“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem breathes new life into the fan-favorite franchise.”
- An extremely likable voice cast
- An eye-catching, unique animation style
- A refreshingly laidback attitude throughout
- A third act that gets too explosive for its own good
- Several disorienting action sequences
- An unnecessarily saccharine ending
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem takes the “teenage” part of its title extremely seriously. The new film, an animated, Into the Spider-Verse-inspired take on its iconic franchise, is the first big-screen TMNT effort that actually embraces its characters’ adolescent angst. It’s a refreshingly laidback blockbuster, one that isn’t afraid to spend several sustained minutes lettings its half-shell heroes do nothing more than joke around and have fun together. Anyone who goes into Mutant Mayhem expecting a serious samurai film will be sorely disappointed.
That is, for the most part, a good thing. The film, which was produced and co-written by Seth Rogen, is an unpretentious teen comedy that only ever seems tangentially interested in its action elements. The result is an animated romp through a decidedly modern version of New York that doesn’t ever slice and dice as cleanly as some longtime fans may want but still makes it uniquely easy to fall in love with its charming underground world of mutants and teenage longing. It’s the most endearing screen adventure in the TMNT franchise’s history and, like this summer’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, is the rare piece of IP-driven entertainment that doesn’t wear out its welcome.
There’s a forgivable “yadda yadda yadda” quality to the opening minutes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. The film speeds through its clunky prologue, which re-establishes its heroes’ origin story, at such a manic pace that it isn’t long before its teenage turtles are running around on rooftops and watching outdoor movie screenings. Despite their similar senses of humor and shared immaturity, though, Mutant Mayhem effectively distinguishes and separates Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Raphael (Brady Noon) from each other without solely relying on the different colors of their respective headbands.
That’s thanks, in no small part, to the performances given by the film’s endlessly likable voice cast. Its four leads each bring their characters’ various eccentricities and neuroses to life with effortless humor and wit, and director Jeff Rowe surrounds them with actors who match and compliment their youthful energy. The Bear star Ayo Edebiri makes a particularly lasting impression as April O’Neil, an aspiring journalist who ends up being the first human to befriend Mutant Mayhem’s turtle heroes, while Paul Rudd steals more than a few scenes as Mondo Gecko, a skateboarding mutant who forms a quick friendship with Brown Jr.’s Michelangelo in the film’s second half. Other performers, like Jackie Chan and Rose Byrne, perfectly fit into their respective roles as Splinter and Leatherhead, respectively.
As charming as the movie’s supporting cast is, Mutant Mayhem never lets its focus wander too far away from its leads. In its engrossing, surprisingly melancholic first act, the film not only explores its heroes’ underground lives but also their collective yearning to go to school and be accepted by the humans that — at the stern instruction of Chan’s shut-in Splinter — they spend so much time hiding from. When Edibiri’s April tells them about New Yorkers’ growing fear of a mutant criminal known as Superfly (Ice Cube), Leo, Mikey, Donnie, and Raph decide to try to win over humanity’s affection by taking down Superfly with April’s help. In doing so, they eventually uncover Superfly’s plan to take over the Earth by turning every animal on the planet into humanoid mutants like them.
Mutant Mayhem loses itself a little in its third act when Superfly’s plan ends up reaching explosive heights that stand in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise scaled-down, lightly comedic tone and scope. Like a lot of contemporary blockbusters, the movie stretches its climactic set piece too far and tries to pack in too many character beats for its own good, most of which don’t land as well as those that occur throughout its first two acts. In any other movie, the missteps Mutant Mayhem makes in its final third might not be so apparent, but it’s a testament to how beautifully the film pulls off its quieter moments that so many of its loudest ones ultimately feel out of place.
The presence of Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), a paper-thin secondary villain, only makes the weaknesses of Mutant Mayhem’s comic book storytelling elements all the more obvious. Her role in setting up the film’s inevitable sequel isn’t, however, nearly as frustrating or eye-roll-inducing as one might think. That’s due largely to how nonchalantly Mutant Mayhem handles its most comic book-y moments, all of which are unveiled so plainly that it’s impossible to take them too seriously. The film doesn’t feel the need to play up its many Easter eggs or references, which makes all of them considerably easier to swallow than they might have been otherwise.
It doesn’t hurt that Mutant Mayhem looks consistently stunning throughout its 99-minute runtime. While clearly indebted to the hand-drawn, comic book panel style of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Mutant Mayhem looks unlike any other mainstream animated film that has been released in recent memory. The film embraces a rough, punk rock animation style that turns its version of New York City into an eye-catching collage of grimy paint streaks, untidy sketch lines, and neon clouds of light. At times, its characters feel perfectly at home in its artistic visual world. In other instances, they look like stop-motion figures that have been dropped into its realm of 3D digital animation. It’s one of the most visually distinct and dynamic films that moviegoers will likely see this year.
In its attempt to capture a real, modern teen spirit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem doesn’t pull everything off with flying colors. The film’s third-act issues aside, its endless pop culture references are only partly successful (a nod to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off works beautifully, a minor detour centered around The Hulk’s role in Avengers: Endgame less so). Its pitch-perfect cast and undeniably striking animation style prevent the film’s flaws from outweighing its successes, though. The movie is an infectiously funny coming-of-age adventure that, more than anything else, manages to make the prospect of spending more time with its turtle heroes a genuinely welcome one. It’s nice, isn’t it, when a blockbuster actually reminds you why anyone fell in love with its characters in the first place?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now playing in theaters.
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