My favorite of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid was Donatello. I cannot remember exactly why, but I think it started with the fact his name also began with a “D.” (Even at four-years-old, you can pick up on the nuances!) But really all four were mythic as far as my preschool was concerned: rad dudes who lived in a sewer with a giant rat that taught them Ninjitsu between late night binges of NYC pizza.
It wasn’t until many years later, I realized how weird this concept must’ve seemed to adults. And kind of gross. It seems directors Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears never forgot, though, nor have Rowe’s co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; their latest reinvention of the amphibious IP is happily weird and gross to the point of renewed novelty.
Taking a page from what Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s team pulled off with now two Spider-Verse films starring an animated Miles Morales, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem remembers animation doesn’t just need to be either inoffensively cutesy or forever reaching toward a beatific photorealism. Animation is, after all, the medium that convinced scores of kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s that turtles performing martial arts and riding skateboards is the most natural thing in the world. And Mutant Mayhem embraces that via an aesthetic evocative of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s blend of classic comic book animation with street art.
Mutant Mayhem also draws from street art and a heavy dose of early ‘90s counterculture, although it’s less concerned with making something visually overwhelming. This thing is happy to play the wacky kid in the back of the class. For instance, there’s an intentional jerkiness to how the turtles move in their computer-generated world that slyly nods to stop-motion animation. Meanwhile their eventual combat with a smorgasbord of fellow mutant creatures, who sometimes drool green neon ooze, likewise reminds viewers the turtles came from an era where faint disgust was a selling point to kids.
In this way, the film is a nifty departure from most modern animated films, not to mention the garishly ugly live-action/CG TMNT monstrosities produced by Michael Bay in the mid-2010s. The art design makes the Ninja Turtles cool again while returning to them a kid-friendly edge. That’s a good thing since the script still largely plays it safe, coloring in the lines for what constitutes inoffensive kids entertainment nowadays.
As another reboot of the Ninja Turtles brand, Mutant Mayhem once again retells the characters’ origin story, albeit for the first time in largely chronological order. In this film, the lads are still raised by the older mutated rat who calls himself Splinter (Jackie Chan), but these five animals are just an off-shoot of a much larger contamination that occurred in the city, creating an entire host of mutants who have previously appeared in various TMNT cartoons and comic books, but never on the big screen.
Not that Leonardo (Nicholas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Sharon Brown Jr.), and Raphael (Brady Noon) are aware of that at first. Nay, these Turtles are the product of a modern day helicopter parent, with Chan’s Splinter being deathly afraid of the humans above—which is made understandable since this is the first TMNT movie to actually take time to think about how a rat would respond to a species that always wants to kill him. And despite being voiced by a martial arts legend like Chan, this Splinter is no Ninjitsu master either. Rather, he’s trained the Turtles in martial arts by watching clips on YouTube. He did it so they can better protect themselves from the humans up there.
Still, Splinter doesn’t count on kids being kids, and as they hit their adolescent years, the turtles are desperate to enter the real world, especially after Leo starts crushing on aspiring high school journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri). After piquing her interest as a news story, the Turtles deduce a plan to win over humans like April so they can go to her high school: they’ll track down a new criminal mastermind in NYC called Superfly (Ice Cube). Little do they know that Superfly really is a seven-foot fly who was mutated by the same ooze that made the Turtles. And he’s willing to welcome the half-shelled quartet as “cousins” if they help him and all the other mutants wipe out humanity….
As you might tell from the setup, the film is dispensing with the “Turtles fight the Shredder” shtick that has been the plot of nearly every previous live-action Turtles movie. Instead, things are getting as wild as the old ‘80s cartoon. However, in practice much of the plotting also feels like a modern cartoon’s basic plot expanded out to 100 minutes. The film is produced by Nickelodeon and resembles it, with a near constant barrage of scattershot reference humor. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is noticeably a step down from the ambitions achieved by the Spider-Verse films, which Mutant Mayhem invites comparisons to.
The often generic structuring also robs the Turtles of much individuality. In terms of written character development or plotting, the foursome are pretty interchangeable, and a few dropped lines of dialogue about Raph having a “rage issue” that we never see, or Mikey loving pizza, do not suffice as actual characterization. In fact, the only one with a discernible arc is Leo, who must learn to stop tattling on his brothers to their father.
Yet to focus too much on the script or its “I want to be where the people are” Little Mermaid plot mechanics would miss the forest for the trees. What makes Mutant Mayhem an ultimately refreshing reset of this aging IP is that while the personalities are interchangeable, all four turtles feel shockingly, authentically young for the first time ever.
Indeed, the four main characters are all voiced by actual teenagers, with none of the actors being old enough to vote. And not only do they sound young, but they behave like it. This is partially due to the animators wisely leaning into childlike appearances for all four heroes, but it’s also a testament to the better instincts of Rogen and Goldberg as producers/writers, as the pair have long favored letting improvisation do the heavy-lifting of characterization.
Apparently they had all four young thespians record their scenes together, and that comes across every time the movie slows down and they’re allowed to banter or riff. While the plot they’re in is guided along studio guardrails of what’s deemed safest for a kids entertainment, there is a spontaneity and subversive freedom to the Turtles because they really are modern day kids having a blast.
When combined with an ambitious art style, Mutant Mayhem comes into its own whenever the action stops and the Turtles just behave like a couple of eighth grade knuckleheads daydreaming about what high school might be like next year. It’s the first convincing reason in about 30 years a studio has come up with to justify going back to this brand’s well. It’s still a pretty by-the-numbers affair if you’re coming for the story, but the overall experience levels this mutation up. The best audience remains kids the same age (or younger) than the leads, but parents with their own memories of ‘80s and ‘90s cartoons and films will be happy to tag along.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem opens in theaters on Wednesday, Aug. 2.