***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
screenplay by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg & Jeff Rowe and Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit
directed by Jeff Rowe
by Walter Chaw There's a flair to the design of Jeff Rowe's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (hereafter Mutant Mayhem)--a joy, an edginess, an energy that reminded me instantly of those halcyon MTV days of "Liquid Television", when things like "Beavis & Butthead" would give way to "Aeon Flux". It's outlaw stuff, verging on the experimental, and the images are so vibrant they occasionally feel as if they'll bounce outside the edges of the screen. I love how the colours behave like they're refracting through a prism, like neon off the wet pavement of New York City, where the film is set. For as fresh and as the animation feels, as innovative, it's not so ostentatious as to deviate from considerations of physics and space. It doesn't draw attention to itself at the expense of character and story. Its hyperreality, its gloss on the new, merely lends urgency to the picture's quotidian reality. Consider an early scene in which our heroes watch a public screening of Ferris Bueller's Day Off in the middle of Brooklyn. Taught to be afraid of the prejudice of others, they're hidden in the dark of a rooftop across the way. Seeing Ferris perform in a parade, they dream of what it must be like to go to high school, even of the simple camaraderie of sitting with friends on a humid summer night with a future laid out before them full of possibility rather than a life's sentence of paranoia and rejection. Having had their fill of longing, they leave the scene, pausing before their descent into the sewers to take in the full tableau of a flickering image on a screen illuminating the crowd gathered before it.
I didn't expect to be emotionally steamrolled by a franchise film, certainly not by the third or fourth attempt at a reboot of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's serious-minded, violent, black-and-white comic. I didn't expect Mutant Mayhem to have such a powerful undertow of sweetness and melancholy. The turtles are Leonardo (voiced by Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Raphael (Brady Noon), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown, Jr.)--each named after a Renaissance painter in an act that struck me as notable this time around as a possible gesture of class insecurity. Would someone like Splinter (Jackie Chan), a giant, sentient rat who is an immigrant, perhaps, an outsider at least, want to help his offspring assimilate by giving them names he perceives to be respected, nay, revered, by the ruling culture? As an Asian-American guy named "Walter," I was taken aback by the thought. Once content to live with their dad in the shadows, the turtles in their adolescence yearn for acceptance by a society that not only fears them but also might seek to weaponize their deformity. Through misadventure, they meet fledgling high-school reporter April O'Neill (Ayo Edebiri), herself ostracized for an unfortunate viral moment, who comes to accept them as individuals and enlists their help in trying to uncover the plans of a mysterious villain called Superfly (Ice Cube). As the head of a band of mutants created years ago by the same mutating goo spill, Superfly is essentially just another Splinter: another shepherd of lost children created, then abandoned, by the surface dwellers.
Superfly is a shout-out, of course, to Gordon Parks Jr.'s Superfly, one of the rare pure examples of the punk Blaxploitation ethos. It's not just a namedrop--it's a spiritual connection to another picture that effectively questions what it means to be a product of a culture that despises you. Whatever its action-movie pretenses, Mutant Mayhem is, at its heart, a film about the jubilation of finding the group to which you belong and the places where you fit. Sure, the Turtles are the heroes, but so is New York City when it's aligned against a common foe. I thought of the epilogue to the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man, shot in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in which the entire city is elevated as heroes of their salvation. (Spider-Man 2, as well, when Peter saves a train full of people and the grateful passengers quietly replace his Spider-Man mask to protect his secret identity.) I think it's the idea that the only thing that can save us is collective action that attaches itself to me so intimately. I love the stirring, exhilarating action montage--scored to Blackstreet's "No Diggety" (feat. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen)--that draws inspiration from the hallway/clawhammer sequence of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, not so much for its fluidity and beauty, but for how, even here, Rowe's team takes pains to show how lonesome the Turtles are, how desperate they are to assimilate. (Splinter even gets a scene that is the best Jackie Chan fight in ages, complete with creative uses of the environment, such as a desk chair.) But what makes Mutant Mayhem go is the intelligence with which it uses its high concept as a metaphor for racial belonging, saying that a mutant turtle will always be a mutant turtle, and we'll make room for that if we're ever going to pull out of our shared death spiral.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem to 4K UHD disc in a standalone release with "over 40 minutes of totally awesome extras" included on the 4K platter. Although the movie, like the animated Spider-Verse films, has only a 2K digital intermediate, the combined power of an upconversion and HDR--both Dolby Vision and HDR10--flushes a lot of minute detail to the surface, making UHD the ideal format for appreciating the unique animation style and its sketchy linework. The 2.39:1, 2160p image is gratifyingly rich in saturation and contrast, with HDR lending uncanny authority to the faux neon and other simulated light sources, such as fireballs and those glowing tubes of mutagen. Note that I audited the HDR10 version. The attendant Dolby Atmos track, or at least the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core of it, delivers on the "mayhem" as much as the visuals. Some fervent, if not seismic, low-end punctuates the enveloping New York ambience, which seems to start--or is that end--at a place well beyond the parameters of the soundstage. (I suspect this is doubly true for those with height channels.) For all its abstract immersiveness, the mix feels like a bit of a throwback in sending voices and miscellaneous clatter around the viewer in a 360° motion. I've missed this kind of showy discreteness in modern sound engineering.
The first of four HD bonus featurettes, "TEENage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (6 mins.) is about how the film puts the "teen" back into the title characters by casting age-appropriate voice talent. Nicolas Cantu was thrilled he got to play Leonardo, as blue is his favourite colour; others were not so lucky. "The Mutant Uprising" (9 mins.) gives the rest of an all-star cast its due, arguably reserving its biggest fanboy hype for Jackie Chan, whose presence excited producer Seth Rogen enough that he set his alarm for Jackie's early-morning recording sessions over Zoom. Ubiquitous Ayo Edebiri whips out her phone to show us a photo of her first "deck," a skateboard with the Turtles on it. The highlight of this supplementary material is "New York, New York: The Visual World of Mutant Mayhem" (6 mins.), in which director Jeff Rowe and production designer Yashar Kassai explain the driving force behind the movie's aesthetic: "What if it's animated by teenagers? [With] weird shapes and bad perspective but...really lovingly rendered in places and really sincere." It's a radical approach, letting youth inform so many aspects of the production, but it reanimates the property in every sense of the word. We also learn that the visual style and screenplay were developed concurrently, resulting in the two becoming symbiotic and pushing each other to absurd extremes. Lastly, "Learn to Draw Leonardo" (21 mins.) is a pleasant and easy-to-follow instructional video from "The Art Friends." You can find more online tutorials like it on YouTube under the Art for Kids Hub, not that there's any indication of that here. Curiously, they only teach you how to draw Leo's head.
Packaged with the disc is a download code for a digital copy of the film.
99 mins.; PG; 2.39:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10; English Dolby Atmos (7.1 Dolby TrueHD core), English DVS 5.1, Quebecois French DD 5.1, Parisian French DD 5.1, Castilian Spanish DD 5.1, Latin Spanish DD 5.1, German DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Flemish, Japanese subtitles; BD-66; Region-free; Paramount