Inspired by the recent success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Paramount has done yet another relaunch of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise with the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Assembling an impressive voice cast, and giving us a new, artistically drawn aesthetic, much of Mutant Mayhem feels straight ripped from the pages of the Eastman/Laird comic, but also keeping much of the sensibilities of the animated television show.
TMNT has always been a sort of fly-by to me. It hit probably a couple of years too late for me to fully embrace it, but I imagine that if it had landed when I was twelve or so I would have been all over it. It’s one franchise that gets rebooted every few years, and there are some decent entries, and some not so decent (the ill-advised Michael Bay-produced “live-action” movies attempt to put a sense of realism on the Turtles, when at their best they’ve always been a little silly). To this point, my favorite one was the computer animated TMNT, which tried to fuse both the fun of the television show with the grit of the comics. It had the characters right, and a decent scope.
Mutant Mayhem, however, is leaps and bounds the best of the franchise. It’s not overly nostalgic, but older fans will appreciate that it keeps the tone and the fun intact and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It also doesn’t attempt to do too much too soon and judging by the audience reaction to some of the end credit scenes, this was absolutely the right decision. While it introduces the Turtles to a new audience, it also knows what has kept the Turtles in the imaginations of its fans these past nearly 40 years.
Most origin stories these days aren’t very interesting, since the audience is already familiar with the story and doesn’t need it played back to them. Mutant Mayhem sidesteps that with an engaging script that gets us invested in these characters early, and it helps that it’s written by fans. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit know these characters well, and their character dynamic is so versatile that it’s hard to get bored with a story we’ve heard so many times before.
It’s especially interesting to have that Rogen/Goldberg feel to what is ostensibly a family movie, considering their past films. But it works. Much of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem plays like a hang-out movie – there are stretches where not a lot happens, but you don’t mind because you’re having such a good time spending time with these characters.
When a mysterious agency attacks Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) in his lab, one of his experimented-upon creatures escapes, and some of Stockman’s mutagenic Ooze also slips through the agency’s fingers. The Ooze finds its way into the sewers, where a lowly rat and four small turtles become exposed.
The rat, named Splinter (Jackie Chan) takes it upon himself to raise the turtles like his own children. Fifteen years later, the Turtles — leader Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), brash Raphael (Brady Noon), flashy Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and tech-savvy Donatello (Micah Abbey) — want desperately to be a part of the outside world, but Splinter distrusts humans and refuses.
In the meantime, some high-tech heists are scaring the citizens of New York City, to the point that a citywide curfew is being considered. This puts a crimp on April O’Neil’s (Ayo Edebiri) hopes to get her school prom uncancelled – she’s not the most popular kid in school and she hopes that her investigations into the burglaries will get the curfew lifted. It’s in her investigations that she meets the Turtles, and they decide to team up to stop the mysterious Superfly (Ice Cube) and his minions from destroying the city.
The voice cast collected here is fantastic — Rogen, Paul Rudd, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou, and Maya Rudolph all elevate the material. But there are a few standouts. First, the Turtles’ voices all sound like real teenagers, and give each of them a real youthful charge and vigor. You can believe that all the Turtles want is to be accepted by the human world, and they also bring the different personalities of each Turtle into play, in some pretty subtle ways.
They’re laying the groundwork for what is to come, and it’s exciting to imagine the future of this particular franchise iteration. Ayo Edebiri’s April O’Neil is also terrific, making April funny and endearing. Even the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score sounds like the composers knew exactly the movie being made; it’s reminiscent of 1980s video games and Saturday morning cartoons, and the soundtrack is also a blast, even throwing that old standard, Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” into the mix.
I must highlight two vocal performances above all others, though. First, I loved Jackie Chan’s Splinter. A doting dad who loves his Turtle children, but is distrustful of outsiders, Chan gives Splinter so much heart and humor and I hope that he remains a big part of these movies moving forward. Chan doesn’t play Splinter like a wise old ancient karate teacher – here Splinter is just a regular dad, older maybe, but caring and invested in seeing his children do well. And it makes sense that the Turtles want to do right by him, even though they yearn to be a part of bigger things.
The other performance is Ice Cube’s Superfly, a mutant bug who wants to destroy humanity so that he and his mutant brethren can be free. Cube’s spectacular in the part, even dropping a few classic bars and clearly having a great time. In the film’s third act, Cube even gets to strut a bit. It reminded me of his comedic performance in the 21 Jump Street movies, and it also reminded me that when Ice Cube gets a good script behind him and lets him play, that he can be a movie’s secret weapon. Cube gets a lot of the best dialogue, and I imagine Rogen and Goldberg had a terrific time writing his lines. Ice Cube alone is worth the price of a ticket.
As I said, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably missed me by a few years, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize when these characters are done right and treated with respect. I think fans of TMNT will have a lot to enjoy here and shouldn’t feel insulted or pandered to. The animation is crisp and exciting, the movie remembers how to balance the grit and the silliness perfectly, and this is a good base to build upon if Paramount wants to make more movies – who am I kidding, if this does well, you know there’ll be about twenty more of these.
They should absolutely keep the creatives behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, as they clearly had fun making it and that joy is infectious to the audience. Mutant Mayhem is a good family-friendly time at the movies.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM REVIEW SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10
Paramount Pictures will release Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem in theaters on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. The film is rated PG for sequences of violence and action, language and impolite material.