Friday, August 4, 2023

Notes on Film: Nostalgia in a Half Shell

 by Anthony King

Turtle power!

I grew up watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I had dozens of the action figures. TMNT stickers spangled my bedroom furniture, walls, and windows. So when I saw the trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023) a few months back, I was immediately on board. The turtles, who I love; newly animated, which I love; on the big screen! What more could a 41-year-old man ask for? It's my favorite movie of the year so far.
Having never read the comics, I was first introduced to the Turtles, like many others, by the animated series which premiered in 1987. Five-year-old Anthony immediately fell in love, and stayed in love for the nearly 10 years it ran. When the first Turtles film was released in 1990, you better believe we were there on opening night. When Secret of the Ooze (1991) was released, you better believe we were there on opening night. It wasn't until Turtles III (1993) that my love began to wane. As much as I liked the first film, I knew the all around quality was dropping with each entry. But the animated series stayed evergreen. At some point I became too cool for the Turtles, and it wasn't until I had kids that my love re-emerged. It never went away, mind you. It was just hidden under decades of cynicism. I appreciate the Megan Fox live-action Turtles of the 2010s, but folks, let's face it. We're dealing with giant, talking ninja turtles, so unless they're a charming-looking puppet/costume, I can't get too invested in a person donning a mo-cap suit bestrewn with computer graphics. The Turtles belong in the cartoon world. Nickelodeon knows this. That's why there's been some version of a TMNT animated series on television since 1987. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg know this as well, and they have presented the new version of the turtles (ie. Donnie as the bespectacled computer whiz) in a way that will garner new fans yet still honors the Turtle roots.

Co-directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears, with a writing team that includes Rogen and Goldberg, and produced by Nickelodeon and Rogen's and Goldberg's banner, Point Grey Pictures, Mutant Mayhem is the perfect – and correct – direction to take this world. The animation style, provided by Mikros Animation and Cinesite, is based on sketches that could be found in a student's notebook. I'm a sucker for any style of animation, and seeing this style on the big screen was a brand new experience for me. At points I became completely lost in the story and character arcs that I forgot I was watching a cartoon. And at other points I became hypnotized by the beautiful art presented before me. With a pulse-pounding score provided by none other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Mutant Mayhem is equal parts funny, touching, and exciting.
Here the Turtles are true teenagers who long to be part of the world. They want to mingle among the crowds, go to high school, date, and go to movies. Baxter Stockman's mutant son, Superfly, is collecting weaponry so he and his small army of mutants can destroy the human race and let mutants take over the world. Meanwhile, Cynthia Utrom is kidnapping mutants and extracting their mutated genes for nefarious purposes. With the help of student journalist April O'Neil, the Turtles must stop Superfly and show the world all mutants aren't bad mutants. Our heroes are voiced by Micah Abbey (Donatello), Shamon Brown Jr. (Michelangelo), Nicolas Cantu (Leonardo), Brady Noon (Raphael), and Ayo Edebiri (April). All five voices perfectly embody these five unique characters. Jackie Chan provides the voice for Master Splinter (really, there's no one else that could do it), and Maya Rudolph is Cynthia Utrom. Ice Cube is Superfly, and his merry band of misfit mutants include John Cena as Rocksteady, Rogen as Bebop, Rose Byrne as Leatherhead, Natasia Demetriou as Wingnut, Paul Rudd as Mondo Gecko, Post Malone as Ray Fillet, and Hannibal Buress as Genghis Frog. An all-star gathering such as this never guarantees good performances or a cohesive unit, but these are the right people for the right characters. I certainly wouldn't be so bold to call Mutant Mayhem a “perfect” movie, but I will go so far to say this is the best adaptation of the Turtles to date.
This all brings me to the topic of nostalgia. For a long time I've been anti-nostalgia for one reason or another. I'm certainly not one to poopoo someone for professing their love for a movie or item of yore. Heck, most of my movie-watching is dedicated to older movies. But, and if you're a regular reader of mine, you know I'm trying my hardest to experience and appreciate new, shiny things. My list of new releases I've watched for the year just eclipsed 40. That's a big deal for me, someone who, in the past, did poopoo new movies. But every time someone would post or talk about movies, television shows, toys, food, etc. they loved as kids, followed by some version of “They don't make 'em like they used to,” it would irk me. “Get over it!” “Live in the now!” I'd scream to myself. I also think some people are convinced of the objective greatness of certain movies. Apologies to almost everyone, but I watched Armageddon (1998) for the first time last year. It's a terrible movie. The script, performances, direction. It's all very bad. But people have gotten very defensive of the movie when I've shared my criticisms. (I can get specific, but for the purpose of this writing I'm making a very general statement about Armageddon.) Everyone involved in the movie has proven they can do great things. Armageddon is not one those great things. Yet some people truly believe it's a great movie. I argue that nostalgia is skewing their view, and as someone who just watched it for the first time with no preconceived notions or opinions about the movie, I know what I saw was a bad movie. Again, I'm very sorry to all the Armageddon-heads out there including Patrick, Adam, Mike, and Mark.
I'm just as guilty, though. Take Hocus Pocus (1993) for example. We all love it. It's perfect for Halloween. Fun for all ages. It's also absolutely chock full of cringe. Yet I don't allow that to detract from my 4.5/5 rating on Letterboxd. But I've watched it during spooky season ever since it came out, and I love it. I think it's great. But is it? For years I was convinced the straight-to-video movie My Pet Monster (1986) was a perfect, ageless example of introductory horror. I rewatched it for the first time in over 30 years, and folks, it plain sucks. I would watch Armageddon nine times before watching MPM again. I return to Mutant Mayhem. Is it the “best” movie of the year? Probably not. But none of this matters. Who cares what's the “best” and what's the “worst.” I'm not all-in on the “just let people enjoy things” camp, but I'm more supportive than not. Toxic positivity has been rampant for a very long time, and it feels more toxic than ever. With that said, toxic negativity is very much a thing, too. The latest article going around about critics v. influencers and its numbered, eloquently-worded responses seems more poignant than ever. It's ok to like things. It's ok to dislike things. It's ok to talk about the things we like and dislike. Conversations are fun. (If you're new here, just know I'm mostly talking to myself; not scolding anyone but me.)
All this to say, I'm no longer anti-nostalgia. I think we got oversaturated with nostalgia porn for a while, and maybe that's where my crankiness was born. But thanks in large part to four heroes in a half shell, it's nice to feel like a kid again. And to be honest, I kinda never want to grow up again.


  1. Most franchise stuff we get nowadays is mostly 'hey, remember this, and will stop the movie to show you the thing from the old movie they want to show you, just making you want to watch the old thing. That's when nostalgia is bad

    There's none of that in Mutant Mayhem, which i liked a lot. It's just a bunch of teenagers having an adventure, it's basically a coming-of-age movie.

    We went out for pizza after the movie, i don't know why 😁

  2. Great column, Anthony. I'm looking forward to seeing this one for a few reasons -- I've heard it's funny; the animation style looks fantastic; and that sweet sweet nostalgia! From a different angle, though: my kid fell in love with TMNT as a baby, unbeknownst to me or his dad. One of his first words was "Bebop!" and it drove us nuts. WHAT WAS HE TALKING ABOUT? Is he a musical savant? Is he saying something else.. "bail bonds"? "Bean bag"? I don't know how long it took us to figure out that he was OBSESSED with the Turtle toys of his older friend at daycare. From then it was ON. Turns out, loving the things your kid loves is almost as much fun as loving things as a kid. Your column made me text my now 33-year-old son. If I ask, do you think he'll shout-sing "Heroes on the half-shell!" with me, just for old times' sake?