In retrospect, it’s downright weird that after roughly a half-dozen reboots and reimaginings, not a single film, cartoon, or video game based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise prior to 2023 asked the deceptively simple question: “What if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were actually teenagers?” Not cooler-than-thou, aspirational teens of the focus-tested variety, but awkward, 21st-century teenage boys who film dumb stunts with their siblings on a quest for TikTok glory and infodump about anime at the drop of a dime.
And here we are. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a film that feels ripped right out of a high school art-class notebook, and sounds like a Twitch stream—thanks, in part, to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s deliberately chiptune-infused soundtrack. As such, it’s appropriate that the titular turtles are voiced by a quartet of relatively unknown teen actors who sound like they recorded their dialogue while waiting to get airdropped into Fortnite.
That could have been a recipe for disaster—that is, for a volatile and hideously abrasive kids’ movie. Fortunately, Mutant Mayhem’s pedigree is rock solid, with a screenplay co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg—proven entities who know how to connect to audiences via their inner 13-year-olds—and directed by Jeff Rowe, whose Mitchells vs the Machines strikes a wonderful balance in its depiction of technology run amok and a family in the midst of some growing pains, all while making room for absolutely manic swaths of hyperactive humor.
Right out of the gate, Mutant Mayhem homes in on the “teenage mutant” part of its premise, after the titular turtles and their ersatz rat father, Splinter (Jackie Chan), are created when rogue scientist Baxter Stockman (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito and drawn like a failed clone of Cornel West) loses a canister of his DNA-altering mutagen down the drain. Then the teaching starts, but for Splinter, his instruction isn’t informed by a traditional sense of honor and discipline. Rather, it’s a trauma response to him being attacked by a frightened New York City mob after journeying for the first time with his sons from the city’s sewers to the surface above.
In this city, Splinter knows that he can keep his boys safe and ensure that they live a comfortable life if they can figure out how to defend themselves. But that’s not a guarantee for four kids raised with internet access, and whose nightly trips to grab groceries turns into stealth trips to watch Knicks games and playing around on the Big Apple’s rooftops.
The bubble they’ve been living in bursts when they meet an endearingly awkward teenage blerd, April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), and, later, a mutated cyborg fly named, well, Superfly (Ice Cube). Both represent paths to acceptance. April attempts to assimilate the turtles by filming them beating up New York City’s scumbags, but Superfly, taking a page from the Erik Lehnsherr school of race relations, has built himself a small army of fellow freaky mutants, stealing the parts to build a machine that will turn the entire population of Manhattan into mutants.
Around its midsection, the film lets the idea of the turtles feeling more comfortable with their own kind fall by the wayside, only to pick it back up when it’s convenient to the plot. Even then, though, Mutant Mayhem ably skates by on its charming and earnest grasp of the turtles’ desperate need to be regular kids without the real world trying to kill them, indoctrinate them, or overprotect them. The film delights in seeing kids feeling the need to be dangerous every once in a while, knowing that it’s crucial to them growing into the people who make good choices.
Mutant Mayhem indulges such base joys as dorky, gross-out kid humor while never dropping the ball when it comes to showing our heroes figuring out who they want to be in real time. The film is also unique in its approach to the touchstones of the property. The art style brings the look of the film into parity with the original comics but with a beautifully varied color palette and sense of adolescent joy keeping it away from feeling overly dark or gritty.
The action runs more toward the cartoony end of things than the thin air of martial arts legitimacy that previous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles properties have strived for (though the film can’t help but have Chan’s Splinter channel his Drunken Master character during one fight scene). But those fights also feel fresh and energetic in a way that feels satisfyingly distinct, particularly the climax, involving a Cronenbergian kaiju abomination that’d be absolutely terrifying if Ice Cube wasn’t there to ground the moment in some level of humor.
Mutant Mayhem knows the audience it wants to reach, and speaks directly to them without pandering to them. Out of the Shadows, the previous big-screen adaptation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property, felt as if it was paying for the sins of its own predecessor, which set out to give audiences everything that it thought that they wanted. By contrast, Mutant Mayhem, not unlike Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, soars by not just functioning as a celebratory homage, but also as a questioning of what beloved properties mean to the kids of the present.
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