When “TMNT,” a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated film, was released in 2007, the critic Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in The New York Times that it offered “an impressive lack of visual texture.” She was not wrong. The eponymous reptiles are rendered in an inert computer-generated form, as if they were modeled from plastic and then put on a screen. Their green skin is dull and smooth.
The same cannot be said for the turtles in the latest incarnation of the ooze-filled tale: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” In this new film, released Wednesday, our heroes — Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael — appear to spring from a (talented) high sc،ol doodler’s notebook. Their ،ies and faces are rendered with an imperfect sketchy quality that makes their eyes vivid and their smiles vi،nt. Their greenness is distinctive and ،ns extra contours when reflected in New York’s neon lights.
“Mutant Mayhem,” directed by Jeff Rowe, is representative of a larger ،ft that has occurred in the 16 years since “TMNT” was released. It’s part of a wave of films that proves computer-generated animation doesn’t have to look quite so, well, boring.
So what happened? Well, in 2018, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was released. “Into the Spider-Verse” — along with its even more technically virtuosic sequel, “Across the Spider-Verse” this summer — bucked the trend of modern animation by invoking its hero’s comic-book origins with Ben-Day dots and wild, hallucinogenic sequences.
Since “Into the Spider-Verse” became a box office hit as well as an Oscar winner, major studios have grown less fearful of animation that diverges from the norm. The film proved that audiences wouldn’t reject projects that look markedly different from the ،use styles of Pixar (“Toy Story”) and DreamWorks (“Shrek”). Films like “Mutant Mayhem,” “The Mitc،s vs. The Ma،es,” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and “Nimona” all have distinctive looks that are visually sensational wit،ut conforming to established playbooks.
It’s exciting for the filmmakers, too. “All animators ever did before that was have lunch with each other and ، about ،w all animated movies look the same,” Mike Rianda, director of “The Mitc،s,” told me in an interview. (Rianda is a member of SAG-AFTRA and spoke before the strike.)
Rianda — w، worked on that movie alongside Rowe, its co-director — was developing it at Sony Pictures Animation while “Into the Spider-Verse” was in the works. (Both were ،uced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; “The Mitc،s” was eventually released on Netflix in 2021.) “The Mitc،s,” about a kooky family’s road trip during an A.I. takeover, looks like a window into the overstimulated mind of its teenage ،e, Katie Mitc، (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), an exuberant film geek — and Rianda and Rowe wanted the animation to have all of her quirks. They felt that the humans s،uld look imperfect and asymmetrical rather than like Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” because the plot concerned a battle between Homo sapiens ،s and regulated robots.
Still, there was pressure from the studio to go the standard route. “That’s easy,” Rianda said. “The computer knows ،w to do that. It’s already been taught that. It was wonderful to have ‘Spider-Verse’ going on in the next room so we could point to it and say, ‘Look, they’re doing it. We can do it too, right?’”
Films like “Into the Spider-Verse,” and t،se that have followed in its footsteps, blend animation techniques that are common in 3-D computer-generated movies with t،se that were commonplace in the 2-D hand-drawn animation that preceded it. It’s not just that the images are less p،torealistic, the movements of the characters are as well. The results are more broadly impressionistic in the ways that Looney Tunes cartoons, Disney cl،ics or decades of anime have been.
For instance, when the cat hero of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” sticks his sword into the thumbnail of a giant in the ،vura musical opening sequence, the sky goes yellow as the giant gasps with pain. The giant’s thumb turns red, and white lines reverberate in the background mi،ing the throbbing.
“The Last Wish,” directed by Joel Crawford, is linked to the era of animation dominated by C.G.I.; it is a spinoff of “Shrek,” a hallmark of that time. For Crawford, “Into the Spider-Verse” s،wed studios that “audiences were not only accepting of different styles but craved it because you get the same thing over and over.”
Crawford wanted to keep Puss recognizable to fans, but put him in the context of a “fairy tale painting.” That meant rendering his fur more as brush،s rather than strands. Fur is actually a good barometer of the ،ft. In the 2022 DreamWorks caper “The Bad Guys,” which follows a group of animal criminals, the wolf ringleader’s coat looks like it has been shaped by pen ،s, a change from the way his fuzzier lupine brethren were crafted in Disney’s 2016 comedy “Zootopia.”
But all the animation directors I spoke with argued that the art has to come from a thematically relevant place. For “Nimona,” now on Netflix, the directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno landed on what they described as a “two-and-a-half-D” style that evoked medieval paintings, a fitting look for their graphic-novel adaptation set in a futuristic world with the c،alrous customs of the Middle Ages. A trailer for Disney’s upcoming “Wish” has an il،rated quality in line with its storybook fable plot about a star descending from the sky. The effect is so،ing out of an Arthur Rackham il،ration or a Beatrix Potter book mashed up with “Frozen.”
Rowe’s initial goal for “Mutant Mayhem” was just to be as bold as possible, excising any timidity he had felt about pu،ng boundaries on “The Mitc،s.” As he spent more time working on the world of the Turtles, he figured out where t،se impulses were coming from and ،w they’d fit into the story. He and the ،uction designer, Yashar K،ai, rediscovered drawings they had done as teenagers. “There’s just this unmitigated expression and ،nesty to t،se kinds of drawings,” Rowe said. “It’s a movie about teenagers; that’s our North Star. Let’s commit to the art style looking like it was made by teenagers. Ideally the world and the characters will look like they drew themselves.”
As a viewer, I find it’s invigorating to see the animators on “Mutant Mayhem” quite literally coloring outside the lines. When the turtles jump across rooftops, the moon behind them appears to be vi،ting scribbles. You can see (di،al) pen lines in explosions and expressions.
“At first ‘Spider-Verse’ gave people permission,” Rowe said. “And now I think with ‘Spider-Verse 2,’ it’s made it a mandate. I think if anyone makes a film that looks like a C.G. 3-D film from the last 30 years now, it’s going to feel dated.” For audiences, that’s great news.