As a mere observer of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” sampling nominally from the many cartoon variants and finding mixed feelings toward some of the feature films, my bar had been raised high for the next major step. The last time they graced the big screen was long enough to forget their presence – anything produced by Michael Bay usually has that ability, unfortunately. During that time, two long lasting series came and went, the latter ceremoniously bowing out with a Netflix feature. The table has been set for quite some time, waiting impatiently for a new era to enter before the pizza grew cold. At the capable mindsets of director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs the Machines) and producers/co-writers Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, we have exactly that, ready to steal the first cheesy slice.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem might technically be the seventh theatrical feature to involve these half-shelled masters of stealth. But it’s easily the first to take the franchise’s roots to heart when taking the “origin story” route. It’s one thing to simply introduce your group of heroes – Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Raphael (Brady Noon), rodent dad Splinter (Jackie Chan), and human ally April (Ayo Edibiri) with only a sense of foreboding heroic tension, and character development occupying the backseat. It’s another thing to show them their first true brush with greatness, at a precocious time, and with unrelenting swagger. No doubt, that’s only part of what helps this film to stand out so firmly above its predecessors.
After running through the spawning of these four anthropomorphic amphibians, an accidental aftereffect by one of Baxter Stockman’s (Giancarlo Esposito) experiments, as well as Splinter’s separate evolution, we find the group 15 years later, living their best life in the shadows of Manhattan. Their time away from the sewers is kept limited, per dad’s prejudicial fear toward humans. When they do venture out, they make the most of it; even simple errands are epic. Doesn’t mean they don’t sneak around happening hot spots in the city, wishing they could live among the humans, be accepted, perhaps enjoy the trials of high school. Their attitude toward life effortlessly mirrors that of real teens on the fringe of outcast syndrome, exercising their ninja skills to compensate. And often blurring the line between dramatic and clownish when putting their work to a phone camera. The fact they must merge their intellect and reflexes together to take down another of Baxter’s mutagen creations, the evil Superfly (Ice Cube) and his eccentric coterie, is already quite the leg up.
Mutant Mayhem is all about its advantages, wearing them all with endless passion. A knack for speaking to human experience, for better or worse – often the latter with who’s threatening them. A wry sense of nerd culture humor to undercut any dark corners; it would’ve helped more if they could’ve eased up on the litany of pop culture namedrops. A zippy pace to not grow lapse in its desire to emphasize chaotic action notes. And a unique graphic novel style set to rival Across the Spider-Verse, and then go one step further to challenge (thankfully not surpass) the likes of Aardman or Laika. The design and feel in Rowe’s hands, aided by co-director Kyler Spiers and editor Greg Levitan, is as effusive, gritty, textured as stop motion or claymation, or the expressiveness of an art class sketchbook. While still animated within the boundaries of the computer, the results are uncanny yet well engaging.
It was not easy at times to also shake off the fact we were watching a Nickelodeon movie. For once, it’s a real positive. The mere designation hasn’t carried so much weight for a film under that umbrella since The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. The first ten minutes alone are mere proof of how eager Rowe is to square up against a few of those pivotal 90s classics, Rugrats or Hey Arnold, for instance. Bottom line, with inspirations firmly in hand, he still presses on with his own Saturday morning adventure destined to wow, dazzle, and spark conversations around the cereal bar.
And it’s the type of no-punches-missed romp whose fondness for the source material knows no end, not losing sight of its lore and often improving its fortunes on the other side. To life-long fans who’ve followed these heroes since the beginning, it’s joy enough to witness a new interpretation unafraid to wander off a beaten path. Rowe, Rogen, and Goldberg, as well as assisting scribes Benji Samit & Dan Hernandez (Detective Pikachu) don’t miss the chance to capitalize on targeting first-timers, those at the same stage of life as the leads. They might be trying a bit too hard to picture the slyness and anxiety of adolescence, often toying with a handful of running gags to bring that visage home, but it still works in fine stride.
The near-flawless casting takes that principle into a more professional sphere, with Abbey and Cantu the standouts in the main quartet. Cube’s villain portrayal exudes casual evil with unwavering comic percipience. Edibiri takes April to her most candid and reflective, not letting past embarrassing mishaps in her quest to pursue fair journalism hobble her willingness to help. Members of Superfly’s squad, such as Wingnut the bat (a lively Natasia Demetriou), skater bro Mondo Gecko (an on-point Paul Rudd), warthog and rhino friends Bebop (John Cena) and Rocksteady (Rogen), and snappy alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne) make for substantial lightning rods for Rowe’s idea of quick wit.
The best surprise, however, is Chan’s take on Splinter. Not so much a wise teacher as he is an overprotective helicopter parent, and it shows. He does get the chance to fight with all his training from 80s B-movies and elsewhere. But Chan leans more on the idea of fatherly wisdom, how that correlates into effective self-defense that’s not just physical, but also emotional. Hearing him brings a much-needed warmth and logical thinking to the story, as a good parent can often do. That helps to balance the scales, one-third action, another comical, the last character-driven. Crucial to Rowe’s story vision, there’s parity to spare as these turtles run amok, carried aloft and stitched together by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s (Empire of Light) raucous, percussive, and tone-asserting score.
Eastman and Laird’s franchise has seen its share of hills and valleys over four-plus decades, always looking for a way to stand out with each unique variation on a common core principle. To be a ninja means to fight in solidarity and staidness, but not be afraid to enjoy what life brings. If the latter weren’t as prominent in past examples, Rowe and Rogen make every effort to better emphasize it while taking care not to disrupt the formula as we know it. If nothing else, they seek, and succeed to leave this project better than arriving at it, breathing new life to mutant derring-do and chivalry, by way of a nonstop hilarious blur to arrest the eyes. Mutant Mayhem lives up to its title, delivering quite possibly the best Ninja Turtles film to date, a cross-generational epic, and another vocal statement for the realm of big-screen animation, at a time where room at the table’s never short. Just hope there’ll still be a few pepperonis hanging about past the first serving. (A-; 4/5)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is currently playing in theaters; rated PG for sequences of violence and action, language and impolite material; 99 minutes.