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REVIEW: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem' fights racism with goofiness, martial arts action

By Jerald Uy Published Aug 23, 2023 10:12 am

While the West had its Saturday morning cartoons, it was every Friday night 90s kids in the Philippines tuned in to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, sang along with its bop opening music, crushed on a Caucasian brown-haired TV reporter April O’ Neo, and learned how to talk like a surfer with the slang, “Cowabunga!” 

For the longest time, that was what the millennial generation pictured the four heroic reptile brothers named after Italian Renaissance artists, despite its serious, brooding origins in the comics created by the comic book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The iconic animated series, anyway, was created to sell the toy line by Playmates, and not to preach about diversity.

Fast forward to 2023, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem reintroduces the young street vigilantes as Gen Z teenagers with a rat Splinter (Jackie Chan) as their isolationist father. Now sporting nicknames, they retain their endearing qualities and trademark weapons plus some new quirks. Leo (Nicolas Cantu) is the leader but can be a snitch. Mikey (Shamon Brown Jr.) is the YOLO guy with braces. Raphael (Brady Noon) is a bulking brawler missing a tooth. Donnie (Micah Abbey) now wears a pair of glasses and lives and breathes anime.

The story focuses on how a family deals with people’s prejudices. Splinter shows that to be safe is to hide underground—in the tunnels of New York City—and accept their place as outcasts. In contrast, another group of mutants, led by Superfly (Ice Cube), prefers domination over humans. These beliefs come into conflict with the teenagers’ longing of attending high school and integrating with human society, in general. 

The movie’s message on discrimination goes meta with the updated look of April, now a black, stout, campus journalist (Ayo Edebiri). This is not the first time April’s race was changed—she was also a streetwise African American teenager in Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018) animated series. Still, some online reactions reflect the same vitriol racists spew because of the prejudiced bones in their bodies.

Despite the serious underlying theme, Mutant Mayhem is silly and there is a joke involving a body part that might have run its course after being repeated for the nth time. Camera-shy April’s scenes are hilarious and at the same time, icky. Heavily peppered with amusing pop culture references, the movie also fanboys at Adele and stans BTS during an emergency.

While it honors the fact that Bruce Lee inspired the creators of the comics in creating the martial arts component of the characters, it poorly depicts Splinter, throwing away his more interesting backstory as a pet rat of an actual ninja in the comics. 

On the plus side, the animated feature pays tribute to the well-loved TMNT franchise throughout the years. The movie starts with their original pupilless looks from the comics, juxtaposed with a narrator’s voiceover. A sketchbook art sequence shows their appearances reminiscent of the 90s cartoon series. A fight sequence gives a nod to their classic arcade game. Vanilla Ice’s Ninja Rap from the 1991 live-action film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze also plays in the movie. 

The music is also dope. The official soundtrack is screaming 90s and early 2000s vibes that take the millennials, the 90s TMNT generation, on a nostalgic trip. 

Devoid of usual villains Shredder—the violent leader of the Foot Clan—and the alien talking brain Krang, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’s more straightforward, non-audacious plot makes the film cohesive while hinting more things to explore in their universe.

A potential hit for all ages, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem updates its boomer origins with Gen Z sensibilities and millennial nostalgia to tackle racial discrimination and prejudices persisting throughout this day. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is showing in Philippine cinemas starting Aug. 23. Stay for a post-credits scene.