Logline: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are 15 years old, and want to emerge from the shadows to join the human world. Defying their fearful father Splinter, they join forces with high school reporter April O’Neil to unmask the shadowy criminal Superfly, in the hopes of proving to the rest of the world they’re heroes and not monsters.
No spoilers, but you should definitely stick around for a mid-credits scene.
A year ago, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ last animated incarnation, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, concluded with a spectacular feature-length outing on Netflix. Now the Turtles have been rebooted in animation once more on the big screen, courtesy of — deep breath — director Jeff Rowe, producers/writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and co-writers Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Brendan O’Brien, who sought to emphasize the T in TMNT. It proves to be a surprisingly heartfelt origin story exploring the question, “How lonely would you actually be if you were one of these creatures? To be a sewer mutant, only ever allowed out at night because of what you are?”
To be clear, Mutant Mayhem is absolutely not what that would imply, it is definitely a madcap action comedy packed with nonstop banter, an absurd amount of pop culture references, and Rogen and Goldberg’s trademark gross out humor. But it’s also a film about a group of outcasts longing to be a part of a world they’re obsessed with, lending it an emotional foundation that might make non-Rogen fans appreciate it. The number of pop culture nods can get overwhelming, but it reflects how little these sewer-dwelling kids really know about humanity, and the amount of internet access they have is pretty funny in itself.
The creative team’s stroke of genius was casting actual teens as the turtles. Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Micah Abbey and Shamon Brown Jr. are so adorable as Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo that you’ll wonder why it was never done before. Rowe et al. even let their young leads talk over each other in several scenes, lending an extra air of authenticity. Their performances and the writing do a great job of conveying each turtle’s personality, without making them feel overtly like the archetypes they embody ie. Donnie never feels merely like “the smart one,” Raph doesn’t come across simply as “the angry one,” and Mikey’s not just “the fun loving one” – they’re all kids, and you’ll love them equally.
As the title implies, there’s a large cast of criminal mutants, who generally come across as Rogen’s friends (and Rogen himself as Bebop) being drafted in to riff as themselves, giving these minor characters personality in the most economic way possible. (Especially Paul Rudd, who is absolutely not beating the allegations he’s the Nicest Guy in Hollywood as Mondo Gecko.) Ayo Edebiri is particularly charismatic and charming as April O’Neil, but the best performer in the whole cast would have to be Jackie Chan as Master Splinter, who is arguably the movie’s true protagonist – while the turtles have their own compelling character arc, Splinter’s fears and anxieties over his children’s safety are considerably more touching, and Chan embodies it with the utmost sincerity.
A lot’s been said about how this movie does for the turtles what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did for the wallcrawler, but the animation is intentionally grungier and messier, resembling graffiti and schoolbook scribbles, which is especially striking during explosions and other moments of destruction. It’s murkier thanks to how much of the film is set at night, but never to the point it becomes too dark to tell what’s going on. The fight choreography is excellent, especially an awesome showcase for Splinter homaging Chan’s early films, and a dazzling montage where the turtles’ moves during five different raids are shown almost all at once.
The largely grotesque character designs for the humans can be distracting, but it contrasts amusingly with the decision to have the live-action imagery from all the films and TV the Splinter clan watch appear unaltered. (I will admit, there may have been a “celebrity cameo” or three that left me howling.) Given how much of the film is about mutants hiding from humanity because we freak out over their appearances, it’s also thematically appropriate that nearly every character looks ugly in their own way, whether it’s on the inside (where it matters) or outside (where it doesn’t).Continued below
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is beautiful, moody, edgy and poignant whenever it needs to be, although it does get somewhat overshadowed by the mostly ’90s hip hop soundtrack. Some of the music choices can be on the nose (before you ask, a certain rap track from the older films is played early on), although there’s an utterly sublime choice during one of the action scenes, that segues into an infamous cover version; it’s an absolutely jawdropping decision that renders the sequence ridiculous to the point it’s sublime again. (Wisely, at the time of writing, the ’90s hit and cover in question are not on the film’s official playlist.)
All in all, Mutant Mayhem is a promising new beginning for the turtles, that ends on a bold and confident note suggesting a very unique direction for the newly announced sequel and spin-off show. As a relative newcomer to the series, who’s only recently learned how to tell the brothers apart, all I can say is: bring it on.
PS. if I ever meet the writers I’ll shake their hands, then challenge them to a karate fight over making me laugh too hard with the unexpected choice of romance in this.