THE STORY – After years of being sheltered from the human world, the Turtle brothers set out to win the hearts of New Yorkers and be accepted as normal teenagers. Their new friend, April O’Neil, helps them take on a mysterious crime syndicate, but they soon get in over their heads when an army of mutants is unleashed upon them.
THE CAST – Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Hannibal Buress, Rose Byrne, Nicolas Cantu, John Cena, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Natasia Demetriou, Ayo Edebiri, Giancarlo Esposito, Post Malone, Brady Noon, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd & Maya Rudolph
THE TEAM – Jeff Rowe (Director/Writer), Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (or “TMNT” for short) started as a comic book spoof of popular superhero comics at the time of its publication in 1984. The comics were an unexpected success, and in 1987, a toy line was developed that catapulted the characters of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael into the stratosphere of the cultural zeitgeist, becoming some of the best-selling toys of all time. This led to an animated series that launched the same year and led to the development of three live-action films, all released in the 1990s. Since the height of its popularity, the franchise has struggled to maintain relevancy with a CGI animated film released in 2007 titled “TMNT,” and the Michael Bay-produced reboot series of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” (2016). Now with the producing and writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the franchise has finally received the creative shot in the arm it has needed for years resulting in not only one of the year’s best-animated feature films but also the best overall “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film to date with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.”
A police raid is authorized and watched closely by Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph) on a genius scientist’s apartment. Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) has been developing what will commonly be called “ooze” to perform experiments on animals that mutate them into human-sized creatures with adaptable intelligence, increased strength, agility, and communication ability. The police apprehend him, but not before one of his experiments, a giant fly known as “Superfly” (Ice Cube) gets away, and the ooze accidentally finds its way down the New York City sewer system, where it will come into contact and transform a group of baby turtles and a rat into who we know are the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” led by their surrogate father, Splinter (Jackie Chan). Years have passed, and the turtles, now teenagers with years of training in martial arts and kung fu by Splinter as a means to protect themselves from the outside world who they shelter themselves from by living in the sewer and never coming into contact with humans, are growing restless of their isolated lives and want to explore the human world. When they encounter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), a high school newspaper writer with dreams of one day becoming a journalist, they realize the way to get the city to embrace them is if they make themselves heroes to the people of New York City. An opportunity presents itself for the turtles when Superfly, now bulkier, meaner, and backed by other imposing mutated animals, is discovered to have a plan to destroy all humans on Earth and re-populate the planet with other mutant creatures.
In what will go down as a brilliant but somewhat obvious call, the spirit of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” derides itself from the decision to cast actual teenagers as the turtles for the first time ever and portray them as such through their dialogue and behavior. Nicolas Cantu as the emerging leader Leonardo, Micah Abbey as the brainiac Donatello, Shamon Brown Jr. as the charismatic Michelangelo, and Brady Noon as the hotheaded Raphael are each perfectly cast as they bring these beloved characters to life in a way that has never before been seen, heard or felt. Their chemistry with one another is apparent throughout as they rattle off numerous pop culture references to one another and behave and interact with each other in only a manner in which teenagers could, where everything is a joke or a dig at each other (still rooted in love), consequences are not fully understood, and life’s priorities are simplified to fulfilling whatever selfish urge each one of them has at the moment.
That’s not to say that these teenagers are portrayed as bad kids or angsty. It’s evident they love Splinter and each other, but reducing life’s existence to only allowing interaction with that group and not being allowed to meet other teenagers causes them to be defiant and highly relatable. The film’s messages of othering and social isolation, not just for the turtles but for April as well (she’s commonly referred to as “Puke Girl” by the other kids in high school as she gets sick any time she has to put herself on camera), gives the story an emotional core and social relevance that hasn’t been felt in the other “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films before. Once the teenagers get a taste of the outside world, whether watching an outdoor “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” screening or stopping a small crime so that others may be safe, they naturally want more.
As an overprotective parent who has taught the boys not to be seen by humans when they go out to run errands, Splinter also has qualities any parent will identify with, as he better understands how terrified the human world is of their kind and will meet them, not with open arms but with hostility and fear. This explains why he teaches the teenagers martial arts and kung fu from an early age. Jackie Chan does a wonderful job, both dramatically and comedically, of communicating Splinter’s love for the boys through his actions, whether we agree with them or not. Between his yearning to have his love reciprocated, April’s drive for success so she may be remembered for something great by the other kids in her school other than throwing up, and the teenagers’ wish to go to school, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” skillfully finds a way to balance heart, action, and comedy in a mind-blowingly gorgeous animation presentation that instantly places it head and shoulders above all other “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films to date.
Mixing stylistic elements from “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” and “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” (which was co-written by director/writer Jeff Rowe), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” seamlessly blends 2D and 3D animation to give the film a rough sketch hand-drawn aesthetic to match the griminess of New York City. The imaginary camera moves with stimulating purpose through 3D space to immerse you in the action set pieces and the world these mutant characters occupy in an exhilarating way. Character animation is memorable and authentic as the animators breathe life into the turtles’ mannerisms and facial expressions, no doubt fueled by the vibrant vocal performances. Superfly and his gang of mutants (some of whom are voiced by Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, John Cena, Paul Rudd, and Post Malone, amongst others) are also given varied and grotesque designs that pop off the screen. When Superfly, initially presented as a chill, laid-back but still quite menacing figure, dangerously transforms in the third act, the scale of the animation opens up and gives the filmmakers the ability to tell the story in a way in which live-action couldn’t possibly convey, not unless a studio was willing to provide them with over $200 million.
Backed by a hip-hop-infused soundtrack and a pulsating score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which mixes electronic with grunge rock and hip-hop, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” is given such youthful energy at nearly every turn. The spirit of this film can be felt in its meaningful story, relatable characters, eye-popping animation, and rich soundscape. As ingeniously conceived as it may be, it’s easy to see how such a young vibe could be off-putting to some who are looking for more nuanced and maturity in their storytelling. Still, like an injection of ooze straight to the heart, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” successfully reboots the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise, producing a film that’s funny, heartfelt, and a blast to watch from beginning to end thanks to its voice cast and fresh take on its story and characters. Order a slice of pizza and enjoy until the inevitable sequel arrives. Cowabunga dude!