‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ review: An action-packed, utterly goofy nostalgia trip
The turtles return in « Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. »
Credit: Paramount Pictures
If you grew up on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show from the ’80s, worshipped the live-action movies from the ’90s, or still could chant the chorus of Vanilla Ice’s « Ninja Rap, » then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is for you.
A jubilant celebration of the comic book characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, this latest reboot reimagines the titular turtles in an animated coming-of-age action-comedy that pays tribute to their heyday while carving out fresh fun by looping in a wide array of wild characters.
That means if you’ve got a kiddo who’s into TMNT, they’ll eat this up like the boys do pizza.
What’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem about?
Credit: Paramount Pictures
The basic bones of the original story is familiar: four baby turtles chilling in the sewers of New York City come across some mysterious ooze, as does a fully grown rat. When the glowing green goo turns the lot of them into animal-human hybrids, the rat named Splinter (voiced here by Jackie Chan) decides to raise the subterranean hatchlings, naming them Donatello (Micah Abbey), Raphael (Brady Noon), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.).
Setting this version apart, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem features a Splinter who is not the sage-like sensei of past incarnations, but a fussy, overprotective dad, traumatized by his interactions with humans. (As a rat in New York, he’s got plenty of bad experiences with our lot.) So, to be sure his shelled wards will be safe, he trains them in martial arts, learned from live-action movies and YouTube tutorials. (Yes, live-action movies exist in this cartoon movie. We’ll get back to this.)
However, Splinter and the boys aren’t the only mutants battling to just exist in this city. A family of on-the-run experimental hybrids is stirring up trouble: pulling bold heists and killing off human criminals. Their leader is Superfly (Ice Cube), who is a flyman. The rest of the crew includes such wacky canonical characters as the batty Wingnut (What We Do In the Shadows‘ Natasia Demetriou, the crocodilian Leatherface (Rose Byrne), the warthog and rhino twosome of BeBop (Seth Rogen) and Rocksteady (John Cena), the endlessly singing Ray Fillet (Post Malone), the grumbly Genghis Frog (Hannibal Burress), and a skater lizard called Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd).
This crew is on the run from a nefarious corporation, Techno Cosmic Research Institute, whose scowling leader Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph doing a vaguely Dr. Ruth voice), wants to weaponize their mutant DNA. Meanwhile, the turtles have made a human friend, high school paper reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), and so are fixing to bring down this mutant crime syndicate to get her prom uncanceled — and to be able to introduce themselves to the humans they hide from as heroes.
Is that a lot of plot? Yes. Is the movie a bit of a mad jumble because of it? Also, yes. But with « mayhem » in the title, what more do you expect?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is chaotic entertainment.
Credit: Paramount Pictures
This lively reboot is a raucous collage of influences, the foremost of which are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their cavalcade of kooky characters and outrageous backstories. But whether you’re an expert on the canon or not, the movie sets up all you need to follow its flow. Deep-cut fans will surely pull out references and implications, but newbies won’t be lost amid the flood of characters, in part because their main purpose is to be a tornado of energy, action, and comedy.
Deep-cut fans will surely pull out references and implications, but newbies won’t be lost amid the flood of characters.
That comedy comes in no small part from Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), who produced this reboot, writing the script along Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Jeff Rowe (Mitchells vs. The Machines), who co-directed with Kyler Spears (a storyboard artist from Mitchells vs. The Machines). Rogen and Goldberg seemed to have a heavy hand in casting, considering the voice acting ensemble is stacked with past collaborators like Byrne, Burress, Rudd, Rudolph, Chan, and Cube. Within Superfly’s family, there’s an endless supply of energy, silliness, and one-liners, which makes for frenzied fun whether they’re fighting, going bowling, or jamming out to 4 Non-Blondes in a van.
Rowe and Spears enhance this energy with an animation style that proudly shuns the polished look of the movie’s peers. Throughout the film, settings, props, and characters are drawn with slaps and color, and scribbles that emphasize the human hands involved in their making. (Think the drafting lines in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.) This style brings texture and personality into every frame of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, reminding audiences that there are far more interesting things that can be done with computer animation beyond the bland accuracy of photorealism.
Beyond this, Row and Spears re-imagine the turtles to look less like the same action figures with different accessories. Mostly likely to brawl Raphael has a stockier build and a missing tooth (presumably from horseplay). Timid leader Leonardo is a bit taller and leaner, while anime-loving Donatello has a scrawnier build and glasses. And Michelangelo — often written as the pesky runt of the litter — is the smallest, with a watermelon-like noggin and braces. These little distinctions give them definitions from the start. And while long-time fans might bristle that Raph’s dropped his brooding or Mikey’s lost his surfer slang, these incarnations still feel true to the overall vibe of the turtles — they’re brothers first and foremost, and it’s an absolute joy to watch them play and battle.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a tale of family overcoming prejudice.
Credit: Paramount Pictures
Sure, there’s plenty of action in this movie, from car chases to martial arts battles to a multi-boro sprawling climactic battle for — not just the future of prom but — the future of mankind. Much like Rowe’s Mitchells vs. The Machines, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem embraces disparate design styles, like folding in live-action clips, including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — to give the turtles’ world an invigorating sense that anything can happen.
Within that promise is a message of hope, as two chosen families fight for their safety in a world that sees their very existence as a threat. Humans in the film are presented (fairly) as being typically scared and thereby hateful toward anything different from them, anything they don’t understand. Splinter and Superfly both have horrid brushes with mankind, but to protect their families, they pursue very different routes: one wants to hide, and the other wants to hit back. (Think Prof X versus Magneto in the X-Men movies.)
The allegory here might go over kids’ heads, but grown-ups won’t miss it. And to the directors’ credit, the casting of Ice Cube is brilliant. He is absolutely dynamic whether Superfly is dropping familiar rap lyrics, hyping up his hybrid siblings, or preaching human annihilation. And his cohorts bring vibrant life to their lovable weirdos. Rogen and Cena get growly and goofy; Byrne is gamely broad as a gator girl, while Rudd is sublimely silly as the daffy gecko, who is achingly ’90s in his idea of cool.
Their collective love is reflected in the turtles, whose child voice actors give a youthful exuberance to every scene, which is smartly paired with a no-nonsense Edebiri (who is crushing it this summer between this, The Bear, and Bottoms). Chan completes the picture as the father who loves so much but can’t let go. And so amid the dizzying flurry of action and eye-popping animation, there’s a dedicatedly sweet story that keeps us bound to the eponymous heroes, whatever wild turns they take.
With a plotline that scrambles across New York City, characters that seem born from a bad acid trip, and a sense of humor that is unapologetically madcap, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a hyper-active romp that’s chaotically charming. Kids will love the bombastic humor and gonzo — though not gory — action. Grown-ups will get the added bonus of nostalgia, not only for the turtles but also through a soundtrack that boasts jams like « No Diggity, » « What’s Going On, » and « Can I Kick It? »
Altogether, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a wild ride that is sure to please fans old and new.
Kristy Puchko is the Film Editor at Mashable. Based in New York City, she’s an established film critic and entertainment reporter, who has traveled the world on assignment, covered a variety of film festivals, co-hosted movie-focused podcasts, interviewed a wide array of performers and filmmakers, and had her work published on RogerEbert.com, Vanity Fair, and The Guardian. A member of the Critics Choice Association and GALECA as well as a Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes, Kristy’s primary focus is movies. However, she’s also been known to gush over television, podcasts, and board games. You can follow her on Twitter.