Barbie and Oppenheimer have undoubtedly dominated the summer box office over the last few weeks. But while its box office numbers don’t come close to these cinematic behemoths, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, out now in the UAE, has proven to be hugely popular with viewers and critics alike.
Produced and co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express, This Is The End), and both co-written and directed by Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs The Machines), Mutant Mayhem is so highly acclaimed by reviewers that it has a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than Barbie and Oppenheimer.
The seventh theatrical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie reboots the franchise and dives deeper into the teenage aspects of Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael’s lives, as they track down a mysterious crime syndicate while also going toe-to-toe with an army of mutants.
“People love these characters,” explains Rowe when quizzed why Mutant Mayhem has been so adored. “Audiences can tell when someone really cares and puts a lot of work into making a good film, and treating an intellectual property with respect. The Turtles are a beloved franchise and characters, and people are excited to see a new take on them.”
For Rowe, a key decision was making the characters as relatable as possible. “People have really responded to them because they feel like real teenagers. I’ve already had so many comments where people compare them to their brothers and friends. That gives me so much pride as a filmmaker. It makes me know that we captured something true.”
Rowe’s own journey to becoming an animation director began when he was a teenager. Rather than instantly knowing that he wanted to become a filmmaker, though, he set his sights on being an architect. “I was obsessed with rollercoasters as a kid.” So much so that Rowe learnt how to use 3D Studio Max, an animation software that allowed him to create, build and design his own rollercoasters.
At the same time, Rowe’s high school was also teaching a class in 3D animation. As he’d already been mastering the software, Rowe had an advantage over his classmates. He soon won a statewide contest for his 3D animation. This recognition inspired him to start making his own animated shorts. Throughout this period, Rowe was able to turn to a variety of cartoon shows for inspiration.
“I was particularly drawn to grounded and realistic stuff like Hey Arnold, Rugrats and Doug. They each had bold, artistic styles that made them look kind of weird. But they still felt real and were telling stories about life. Of course there was The Simpsons, too, but that was more about the jokes.”
At the same time, Rowe was infatuated with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “It was the first thing I ever loved as a kid. I don’t remember having thoughts before Ninja Turtles was a part of my life. I had the bedsheets, the lamps … and all of the consumer products. I loved it all as a child.”
Part of the attraction was how rebellious and funny the characters were, especially because his parents didn’t understand the appeal at all. It also helped that they were “kind of gross, dark and weird” looking, too. “It really shaped my tastes and aesthetic and influenced me a lot as a kid,” says Rowe.
So, following the release of The Mitchells vs The Machines in 2021, when Rowe’s agent asked him if he had any interest in directing a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, the answer was a resounding yes. Rowe didn’t think he’d actually get the job of director, but he was excited to sit down and talk about the possibility with Rogen and Goldberg. Surprisingly for Rowe, the pair were immediately hooked by his vision for the franchise.
“Our big thing with The Mitchells vs The Machines was making sure it was grounded in the real world. With this, I felt like the Turtles needed to feel like real teenagers. We needed to have actual teenagers voice them. They agreed and we built it out from there. They wanted to tell an authentic, naturalistic and humanistic story about them. We were on the same page immediately.”
Of course, having two of the most successful comedic writers and directors of their generation as collaborators only added to the quality of the movie. Not only because Rogen and Goldberg could come up with incredibly funny jokes in an instant, but they were also intent on never settling for average material. “They would always want to fix something and make it better. They just wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. That was so inspiring and helpful as a creator,” says Rowe.
The response to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem suggests that all of that hard work paid off. But there was still one probing unanswered question that Rowe had to answer when it came to the Turtles: Was he more like Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo or Raphael? “When I was a kid I was a Donatello who wanted to be a Michelangelo,” says Rowe.
“I still think I’m a Donatello, but I might also be a Leo because I was leading the team and surrounded by a lot of people who were significantly more talented than me.”