For years, I wasn’t even sure where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originated. I was aware of action figures, an animated series, and a few movies over the years, but originally, the TMNTs were a highly successful comic book series that creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman started in the mid-1980s. And while I watched all the film adaptations and certainly got the comic book nature of the stories being told, I never truly had an attachment to the characters. This latest version of TMNT (subtitled Mutant Mayhem) comes from producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Jeff Rowe, as well as Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit), and it’s the closest I’ve felt to this material since its debut outside of the comics.
The first of many spot-on decisions made about Mutant Mayhem by director Rowe (co-director of The Mitchells vs the Machines) and co-director Kyler Spears was casting actual teenage actors in the roles of the mutated turtle brothers—Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shannon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon). There’s something so natural and believable about the banter and personalities when you have kids voicing these characters who don’t fit well into the human world and so desperately want to. The great voice casting continues with Jackie Chan playing the mutated ninja master rat Splinter, who seems more relaxed doing voice work than ever before here.
The film opens with the requisite origin story, including an explanation of how the mysterious Ooze created (by a scientist named Baxter Stockman, voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) the turtle brothers, as well as a few other animal test subjects. The lab was raided by the villainous Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), and the turtles were rescued by Splinter and taken into the sewers under New York City for safe keeping, ninja training, and protection from the human world (Splinter is positive the humans want to milk their blood through their nipples for nefarious purposes, which isn’t far from the truth, it turns out). But being the restless youngsters that they are, the Turtles want to get out and see the world, so they sneak out, watch movies, steal snacks, and occasionally even help out the helpless with a little crime fighting.
The story kicks in when the Turtles come face to face with a fellow former test subject named Superfly (Ice Cube, clearly having the time of his life), a mutant fly who is attempting to find the transformative ooze in order to mass produce it and destroy humanity by turning everyone into mutants as well. He’s got an army of other mutated animals that make up something resembling a crime syndicate that hates humans even though when they all first meet, they get along great because they all come from the same ooze and are scared of surface dwellers. The other mutated animals feature voice work from a symphony of fantastic players, including Rogen, Rose Byrne, Paul Rudd (a highlight as the super-nice, even when he’s being mean, Mondo Gecko), Natasia Demetriou, John Cena, Post Malone, and Hannibal Buress, all playing pumped-up, tricked-out familiar animals as super villains. Stuck in the middle of all this is student journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), who has befriended the Turtles and is hoping to get her big break in news by getting the scoop on who these new crime fighters are.
The animation style of TMNT: Mutant Mayhem is a combination of photo-realism and surreal artistry that isn’t going for the recent hyper-executed Spider-Verse movies. But that doesn’t mean they don’t come close to achieving that level of perfection. However you want to describe the style, it’s gritty, colorful, electric, and completely fun to look at, especially during the action sequences. In the film’s big final battle of Turtles & friends vs. Superfly and his forces, New York is getting punched right in the face, and it looks suitably stunning.
As much as I tend to loathe live-action movies about mopey teens, apparently I really enjoy ones about teenage mutant turtles who know martial arts and eat lots of pizza. In fact, it’s the youthful energy of TMNT: Mutant Mayhem that I responded to the most. These heroes are kids, and with that comes a level of irresponsibility and immaturity that feels familiar and quite believable, especially when the scope of what they’re up against dawns on them and they get overwhelmed and scared. It’s a recognizable feeling even among adults, so to see it amplified among a group of teens is refreshing. The jokes don’t always land, but the film isn’t always going for the easy laughs (except when it is); it’s actually taking seriously the drama that some of the characters are experiencing. None of that takes away from the entertainment value of the film; if anything, it adds to it.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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