Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Mutant Mayhem
A few times a year, a small handful of aspiring blockbusters manage to break through my franchise fatigue and rekindle--even if only briefly--the fleeting feeling of "gee whiz" excitement that made me a movie fan to begin with. The latest tentpole movie to do this is 2023's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the first truly unique take on Eastman and Laird's satirical comic book creation in what feels like forever. In those early comics, the TMNT were a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the gritty comics movement of the 1980s, which made their mainstream success downright ironic. Over the decades, we've had many cartoon, live action, and CGI interpretations of the property ranging from the silly to the bizarre (paging Michael Bay), but none of them have ever felt like Mutant Mayhem.
What is it about the new movie that clicks and makes it feel so different? In a word, "joy." This is the most joyful comic book movie I've seen since 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (its sequel, Across the Spider-Verse is a lot of things, but it ain't joyful). That's a telling comparison, because Mutant Mayhem is the first film to really walk through the doorway that Spider-Verse built. With a vast array of CGI animated art styles, this movie is visually stylized and doesn't look like anything else-not even Spider-Verse. However, in one of several similarities to Spider-Verse, multiple animation styles and designs sit alongside each other here comfortably, even though they couldn't be more different. One moment we have polished CGI, but then the movie throws us a rudimentary style that looks like it was drawn by a bored high school student during math class.
On that note, this is also the first TMNT product EVER to truly depict the titular turtles as actual teenagers. They sound young because the voice actors ARE young and it really works. This version of the characters feel entirely rooted in right now: gone is "cowabunga" and in its place are iPhones and references to Adele and Beyonce. This is the most current the Ninja Turtles have ever felt, and that's a good thing. I also like the very different depiction of April O'Neil, who is markedly unlike any April that's gone before.
What's the secret sauce that makes this film feel so different and celebratory? Likely it's the creative team behind the production, spearheaded by Seth Rogen and his long-time creative partner Evan Goldberg. There's a sense of fun that they bring to just about everything they work on, and that lovable, affable, laid-back stoner approach is here in spades. Rogen and Goldberg had help on the script from the writing team of Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (2019's The Tick, Addams Family 2 and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu) and Jeff Rowe (Gravity Falls), who also co-directs with Kyler Spears (We Bare Bears). The end result is a movie that never feels mean, angsty, or grim. In many ways, it's the antithesis of the sour, angry tone that's dominated the box office for the past few years. An astonishing number of people involved with this movie are Millennials or younger, which I believe is a first for this franchise. The result of the young blood is a movie that feels like chilling out with cool friends.
Even the voice cast feels like it was assembled because everyone involved is a good hang. Outside of the core cast of Turtles (Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, and Brady Noon) we get Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Ayo Edebiri, Maya Rudolph, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Giancarlo Esposito, Post Malone, Hannibal Buress, and Natasia Demetriou as various mutants. I found myself wishing I'd gotten to spend more time with these characters because they're weird, funny, and cool. When other comic book movies have the heroes fighting one another, Mutant Mayhem goes in another direction. This is a slight spoiler, but how many mainstream superhero movies can you think of where the bad guys decide they don't want to be bad guys and switch sides half-way through the story? How refreshing.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem just works. I don't know how often I'll revisit it, but when superhero, comic book, and tentpole movies increasingly feel like homework instead of fun, the Turtles have injected a dose of exuberance and energy back into a worn out genre. This is what summer movies should be about.