Full disclosure: I am not a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. It’s not that I hate them, it’s just that I never fell in love with them the way I did with other characters as a child; I’ve seen a few episodes from the various TV incarnations of the team over the years, and maybe some of the earlier films, but never to the point I actually knew how to tell the brothers apart until very recently. But that shouldn’t matter if Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie — a feature-length addition to the newest cartoon, now available on Netflix — is good right?
Right: this movie is surprisingly awesome, and I wholly recommend it to anyone else who isn’t a Turtle fanatic. It is a spectacular piece of work, especially for a TV movie, an exuberant and dynamic anime-inspired action film that puts many Japanese cartoons to shame — if I had been an executive at Paramount, I would’ve started campaigning to upgrade the project to a theatrical release, because with additional scenes and time to perfect the animation in each shot, this could’ve been the next Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The Marvel comparison’s warranted storywise as well, with the plot resembling a cross between two of their biggest classics, the X-Men story ‘Days of Future Past,’ and the first Avengers movie: the Turtles encounter Casey Jones (Haley Joel Osment), who’s from an apocalyptic future where Earth has been conquered by the Krang, and has to find the artifact that’ll bring about their invasion before the Foot Clan does. The stakes are huge, especially for the Turtles’ ostensible leader Leonardo (Ben Schwartz), who must grow up (and fast) if the world’s going to be saved.
The first act does a great job of reestablishing these incarnations of the characters for those who haven’t met them, from the immature Leo, to the (physically and mentally) big brother Raphael (Omar Benson Miller), Michelangelo (Brandon Mychal Smith), the younger sibling who takes after them, and Donatello (Josh Brener), the introverted techie. The Turtles having mystical powers that manifest as energy constructs took some getting used to, although the Krang strip them of these abilities as soon as possible, raising the stakes further.
The Krang, who consist of Krang 1 (Jim Pirri), Krang 2 (Toks Olagundoye), and the nonverbal Krang 3, are shockingly intimidating, demonstrating their physical prowess well before they don some gloriously Gigeresque mech suits — they scuttle and pounce like spiders in combat, banishing any memory of the campy ’80s blob monster they were based on. They are gnarly, transforming humans (including civilians) and even vehicles into more Krang, basically making this a kid’s version of Akira and the Resident Evil franchise: there’s a lot of imagery of bulging veins (skin and eyes) in this, and they’re responsible for practically half of it.
The intensity extends to Raphael and Donnie getting their shells damaged, April O’Neil burning the Krang with “herbicide,” and a level of sheer chaos and destruction in the final act that resembles Man of Steel more than the MCU, all of which is bound to amaze and astonish kids growing up on tamer stuff (including some of the superhero blockbusters aimed at an older audience.) This is technically a discretionary warning for any adults who are asked to put on the movie by a kid, but what I’m really saying is, this film is ideal if you’re thinking of introducing your youngsters to darker, more violent fare (eg. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, or Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.)
Let’s circle back to the Spider-Verse comparison: this is a similarly colorful, fluorescent film, full of background gradients and screentones, and energetic characters that are constantly in motion. There’s even visible dust particles illuminated by light in one scene: the direction in this is just that wonderful. The film is so ambitious, it’s such a shame it is still a TV movie, and its limited budget causes the frame rate in numerous shots to fall short of many others; however, these only remind you of what a stunning achievement the film is, successfully punching well above its weight.
There’s a whole lot more to recommend, from a killer line at Staten Island’s expense, to John Michael Higgins and Rhys Darby’s appearances as a pair of B-list villains who sadly don’t reappear after the first act, and good messages to kids (and adults) about love, duty, how being a leader is about listening to others, and that sometimes you have to do stuff you might find gross because it’s necessary. I came away going from not really thinking about Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at all, to wanting to watch the complete series, and hoping for a sequel.
That’s unlikely though, because the Seth Rogen-produced reboot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, helmed by The Mitchells vs. the Machines co-director Jeff Rowe, is going to be released in theaters next year on August 4 (which’ll literally be a day short of a year after this dropped on Netflix.) Mitchells vs. the Machines was a delight, so hopefully Mutant Mayhem will live up to the lively standards the Rise movie has set. Saying a theatrical film must live up to a TV movie would’ve sounded ridiculous before seeing it, but that’s how good Rise is.