‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ Review: A Totally Radical Reboot
There have been six prior Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, five television series, and countless comic books and video games. At this point, the once unconventional notion of a turtle who mutates, grows into a teenager, and learns ninjitsu, is extremely well-worn territory.
In preparation for the newest reset of this inexplicably durable kids franchise — the big-screen animated movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem — I took a look at the CGI-animated TMNT from 2007. That TMNT’s actual animation — the movement and fight scenes — was fluid and fun. But, like a lot of mid-2000s computer-animated cartoons, the design and look of the characters was totally bland; utterly devoid of texture and detail. Couple that with a story set mostly at night and in the sewers of New York City, and you have a film that’s dark and drab and not very fun to look at.
No matter what people think of the rest of Mutant Mayhem, no one will ever level that criticism against it. With a sketchy visual style inspired by kids’ doodles, the movie is bright and colorful and packed with eye-catching character designs. The main villain, a mutated bug named Superfly, has one claw hand and two additional spindly arms growing out of his torso. (Or in this case, is that his thorax?) Rocksteady, a longtime Ninja Turtle adversary who’s like a bodybuilder crossed with a rhino, now looks like a giant animal head with stubby arms and legs. Another mutated insect, Scumbug, is ... well, honestly, Scumbug is so absolutely bizarre I am struggling to summon the words to accurate capture her sheer physical lunacy. And Mutant Mayhem’s settings are equally colorful and imaginative, with scenes set in a neon-drenched Times Square, a darkroom illuminated by red safelight, and a bowling alley bathed in blacklight.
Through force of will and visual creativity — plus a heaping serving of immature humor — Mutant Mayhem turns this very familiar concept into something fresh. While the plot line involves yet another dutiful retelling of the Turtles’ origin, along with yet another first encounter with their perennial human bestie April O’Neil, the way that plot line plays out has tons of unique personality and charm.
A lot of it comes from the new Turtles themselves, voiced by Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., and Brady Noon as Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, respectively. After 15 years living underground, they desperately want to be normal teenagers who go to high school and socialize with friends. Sneaking out of their lair one night, they help a stranger (who turns out to be April, voiced by The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri). Despite her initial concern over the whole giant mutated turtle thing, she accepts the brothers. That inspires a brainstorm: If the Turtles become heroes and help the people of New York, they’ll be embraced by the city and won’t have to live in the shadows anymore.
Easier said than done, since there’s a crime spree raging that involves an evil businesswoman (Maya Rudolph’s Cynthia Utrom), a brilliant scientist (Giancarlo Esposito’s Baxter Stockman), and the mutated Superfly (Ice Cube) — who’s got a whole army of mutants backing him up, including Hannibal Buress’ croaking Genghis Frog, Post Malone’s crooning Ray Fillet, and skater dude Mondo Gecko, played by Paul Rudd with hilariously off-kilter line readings that could have come out of one of his David Wain comedies.
There’s a reasonable amount of action in Mutant Mayhem, but the movie is not a simplistic beat-’em-up — and some of its best scenes involve the Turtles talking to Superfly and the rest of the villains, who are treated with a humanity that they were rarely afforded in earlier Ninja Turtles iterations. The director here is Jeff Rowe, who previously co-wrote and co-directed the wonderful The Mitchells vs. the Machines, another movie with a similarly idiosyncratic visual style and an empathetic approach to its characters. He’s a talent to watch — although it doesn’t hurt that he’s also working from a very funny script credited to Rowe and four other riders, including Mutant Mayhem producers Seth Rogen (who also voices the mutant warthog Bebop) and Evan Goldberg.
So many blockbusters these days are designed to comfort viewers with the familiar; giving them exactly what they expect in narcotizing doses of beloved intellectual properties. While Mutant Mayhem obviously originated from the same commercial impulse, it adds a lot of novel wrinkles to the old Ninja Turtles formula. With scratchy animation and surreal running jokes about milking turtles for their precious mutated bodily fluids, it doesn’t feel like something extruded from the Hollywood IP factory, and the surreal visuals are downright psychedelic at times. The whole package is so trippy and weird. You know, if I didn’t know any better, I would swear the guys who made this — Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg was it? — took a lot of drugs.
-Another part of Mutant Mayhem that felt refreshing, particularly when watched a few days after the new Haunted Mansion: It is not a nonstop parade of callbacks and references to old Ninja Turtles. Sure, there’s a Vanilla Ice musical sting here or there, but by the standards of modern blockbusters, it’s very restrained. It’s amazing how much more fun a movie can be when it’s focused on itself and not on referencing other better movies and shows and theme park rides.
-For the fellow parents out there who are curious about whether this Ninja Turtles is appropriate for kids: It is rated PG (Barbie is PG-13!) and I brought both of my kids (ages 7 and 5) to see it. The climax got a bit intense for the little one, but she was okay. As for whether they liked it, let me put it this way: Last night, I was asked to sing the theme song to the 1980’s Ninja Turtles cartoon as a bedtime lullaby.