"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" stars Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Brady Noon, Jackie Chan, and Ayo Edebiri. Releasing on August 2, 2023, the film has four ninja turtles battling an army of mutants.
The film is directed by Jeff Rowe, known for writing the shows, "Gravity Falls" and "Disenchantment". Rowe also co-directed and co-wrote "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" with Mike Rianda. It is based on the comic book characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It is also a reboot of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film franchise. The titular crime-fighting turtle team has dominated the media industry since its debut in 1984, particularly in television and film. With the acquisition from Nickelodeon in 2009, the franchise has seen plenty of success in reintroducing the brand to new generations with its recent television adaptations like the 2012 series and "Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". However, its recent live-action films produced by Michael Bay didn't kick as much butt as the television shows. The 2014 film did financially well despite the negative reception toward the turtle designs and Megan Fox's portrayal as April O'Neil, while its sequel, "Out of the Shadows", was the opposite. The 2016 follow-up was less successful than its predecessor financially, but many critics and fans considered it a slight improvement of the 2014 movie. As a result, the planned third film was scrapped, removing our hopes for another completed trilogy featuring the heroes in the half-shell.
Seven years later, Nickelodeon is rebooting the franchise for the big screen once again, but not as a live-action movie. Instead, it's taking an animated approach to the source material. Considering the success of the recent animated Ninja Turtles shows and non-theatrical films, especially "Rise", this seemed like the best option to ensure the franchise's success in theaters. The last time the franchise delivered an animated theatrical adaptation was in 2007 with "TMNT", produced by the short-lived Imagi Animation Studios. Unfortunately, the acquisition by Nickelodeon and Imagi's bankruptcy were some of the reasons why we never saw a continuation of this iteration of the source material. Hopefully, with the new film's unique visual style and a refreshing take on the concept, the franchise could have a brighter future regarding its animated theatrical adaptations. With that in mind, let's revisit the heroes in the half-shell and see if it's fun and striking enough to make us say "Cowabunga".
The story centers on four teenage turtle brothers: Leonardo (Cantu), Donatello (Abbey), Raphael (Noon), and Michelangelo (Brown Jr.). They reside in the sewers of New York City, practicing ninjitsu taught by their rat father, Splinter (Chan), and hiding from the humans. Hoping to live a better life without being feared by people, the turtles embark on a journey to be accepted as normal teenagers through acts of heroism. Along the way, they meet April O'Neil (Edebiri), an intelligent and determined human who helps them on their quest. The turtles also confront a crime syndicate that's been haunting the streets of New York. They eventually discover that the crime syndicate is actually an army of mutants led by Superfly (Ice Cube), who seeks dominance over the human race. When Superfly's plan threatens the city, the ninja brothers must work together to defeat him.
It's no secret that everything relating to the Ninja Turtles is a must-see for me, especially movies, which explains why I saw "Mutant Mayhem" early via its early access screening. So if you're eagerly waiting to see whether this new adventure is a late-summer treat for families, I got your back. Similar to the previous adaptations, "Mutant Mayhem" is tasked to deliver everything fans would expect from a Ninja Turtles movie, including the brothers' dynamics and the ninja action. More importantly, it has to provide something fresh to attract regular moviegoers who haven't watched a single second of the films and multiple television shows. Fortunately, the marketing for the film indicated that it's accomplishing this objective easily, with the turtles being voiced by actual teenagers and a style resembling drawings you'd see in school notebooks. So the final question we're dying to know is whether the execution of its story is tubular enough to warrant these changes. The answer to that question is a yes.
The story in "Mutant Mayhem" stood out from the rest because the film emphasized the "teenage" aspect of the title. So not only did they get teenage actors to voice the turtles, but they also took many inspirations from teenage coming-of-age films to make them youthful and inexperienced compared to the other iterations. This is also another Ninja Turtles "starting point" movie that doesn't involve them fighting the Shredder, similar to "TMNT", with them fighting a mutant army instead. Although, I did hear that the iconic enemy might appear in the sequel depending on how well it does at the box office, so keep your fingers crossed. Regarding the coming-of-age journey of self-growth and acceptance, along with its new antagonists, "Mutant Mayhem" is a refreshing and subtly thought-provoking approach to the turtles' origin story that prevents itself from becoming derivative to the other adaptations.
More importantly, it retains the usual elements that made the franchise beloved by kids and adults. It's not just about the incredible ninja sequences involving four karate turtles battling bad guys. It's also about the characters through their growth and dynamics. With the turtles being actual teenagers, it emphasizes their relatability regarding what a typical teen goes through in their adolescence. That includes living with an overprotective parent (like Splinter) and the desire to fit in. Of course, the film doesn't forget to have fun with its concept and themes, mainly when focusing on the turtles. Even though there aren't many action scenes for a Ninja Turtles movie, seeing the characters interact and goof off like normal teenagers is still a delight to experience.
However, if you're expecting "Mutant Mayhem" to have the same storytelling quality as "Spider-Verse" or "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish", you might be mildly disappointed with the result. The film's story is undoubtedly straightforward, but it didn't feel like it was dumbed down for the kids regarding its messages. I should know because the movie gets a bit edgy with the language despite its PG rating, mainly from Superfly. It's a simple plot to follow, but it's also accessible and highly entertaining for older fans and adults. The only issue I had with the story was the villain, or in this case, villains. Two antagonists are present in the film: Superfly, who shares a similar goal as the turtles, and Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), a TCRI executive seeking to capture the turtles. Despite the decent voice work from Cube and Rudolph, the characters are by-the-numbers villains that struggle with the direction they were given. Utrom basically serves as a background antagonist for potential follow-ups, while Superfly is just an entertaining gangster-like bad guy who periodically swears. I think the movie's themes would be better utilized if Utrom is the surprise main villain and Superfly is a misunderstood mutant who's on the wrong path to earn acceptance, but that's just me.
One of the most vital aspects of "Mutant Mayhem" is the voice cast. This is another movie that features plenty of all-star celebrities voicing the characters, like producer Seth Rogen as Bebop, Paul Rudd as Mondo Gecko, Jackie Chan as Splinter, and even Post Malone as Ray Fillet. Don't ask me why Post Malone is in a Ninja Turtles movie because I don't have the answer. I like his music, though, so that's one good thing to point out about this casting choice. However, the turtles are voiced by up-and-coming actors like Nicolas Cantu, known for voicing Gumball in "The Amazing World of Gumball", and Brady Noon from "Good Boys". There's no doubt in my mind when I say that the young actors were fantastic as the turtles. The chemistry between these characters benefitted profoundly from the vocal performances, humor, and, more importantly, heart, which is part of what made the turtles memorable in other movies and television shows. Additionally, the dynamic felt authentically unique as they act like actual teenagers themselves. Jackie Chan as Splinter left me puzzled at first regarding the character design, but he had enough good moments as the rat dad to make it work for me. Ayo Edebiri was also great as April O'Neil, who strives to be a journalist despite her anxiety.
The movie's animation was heavily influenced by school notebook sketches, as if a teenager draws them outside of doing homework. It has the exaggerated effects we've seen in these sketches and comic books, such as the color palettes, the visuals, the squiggly lines, the character expressions, and the action scenes. It also benefits from its art design and Kent Seki's lively cinematography. In other words, it takes a similar approach to the animation as "Spider-Verse", "The Mitchells vs. the Machines", and "Puss in Boots", but with the emphasis of reflecting it as a sketchy unfinished piece of concept art. One of the best things about animation is that it expresses creativity through inspiration from other people's experiences and different media types, resulting in something unique and stylish like "The Lego Movie" and even the "Spider-Verse" movies. "Mutant Mayhem" is unsurprisingly another addition to this list due to its magnificent presentation. It takes a couple of cues from the examples I mentioned, but it stood out from the crowd by embracing its own style: a sketchy comic book. It also works well for its distinctive character designs, which admittedly seemed ugly but not enough to make them unrecognizable, with the best examples being the turtles, Bebop, and Rocksteady.
But, of course, you can't have a Ninja Turtles movie without its humor. It has the usual amount of pop culture references we've seen in other animated family movies and the franchise's previous film adaptations. It's even got plenty of callbacks that adults and maybe some children would be familiar with regarding the easter eggs. However, they're used to the degree that's authentically and immensely funny instead of painfully aggravating. The humor is also accompanied by the turtles' improvised chemistry and the hilarious dialogue written by Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit. I laughed so many times during the film that I might've missed a few more since it didn't give me a moment to catch my breath. That's another reason for me to watch the movie again. Another element I should mention is the riveting score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. These guys never fail to craft a solid soundtrack to accompany a movie's tone, and their music in "Mutant Mayhem" is no exception. The punky, hip-hop tunes for the film's New York setting and action scenes are music to my ears.
Overall, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is a refreshing and highly entertaining revamp of the beloved superhero franchise that's radical in all the best ways. There are a couple of narrative shortcomings that make this slice of pizza far from perfect, including the direction for the villains. Despite that, this sketchy comic-like reboot is a uniquely satisfying approach to the source material that honors the characters and lore but does its own thing with the teenage aspect regarding its themes. The voice cast was great, the story was fulfilling and well-paced, the humor was well-written, and the animation was creative and incredible. Regarding the Ninja Turtles filmography, I like this one better than the Michael Bay-produced live-action adaptations storytelling-wise, but I'll also put it in the same league as the 1990 TMNT film. It's a delightful and visually striking film that'll satisfy many fans of the franchise and serve as an accessible introduction to newcomers unfamiliar with the source material.