Friday 4 August 2023

Partners in grime: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem"

Here they are again: the cockroaches of popular culture. In my lifetime, the punchy reptiles created by comic-book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 have spawned a cheap-and-cheerful Saturday morning kids' animation, a trilogy of live-action features that briefly got the British censor's sausages in a knot, a would-be edgy digimation (2007's TMNT) that proved roughly as perfunctory as its title, and a mid-2010s reboot that cast Megan Fox as April O'Neil. Having somehow survived collaborations with both Michael Bay and 
Vanilla Ice, it may well be the case that these characters are indestructible, and that every generation from here on out will eventually get the Ninja Turtle movie they deserve. The prime movers behind the new animation Mutant Mayhem are the Superbad pairing of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who've put down the bong long enough to sniff out a potential franchise of their own, and hit upon the reasonably inspired idea of reassessing Raphael et al. in much the same way the recent Spider-Verse movies redrew Peter Parker. Director Jeff Rowe (who oversaw Netflix's fab The Mitchells vs. the Machines) has assembled a giddy patchwork of styles - part hand-drawn scratchiness, part digitised wizardry - which, under Rogen and Goldberg's frankly incorrigible influence, leans heavily into the fact its bright green subjects are in many ways verminous. Wobbly-voiced adolescents who still live in the sewers with a tatty rat for an adoptive dad, they now swipe their Doritos from human bins, retain a kidult comic's fondness for butt jokes, and use their ninja skills principally to make Jackass-style YouTube clips. Unlike the steroidal jock turtles Bay centred in his 2014 and 2016 aggressions, these are the Turtles as redirected towards teenage dirtbags - kids in sore need of acceptance, a hug and a wash, and not necessarily in that order. Its April O'Neil (voiced by The Bear's Ayo Edebiri) isn't some FHM-ready pin-up, but a fellow outcast: Black, bespectacled and nicknamed Puke Girl after an unfortunate incident at her school's TV station.

As a post-credits sequence indicates, Mutant Mayhem means to be the first in a planned series, which means we have to revisit a familiar origin story - the one with the rogue scientist, glowing ooze and alternative family unit 'neath the New York City streets. It's largely fun, though, buoyed by Rowe's partytime soundtrack selections (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest), and it may be the first retelling of this legend where rat dad Splinter (very charmingly voiced by Jackie Chan) has a friend who actually is a cockroach - albeit one who gets accidentally stomped on, and whom Splinter then hungrily gobbles up. (Rogen and Goldberg know that an "eww" from pre-teen viewers still qualifies as a response.) As the Turtles emerge from the underworld to confront the threat posed by Superfly (Ice Cube) - a fellow mutant with a markedly different attitude to humanity, and plans for world domination - the plotting gets superhero-movie conventional; yet again, we're headed towards a crashing standoff in a pulsingly busy cityscape. Yet the determined grossness of Rowe's animation, each grubby frame rubbing against the blandly pretty grain of most animated summer-holiday fare, can't help but strike the eye as distinctive. With their irregular teeth and dorky patter, these Turtles are neither as cute nor as sleek as those of previous adaptations; the humans, given puggish or otherwise lopsided faces, are absolute howlers. (Michael Badalucco's Bad Bernie looks like a figure out of Bill Plympton: his features are literally shifty.) Like the Spider-Verse films, Mutant Mayhem does feel like an authentic comic-book movie, hand-turned by creatives who've recognised the graphic novel as a forum for sustained formal experimentation. Rowe uses the framework of another TMNT movie to push the limits of an aesthetic boring movie common sense would insist on tidying up. (Most animations employ a so-called clean-up department to take the rough edges off early drafts; Rose appears to have had an entire army of scuzzifiers at his disposal, doing the exact opposite.) The approach yields cherishably grimy flourishes: the world reflected in a bowling ball, a Big Bad mutating only further (eww) amid a Broadway-set finale with a little of that old Roland Emmerich dynamism. Yes, it's still kids' stuff, and the relentless celebrity namedropping - a recognisably Rogenish trait - threatens to get tiresome. But that one child of yours, the one who spends the bulk of their days with a finger lodged firmly up a nostril? Yeah - they're gonna love it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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