A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2023

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES:

MUTANT MAYHEM  jjj
 

2023, PG, 99 mins

Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo (voice)  /  Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo (voice)  /  Micah Abbey as Donatello (voice)  /  Brady Noon as Raphael (voice)  /  Jackie Chan as Splinter (voice)  /  Ayo Edebiri as April O'Neil (voice)  /  Ice Cube as Superfly (voice)  /  Seth Rogen as Bebop (voice)  /  John Cena as Rocksteady (voice)  /  Paul Rudd as Mondo Gecko (voice)  /  Natasia Demetriou as Wingnut (voice)  /  Rose Byrne as Leatherhead (voice)

Directed by Jeff Rowe  /  Written by Rowe, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

The new Nickelodeon produced computer animated film TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM is one of the late summer film season's most refreshing surprises.  

It also just might be the best TMNT movie ever made.     

That might not entirely be saying much, seeing as this 1980s Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird comic book creation (that later spawned a massive toyline and animated series) has not had the most consistent of runs on the silver screen. There was the decent first live action attempt back in 1990 that begat two truly miserable sequels.  Then there was a mostly forgotten animated film reboot in the late 2000s that led to yet another live action redo in 2014 (this time produced by Michael Bay) that wasn't entirely wretched, but its success allowed for a thoroughly soulless and appallingly bad sequel in 2016 that, at least for me, spelt the end of my yearning to see any more feature films with these heroes in a half shell.   

TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM casts away the creative drudgery of the last few aforementioned films by (a) having Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (lifelong Turtles fanboys) serving as producers and co-writers and (b) employing some of the most compelling looking animation this side of the SPIDER-VERSE films.  And here's another stand out element: TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM remembers that these characters are, in fact, teenagers and utilizes age-appropriate voice talent to bring them joyously to life.   Rogen and Goldberg - working alongside THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES director Jeff Rowe - manage to make their take on this beloved universe feel like its paying loving homage to the mythology while simultaneously engaging in some sly myth-busting as well.  Perhaps best of all, the heroes here are also presented in pint-sized form, which honors their comic book and cartoon roots.  Gone are those abysmally ugly and gigantic CG monstrosities from the Bayhem infused films (like, yeah, what were they thinking there?!) and back is the more classical designed (but with some noteworthy upgrades) look at these sewer-dwelling martial artists.

It may disappoint some to know that TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM is another origin tale, but at least it never slavishly dwells on expositional particulars (plus, it strays away from well established Turtles history in modestly compelling ways).  The film doesn't open with the Turtles, but rather with Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito), a scientist that has reached a breakthrough with glowing ooze that can turn just about any animal into a humanoid mutant.  When armor-clad and machine gun wielding authorities break into his lab, Stockman's ooze is compromised, crashes onto the floor, and later spills into a nearby sewer.   The ooze manages to cover a rat known as Splinter (holy crap...Jackie Chan!), who manages to save both himself and four baby turtles from the ooze pool, but all of them later mutant and evolve.  Most of this will sound abundantly familiar to anyone with even a basic understanding of TMNT lore.     

 

 

The makers do, however, break from well-entrenched tradition in a few ways, like the fact that the rapidly growing (both physicality and mentally) Splinter and his turtles learn martial arts by watching old martial arts flicks (it's one of the film's sublime pieces of meta referencing when some scenes from Chan's action film glory years are flashed on screen).  As we flashforward to the present, the once little turtles are all grown up now: Donatello (Micah Abbey), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon) and Michelangelo (Shannon Brown Jr.) all want to live the lives of normal adolescents and attend school and make new friends, but the deeply anti-human bigotry of Splinter explicitly forbids this.  As a result, the four lads are forced by oath to keep a low profile in New York, but laying low becomes difficult with the appearance of a powerful mutant called Superfly (Ice Cube), who has assembled his own squad of genetic freaks - Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Rocksteady (John Cena), Bepop (Rogen), Ray Fillet (Post Malone), Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), and - my fav - Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress) - and wishes to enact some planet altering revenge on humanity as a whole.  Realizing that they can no longer stay in the shadows, the Turtles decide to band together to confront this new mutant menace, but they also have a new human confidant in aspiring reporter April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri), who wants to spread the word that the Turtles are heroes and that Superfly is the one that citizens of the Big Apple should really fear.

From a narrative perspective, Rogen and Goldberg (working with co-screenwriters Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit) wisely understand that they can't stray too far away from the iconic and decades-spawning Turtles mythology (which would alienate viewers), but they also realize that they can make strategic and unique tweaks to these characters and origins to make their film stand proudly apart from all predecessors.  I appreciated the fact that Splinter is less a solemn and stoic Yoda-like mentor figure to the Turtles and instead is more of a deeply paranoid and overprotective dad that has a deeply rooted mistrust and hatred of all humans (which, to be fair, is established in a cruel flashback that attempts to ground his feelings on somewhat justifiable levels).  I also appreciated the updates to the April O' Neil character as well, who's a far younger and reserved high schooler that has been mercilessly bullied by her peers because of one infamously embarrassing attempt on her part to present the news on camera (let's just say that she has intense stage fright).  Arguably most intriguing here is this film's unwillingness to conjure up yet another iteration of Shredder into the mix as the main baddie.  Using Superfly as the film's primary antagonist unexpectedly gives this origin tale a potent sense of forward momentum because - honestly - the Shredder versus Turtles dynamic has been literally done to death.  It's interesting too that Superfly and his band of eccentric mutants have an emotional connection with the Turtles in terms of all of them being treated rather poorly by humans. 

And - boy oh boy - is this film ever a feast for the eyes on the animation front.  The best way I would describe the overall look and vibe of TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM is that it has the same sort of random, rough around the edges, and unfinished veneer of something one might find in a high school kid's sketches and doodles on their notebooks.  It's also almost as if less pristine concept art has come convincingly to life on screen.  My main takeaway from this grungy and imperfect style is that it has an exaggerated against-the-grain looseness to it, which flies in the face of almost all other conventionally animated films these days.  Obvious comparisons of TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM and the SPIDER-VERSE films are inevitable in the sense that both are trying to evoke a comic book feel while pushing the aesthetic envelope in ways not seen before.  These films are also subverting our very expectations for standard animated fare.  Before going into TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM, I watched three separate trailers for computer animated films that all looked like they were cut from the same cloth.  The assemble-line sameness of so many computer animated films has led, in my mind, to creative lethargy.  Whereas so many films from the big-hitting studios aim for clean-cut and immaculately detailed realism in their visuals, it's such a treat to witness TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM and the SPIDER-VERSE films get down, dirty, and beautifully messy.

The imagery is complimented by a slickly assembled music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that gives the film an undulating and memorably badass techno beat.  This also wouldn't be a Ninja Turtles film without martial art battles, and you can definitely tell that Jeff Rowe and his animation team studied Jackie Chan's iconic beat-em-ups of old (which is affectionately realized during one key set-piece involving Splinter coming to his sons' aid and utilizing all of his ninjutsu might - and improvised weapons - to clear a path though wave after wave of henchmen).  Most of the fight scenes have a sinewy and bruiser-like grace and impact, which serves the material well.  And let's not forget, of course, about the sublimely assembled voice cast here, with Chan leading the way as his weirdly idiosyncratic patriarch.  The young actors playing the Turtles are, as mentioned, equally spot-on and have great chemistry together.  Even the supporting players are well cast and stand out, like Rudd's amusing turn as Mondo Gecko and Edebiri's lively turn as the in-over-her-head April.   

I do have some quibbles, like how the climax of the film - as oh-so-many comic book inspired films do these days - culminates in city destruction porn.  There are other times when TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM is almost too caffeinated and chaotic for its own good (as affectionately rendered as the Turtles are as characters here, they sometimes speak - and speak over each other - so hyperactively and dizzyingly fast paced that there were times when I felt the film required subtitles).  Lastly, there's another lurking villain, Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), who heads up a nefarious research facility that wants to use the Turtles as Guinea pigs; she's simply not in the story enough to make a sizeable and lingering impact.  These are but small nitpicks, because TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM emerges as a delightfully engaging, gorgeously and stylishly animated, and appealingly acted restart for this longstanding universe, and one that made me wholeheartedly want to see a follow-up entry.  I haven't felt that way about a TMNT movie in a long, long time.  And it's great to witness films like this and the SPIDER-VERSE series euphorically ignore status quos and conventions in conjuring up innovative ways to present well-worn and beloved material for a new generation.  

Cowabunga!

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