“Go ninja, go ninja, go!” Those were the immortal words uttered in the finale of arguably the last good movie based on Laird and Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That may be a controversial statement for fans for the Bay-produced 2014 and 2016 films, the 2007 cheaply animated movie TMNT, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. But as a fan myself, whether for nostalgic or legitimate reasons, nothing ever really topped the first two live action films from 1990 and 1991. Until now.
Boy, did directors Jeff Rowe and Kyle Spears, and producers/co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg go hard! Because Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a blast, and the best Ninja Turtles movie ever made to date!
I am fully serious. Mutant Mayhem has the benefit of drawing a lot of inspiration from Into the Spider-Verse stylistically, and X-Men from a story standpoint. But despite those inspirations, it always feels like a Ninja Turtles movie. And that’s thanks to Rogen, Goldberg, Rowe, and additional writers, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit’s script, which is not only funny and heartfelt, but also knows full on what property it’s representing and who these characters are. And because of that, fans of this franchise will feel and rejoice in the love the creators and animators have for these characters, and rediscover why they love them as well.
In some ways, Mutant Mayhem acts as a fresh origin story of sorts for Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Raphael, as well as Splinter and April O’Neil. This is one of the few movies in the franchise that doesn’t focus on Shredder, but rather the creations of fan favorite villain Baxter Stockman, and how his experiments helped create the turtles and Splinter.
After an assault on Stockman’s lab at the beginning of the movie by corrupt organization TCRI, Stockman’s “family,” consisting of Ninja Turtle fan-favorite characters such as Ray Fillet, Leatherhead, Wingnut, Mondo Gecko, Bebop, and Rocksteady, and new character Superfly, are scattered into the complex and fierce habitat of New York City. Fifteen years later, Superfly, the eldest and defacto leader of the mutants, has vowed revenge against humanity, and is working with his brothers and sisters on an invention that will destroy all humans but accelerate mutation in any and all other animal species. Meanwhile, four teenage turtles and their giant rat father, shunned by humanity, are struggling to make ends’ meat in the sewers. The boys (the Ninja Turtles obviously) yearn to be part of humanity and accepted like Ferris Bueller. And through the help of their new reporter friend April they believe becoming heroes would help with that. So they devise a plan to stop Superfly and the mutants with April documenting so they can once and for all be accepted by the humans that hate and fear them.
Again, this is extremely X-Men. But only on a conceptual level. The movie is expertly executed as a TMNT movie and nothing else, which makes for a really terrific and entertaining good time!
Let’s breakdown a few of the best things about it. For one, not enough can be said about the animation. It’s gorgeous, quirky, and dynamic. I loved the colors, and the style. It looks inspired by such recent visual feasts as Into the Spider-Verse and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, but manages to retain a unique style of its own, capturing the rambunctious adolescent energy of the eponymous boys the movie centers around. There’s multiple colors and techniques capturing the imagination of the film’s characters. It’s all just a lot of gorgeous fun!
But the animation really does service the insanely wonderful action in this movie. If you’ve ever wondered what a CG-animated Jackie Chan movie would look like, look no further. The animators of Mutant Mayhem clearly studied the work of the martial arts master, mastering choreography for characters like Splinter and the boys by making them resourceful, quick, and badass! The action is so clever and fast, rivaling fight choreography from many live-action tentpoles. It’s impressive what they were able to do, but it’s an absolutely necessary component when creating a Ninja Turtles movie. So really pleased with how well they executed all of that.
But naturally good visuals do not a great movie make. And as discussed before, the writing is really what sells this one for me. In particular, the character development and character arcs for every character are really well done! All four of the turtles have minor arcs throughout the movie that build to the consistent character personalities we know and love. We see Leo evolve into a hero. We see Donnie’s ability to out think everyone. We see Raph learning to channel his rage and express love for his family. And Mikey feeding his comedic side. We need this to make it a quintessential TMNT movie. But it doesn’t stop there. April gets a really terrific story arc that feeds into her character’s development as a confident reporter. Superfly and Baxter Stockman have character arcs that enable them to act as character foils for Splinter’s arc. Even minor characters like Mondo Gecko or Wingnut get arcs that work really well for the themes and character progression. It’s a script that wastes no characters, apart from maybe the main TCRI villain, Cynthia Utrom. And that’s something pretty admirable.
Naturally the characters would be nothing if the voice acting didn’t deliver, and so much of the cast is perfectly cast. For one, it’s nice to have *teenage* turtles that are actually voiced by teenagers. Micah Abbey (Donnie), Shamon Brown Jr. (Mikey) Nicolas Cantu (Leo), and Brady Noon (Raph) all do terrific jobs giving distinct voices and personalities to each of their respective turtles. Jackie Chan gives a pretty touching performance as an almost empty-nester version of Splinter dealing with raising his quickly growing teenage boys. It’s sweet and funny at the same time. The Bear‘s Ayo Edebiri is a teenage version of April, who’s equally funny and sympathetic as the boys’ only human ally. But surprisingly it’s Ice Cube’s Superfly who delivers one of the best vocal performances in the film. He’s sympathetic, angry, menacing, but fun at the same time. It’s a surprisingly good villain (which let’s face it, it’s because Magneto is a good villain, and this is basically “Fly Magneto”).
Additional pluses include the musical score courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who were an inspired choice to do a fun and brilliant score for the movie. This is a property and a film that doesn’t need to go hard with the score. But the music is fun, effective, and really innovative, as the duo is known to contribute on numerous productions. But there’s also really terrific needle drops! Earlier this year we saw an example of movies doing nonsensical and pointless needle drops that serve no purpose with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. But Mutant Mayhem honestly does the opposite of that, providing catching tunes that really suit the tone and characters its representing, along with adding spice to situations and action scenes that sync really well with the selected songs. It’s very much more a Guardians Vol 3. situation over a Mario one.
It does need to be said that some aesthetic liberties are taken with the source material that may or may not sit well with purists. Without spoiling anything, the turtles and April are all firmly in high school. Which obviously makes sense if they’re teenagers. They’ve also changed things so Splinter is not necessarily the rat of a famous martial artist whom he learned from, but an average New York rat who learns everything about Karate through YouTube and Samurai movies. That being said, all of the changes are, for the most part mostly cosmetic. And the most important elements that make this a TMNT movie are genuinely there. Turtle vans, character relationships and dynamics, pizza, Channel 6 News, the ooze, etc. It’s a checklist done in innovative and fresh ways that feels similar to the way the acclaimed Spectacular Spider-Man animated series handled traditional elements.
I’d argue that the only real sin the movie breaks is that of a weaker villain in service of world-building for a sequel. No, not Superfly, who is terrific. But the aforementioned head of TCRI, Maya Rudolph’s Cynthia Ultrom. Not much is known of TCRI, other than their obsession with trying to “milk” the turtles (a really hilarious recurring bit in the movie), and Rudolph’s performance and the function of TCRI is really lost in this larger, better story of mutants fighting for acceptance in the world. The TCRI moments are necessary. But to be honest, they’re the least interesting parts of this otherwise pretty solid film.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is one of those pleasant surprises where you wouldn’t expect much going into it, and are blown away by how hard it goes, and how genuinely fun and impressive it really is. Anchored by stellar animation, terrific vocal performances, and a funny and faithful script that stays true to the characters and heart of the source material, Mutant Mayhem, along with this year’s finest film, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, serve as further reminders why critics and Academy voters need to be paying closer attention to what animation is doing to boost the state of cinema today. This is a charming, fun movie, and hands down the best film ever made about giant, teenage, karate-chopping mutant turtles, as well as my third favorite movie of the summer so far. If you’re looking for a wonderful time at the movies this summer, then all you have to do is go ninja, go ninja, go!
Overall Score: A-
*This review was written during the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike. To support the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.*