Movie Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”


I think kids will like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” but I can’t be 100% sure. There were plenty of children who were into it at my screening, laughing at the jokes and transfixed by some of the impressive visuals. And while they may enjoy the classic rap tracks that play throughout the movie as well, that aspect (like so many others) feels more geared to an older audience. That’s just one example of how “Mutant Mayhem” attempts to serve multiple audiences at once. In the end, it’s hard to say if it lands as well with children as it does with adults, but like a lot of “Mutant Mayhem,” it may not matter as much as the result. The film, from co-directors Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears, exceeds at imagery, comedy and action that crosses the generational divide.

After accidentally being slathered in some sort of radioactive ooze that turns them into humanoids, four turtles — Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo (Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Brady Noon and Shamon Brown Jr., respectively) — are raised by a mutant rat named Splinter (Jackie Chan) in the sewers of New York City. Splinter knows that the human world will never accept them and trains his makeshift sons in martial arts so they can defend themselves against any human attackers. But the four teenage turtles yearn to be part of the surface world and, when they encounter intrepid high school reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), come up with a plan to endear themselves to the world.

While the plot of “Mutant Mayhem” is a fairly surprising and fresh take on the material, this is still an origin story. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has been around since Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s 1984 comic book of the same name and has since been adapted into numerous films, TV series, video games, toy lines and even more comic book retellings. It’s probably fair to say that with all of that media saturation over the past 40 years, the origins of these intrepid, adolescent reptiles are fairly well known. Though one can make the argument that kids under a certain age might still need a proper introduction, even with some notable changes to the narrative, it’s hard not to feel like a chunk of the story is far too familiar.

Luckily, Rowe and Spears (working from a script by Rowe, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit) inject so much energy and inventiveness into the rest of the movie that the sheer delightfulness of “Mutant Mayhem” dwarfs such qualms. First and foremost is the animation style, which is truly unique in its recreation of hand-drawn images to create a kinetic sense of everything having its own energy, even when it’s just a wall or sewer. The closest (and most obvious) points of comparison are the “Spider-Verse” films, which have their own unconventional visual approaches that immediately set it apart from other CG animation. “Mutant Mayhem” adopts some techniques from those movies, particularly the management of frame rates to make movement appear more fluid and engaging, but even with these touchpoints of similarity, the film never feels like it’s chasing some sort of cartoon trend or exists purely in the shadow of “Spider-Verse.” It’s a distinct, innovative marvel all on its own.

The cast has an impressive, infectious energy that feeds off each other. Hiring actual teens to play the Turtles was a wise move and pays off with a sincerity to their vocal performances that would be hard to match otherwise. Edebiri and Chan are also a lot of fun, with April in particular becoming her own unique character compared to previous incarnations. Additionally, Ice Cube (as the villain Superfly) is pretty funny but tempered by the fact that he’s just doing his normal schtick, relying on his persona from 30 years ago (quite literally, as he quotes his own songs from that era). The surprising cameos and other cast members, however, truly step up and make for fully formed and memorable characters.

Much of that comes from the script (and presumably some impressive amounts of improvisation), which delivers lots of laughs by going through unexpected routes to arrive at a surprising punchline. Some of the comedy verges on being too self-aware, but it never goes over that edge, remaining delightful without winking too hard at the audience. Though it’s hard to say whether the more absurdist jokes will land with youngsters, they are delivered in such a manner (and by such winning characters) that it seems likely that kids will laugh along with adults at most of the funny lines. Furthermore, characters get actual arcs that aren’t incredibly complicated or unforeseen but still allow for real emotional attachment and actual weight to the plotlines. That may seem like bottom-of-the-barrel praise, but it’s surprising how few screenplays service multiple characters’ arcs, let alone just one person’s storyline.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” isn’t as good as 2023’s other big animated release (“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”), as it does have some minor missteps, but none of them are major detriments and are easily overshadowed by everything the film does so well. It’s a genuinely joyful time at the theater, with visual splendors matched by clever comedy. In its almost 40 years of existence, an entry into the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” canon shouldn’t feel this innovative, but by choosing so many interesting paths in its production, taking the movie into surprising and unique areas, “Mutant Mayhem” remains fresh and vital.


Starring: Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Michah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Jackie Chan, Ayo Edebiri, Ice Cube, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Paul Rudd, Giancarlo Esposito
Directors: Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears

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