Well, that was refreshing. No, not representation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brand, which, between movies and TV shows, has never moved out of the spotlight for kids since 1987. What’s invigorating is the sense of life and energy found in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which wants to emphasize the “teenager” aspect, as well as the stylized animation used to represent this latest iteration of the comic series by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. No, it’s still not aiming for the dark, black & white Daredevil parody this series began as on the page, but the irreverent antics and very modern sense of humor provide the feel of something made for kids by kids at heart (and the adults who can vibe with it, as the kids say).
A brief prologue and a pretty funny retelling by Jackie Chan’s Splinter remind us of what happened. A canister of ooze (a scientific term for goopy experimental gunk) fell into the sewer and managed to spill onto a rat and four young turtles. The rat, Splinter, became their father figure and would go on to teach his adopted children the arts of ninjitsu. Banned from letting their presence be known to humans and only allowed to leave for the surface for supplies, the teenage-aged turtles are restless as they become more curious about the world above them.
This is all standard for TMNT, but even before getting into the major gimmick for this film from a plot standpoint, just watching and listening to Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo banter is a highlight throughout the film. Producer and co-writer Seth Rogen made the wise decision of having the four young actors record together, and the results add real life to these characters. Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Micah Abbey, and Shamon Brown Jr. shine throughout, as they are actual teenagers who bicker, talk over each other, make jokes, and laugh in ways that feel like the best sort of version of “here’s the point of the scene, now improvise the dialogue to reach that goal.”
The spirited energy of these performances is matched by the unique animation style, which once again feels like the results of a studio taking the right notes from the Spider-Verse films. Director Jeff Rowe and co-director Kyler Spears (who both worked on The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which has its own connections back to Spider-Verse) have assembled the right crew to deliver a film that looks not only like concept art but the sort of art that comes from a youthful mind. Backgrounds have scribbles on the buildings and other elements, shapes are all irregular, there’s a minor lean into some anime for inspiration, and it all makes for an exciting experiment in 3D animation, to say the least.
Even as an action film, there’s so much going for this take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as it’s clear Mutant Mayhem is inspired by not only kung-fu flicks but Jackie Chan films, in particular. The way this film manages to get around our heroes using their deadly weapons, for instance, involves a lot of work to have the surrounding environments provide obstacles for the turtles and their foes. This movie has about as much action as it needs, but it’s creative and builds in ways that also speak for the film’s growth in its characters.
Speaking of characters, so here’s the deal, compared to, say, yet another Superman movie where the villain just has to be Lex Luthor or General Zod, Mutant Mayhem is leaning into the expansive rogue’s gallery that’s been developed in the TMNT universe and using it to build a whole cavalcade of characters for our heroes to either bounce dialogue off of or ninja skills. In doing so, why not cast a variety of talent to supply the various comedic beats and one-liners. Ice Cube, Rogen, Rose Byrne, John Cena, Hannibal Buress, Natasia Demetriou, Post Malone, and most hilariously, Paul Rudd all pop up to voice the likes of Superfly, Bebob, Rocksteady, Leatherhead, Wingnut, Ray Fillet, Mondo Gecko, and other fan favorites. Yet, it never feels like gratuitous fan service.
There’s a method to having all of these characters featured, but the film never feels overcrowded. If anything, the story is pretty thin compared to the character work for the turtles and Splinter. It ultimately amounts to one of the mutants wanting to assemble a weapon that could take on the humans (who most of the mutants dislike). Not that it’s uninteresting, but as with most TMNT plots, it will ultimately come down to the Turtles saving the day from their latest villain.
The way to make that more compelling is to dig in on the key characters. For example, this is the best theatrical TMNT movie for shaping Leonardo as the group leader. He’s honorable and takes things seriously, as usual, sure. However, Mutant Mayhem doesn’t forget that he’s still a teenager and can become self-conscious. Not hurting is the choice to keep Raphael away from the typical sarcastic persona constantly challenging Leo. Instead, he’s brave but impulsive, and gets along with everyone.
In addition to how the turtles function, Splinter and April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) get neat arcs to play with. With Splinter, it’s about his role as a father and his justified prejudices regarding how he feels about humans. We’re far from the times when Jackie Chan was just being fed one-liners that he didn’t understand in Rush Hour, as he brings a good amount of heart to scenes requiring him to show care for his children. Meanwhile, this version of April is a high schooler and aspiring reporter who aims to prove herself to the other students following an embarrassing situation. It’s simple but effective, without losing sight of the wonder she has from involving herself with her new friends.
If anything, this whole film gets by largely on how much of a positive message it wants to share about helping people and its attitude in capturing innocence as well as a capacity to grow one’s understanding of the world. While there’s an eventual showdown between the Turtles and a key villain, the path in getting to the finale is aided by the choices rooted in how the characters have been developed and what’s the most logical path to take amid all the silliness, action, and other antics fueling the movie’s momentum.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the music and soundtrack for this film. The score comes from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who once again show how adept they are at letting their industrial style seamlessly blend with whatever they are after. Meanwhile, the tracks chosen for the soundtrack heavily emphasize 90s east coast hip-hop tracks that were likely all favorites for Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg when they were growing up. M.O.P., De La Soul, O.D.B., Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, and more, are all featured. It really helps create a special atmosphere that belongs to this specific iteration of TMNT.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem delivers a lot of fun. More radical dudes than reptiles with attitude, the joy and spontaneity of teenagers portraying the characters opens up what one can do with this franchise. Adding an assortment of wacky villains and a look for its animation style that is unlike anything else only adds to why it stands out. Focusing on the innocence of adolescence over attempting to subvert superhero movie tropes, enough works in this film’s favor to hope there’s more in the works for these heroes in a half shell.