The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are headed back to the theaters for the first time in almost 20 years with next week’s debut of TMNT: Mutant Mayhem. Co-directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears with Rowe sharing screenplay credit alongside Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit, Mutant Mayhem does something movies usually don’t do with the Turtles: actually treats them like teenagers.
Speaking with GameSpot at Comic-Con in San Diego, Rowe (a self-described Donatello who wants to be a Michelangelo) discussed why he thinks the Turtles are still with us and why he wanted to channel that authenticity by hiring actual teenagers for the first time in their respective roles–played by Micah Abbey, Shannon Brown Jr., Nicholas Cantu, and Brady Noon.
“I think it makes them more emotionally resonant, you’re able to because we were chasing authenticity and really making them feel like real teenagers,” Rowe explained. “We’re trying to give them teenage problems and emotions and ways of dealing with their issues. It gives it a level of emotional grounding and relatability that hopefully, the audience more so than ever is able to really connect with these characters.”
In the film, April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) is also aged down to make her the Turtles’ contemporary, instead of a seasoned reporter, but still very much their window to the outside world and trying to solve the mystery of Superfly (Ice Cube). Rowe went into why that decision was also a focal point of the story.
“It kind of really helps her become the fifth turtle [because] sometimes she’s like… is she their mom? Is she their love interest? What is her relationship to the Turtles? It’s oftentimes strange,” he said. “But you know, she is really able to relate to them and be one of them and joke around with them and she’s also very importantly, their portal to the human world.”
During the film’s panel at Comic-Con, Paramount showed 20 minutes, including how the Turtles meet April, Superfly, and their fantastical goals of going to the surface world. Sprinkled in were a lot of homages and Easter eggs for fans, but Rowe wanted to balance that level of fan service while carving out a brand-new piece of mythos for the Turtles.
“We weren’t going to do something just to do it because it would make people like pause and clap for 10 seconds in the theater when it plays the first time because you know, you do that,” Rowe said. “It’s fun on opening weekend but then it doesn’t become a lasting enduring thing that invites a new generation of fans to be a part of it. So we found ways to organically honor the franchise and the history and bring those things in. But we always tried to start from a place of just character and like, helping audiences really love these characters the way I did when I was a kid.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem kicks shell in theaters on August 2.
Additional reporting by Chris E. Hayner.