Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie debuts on Netflix on Aug. 5, 2022.
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie is the most fun I’ve had with a TMNT story in years. It’s funny, vibrant, and chock-full of the quirky charm that has helped this franchise endure. It functions well enough as a continuation of the 2018 series, but it works even better as an evolution of everything that made the Turtles the pop culture staples they are now.
Its dialed-up silliness and frantic fight sequences are welcome escalations of the banter and high-stakes action we expect from a Turtles story. Where it differs from its predecessor, though, is also where it shines. I haven’t been impressed with recent TMNT reboots (too much of the same) but Rise is a blast, mostly because it’s self-aware and uninterested in mimicking earlier iterations.
That said, the plot isn’t anything special: An apocalyptic Krang invasion forces Leonardo to send Casey Jones back in time. His mission is straightforward: find the Turtles in the past so that this nightmarish future can’t happen. Groundbreaking stuff, I know.
Examined as a TMNT flick (because it still very much is one), Rise has a blast checking the necessary boxes. There’s action, villainy, teetering towers of pizza boxes, and enough self-satisfied snark to keep things familiar but fun. Directors Ant Ward and Andy Suriano understand that no matter how much they change things up, they still have to give us the fights and jokes that we expect from a Turtles movie.
From a stylistic standpoint, though, Rise is one of the most visually distinct adventures the franchise has put out so far. One of the best, most underappreciated aspects of the Rise series is how it reflects characters’ personalities through their designs. Splinter is shorter, flatter, and fatter than we’ve ever seen him, making his shift from dignified rat-mentor to schlubby couch potato less of a leap. Raphael’s size and bulk reflect his standing as the strongest, while Donatello, his slim frame forever bristling with apparatus, is the embodiment of breakneck innovation.
Comedy is a key ingredient in the TMNT formula and the recent Nickelodeon show relied on it constantly. Incredibly, the humor here is more fluid and more organic than it was in other interpretations. Rather than paint the Turtles as run-of-the-mill heroes who bust out iffy one-liners during combat, Rise commits to their silliness both on and off the battlefield. The 2012 computer-animated series had clunkier humor and was much less engaging from moment to moment. The older cartoons were light-hearted, too, but the limitations of late ’80s/early ’90s animation kept them from achieving the kinetic fun on full display here.
Its Teen Titans Go!-adjacent goofiness and offbeat animation style instantly distance it from other Turtles revamps. For some, this approach strays too far from those early Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird comics. Look past that, though, and it’s clear that this accessible, colorful, and hilarious alternative to cookie-cutter TMNT stories is an excellent entry point for younger viewers. (Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami has said that Rise reflects the franchise’s penchant for reinvention, with the “younger and lighter” feel of the series designed to entertain younger viewers. I think Rise‘s actual appeal is much broader than that, but that’s another matter.)
At the same time, though, Rise introduces an emotional intensity that the series lacked. That’s where Parks and Rec and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Ben Schwartz, who reprises his voice role as Leonardo, comes in. Schwartz displays an uncanny (but useful) knack for balancing dramatic beats with comedic ones, making his casting as the lead Turtle even more fitting. The rest of the cast, as outstanding as they are, aren’t able to show off their range because their primary function is to rally around Leo as he grows.
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Still, few of its emotional beats will stick beyond the credits. Ward and Suriano, with help from writers Tony Gama-Lobo and Rebecca May, engineer Rise to lift us up, not bum us out. But as a low-commitment animated romp and a sequel to the 2018 series, it’s absolutely thrilling.
Rise reinforces the broad appeal of the franchise even as it distinguishes itself from others TMNT stories. It has more fun with its plot and its characters than it even needs to and benefits from its playfulness. For me, a fan who has followed the franchise off and on for years, that emphasis on fun is infectious. Making Leonardo the emotional core is an unexpected touch that gives the proceedings some focus and keeps the script tight. The stakes here are higher than they were in the series, but they never become impersonal. The family dynamic underpinning every great TMNT outing still matters here; Leo’s personal journey simply serves as a springboard for these characters to get to where we know they go.