of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit) but the writing here certainly feels focus-tested, so far broadened that it has narrowed out the possibilities of the authors’ voices. Likewise, the Turtles themselves have always been likable for their most distinguishing features. Here, they seem to be four different amalgamations of the same character. Sure, Leo says things like “I’m the leader” an awful lot but besides following the broadly-defined stereotypes of who these characters are it doesn’t cast any new light on how they operate either individually or as a team: Leo leads; Ralph has bouts of anger; Donatello likes the ongoing anime Attack on Titan; and Michaelangelo is just random. What you expect and maybe even just a bit less than that. Ken’s job is Beach, etc., etc. Outside the reptilian quarter, two great character choices are made. Going back to her canonical origins in the comic books, April O’Neil is played by (Ayo Edebiri) and portrayed as a Black woman. That’s a W. The casting for Master Splinter, voiced by Jackie Chan, is the movie’s most inspired choice, he’s fun in the ways you can expect.

The exposition leaves us with lines like this: “Who are you and what do you want?” The big bad guy then just tells us about who he is and what he wants. The big baddie here is Superfly (Ice Cube). What he wants is to destroy all the humans and have the mutants take over. Superfly is backed by a whole rogues’ gallery of Turtle villains, played by notable actors (i.e. Seth Rogen as Bebop & John Cena as Rocksteady). We’re alike, you and I, say the Turtles to the bad mutants who then all just drop their motivations and decide to become good mutants. All anyone had to say is maybe it’s better not to wipe out the humans. But then we still need a big climax so it’s everyone against Superfly who falls into a vat of mutant sludge (again) and becomes a supersized Superfly.

The new aesthetic design lends well to action. The movie does have style. It borrows liberally from the rap canon, the songs you might expect from Ol’ Dirty Bastard, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, and carries a vibe to its version of New York that is built out of the thematic soundscapes of the artists mentioned. While not as visually resonant as the recent Spider-Man animations, it does feel high effort, and devoted to the framing of a comic book. Mutant Mayhem tries to integrate so many real-life references and quips. It’s pretty annoying in execution. The brand has its own particular language that is specifically in favor of the Turtles sounding like vloggers on TikTok or YouTube.

Know your market. Do adults even watch animation? Does something about the formal medium of animation itself, where anything might be created, somehow then preclude it from any further Original IP? Paramount have gotten what they wanted: a Ninja Turtles movie that skews very young. It’s not aiming, especially, for the fans of the ’90s cartoon show, which Nickelodeon (under Paramount) has just picked up full and exclusive streaming rights for. You can watch that there instead. This doesn’t need to be that. There is the recent videogame which is great and is also like the 1990s cartoon. You’re covered. But also you’re covered, you do not really need this new movie at all, which does little to suggest a strong new direction for the Turtles, despite a pretty paint of coat and some efforts to diversify the audience who would watch these movies and shows. There’s a long-term plan here. What you feel when watching this movie is something like the effect of a television pilot. It’s an open format for expanding upon and offers many easy avenues for continued storytelling and a lineage of other things made in this style but for the standalone movie itself, the older audiences may feel ‘Shell Shocked,’ and the comment might remind them what current studio CEOs think of what they are creating.


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