Another ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (‘TMNT’), another reboot. And the last time the franchise got rebooted was the ill-fated Michael Bay-produced live-action/CGI hybrid released in 2014 and 2016. After all these decades have passed with different reincarnations of ‘TMNT,’ the beloved 1987-1996 animated TV series and the 1990 feature-length film remain the quintessential versions of them all.
The new version sees co-writer and director Jeff Rowe of ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ fame alongside co-producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg re-imagine their ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ as an animated reboot. Not just a typical 2D/3D animation style but rather a stylized comic-book-style animation populated by the two ‘Spider-Verse’ movies and ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.’
The reboot goes back to where it all begins: an origin story. Baxter Stockman (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) is a scientist responsible for creating the ooze. The viscous substance can genetically alter any living organism into mutant creatures. Following a raid that leads to the ooze dropping into the sewers, you know what happens next.
Frankly, I wasn’t keen on reading another origin story of how the pizza-lovin’ Turtles become who they are. But kudos to Rowe for streamlining the origin part in a fun and bouncy tone – how the rodent Splinter (Jackie Chan in an amusing voice performance) first discovered the four little mutated turtles and parenting them like his own children.
After learning about the cruelty and mistreatment of mutated creatures like them, he hates the human world. He trained the Turtles how to fight and defend themselves, which in turn, happens to be one of the unexpectedly subversive and funniest moments in ‘Mutant Mayhem.’
The Turtles have since grown up as teenagers, and I’m glad they cast actual teenagers in their respective roles – Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon). I enjoy the teenage aspect of ‘Mutant Mayhem’ that lives up to its title, allowing them to talk, argue, behave, and fool around as reckless youngsters would do.
It also helps the young cast play their roles well while successfully establishing an easy-going, lived-in chemistry. TMNT fans would be delighted to see their favorite Turtles retain their recognizable personalities, covering Donatello’s geeky attitude to Raphael’s temperamental and rebellious nature.
Their adopted father may have warned them on and off about the human world. But the inevitable teenage curiosity made the Turtles yearn for adventures to discover what’s above the sewers. They get to know a wannabe high school journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), after helping her get back her stolen motorcycle.
They quickly form a bond with Leonardo, who particularly has a crush on her. The Turtles and April are teaming up to help each other stop the crime led by the mysterious Superfly (Ice Cube). With April covering the news, the Turtles have the chance to save the world like heroes and hope that humans will accept them for who they are without prejudice.
The visually stunning animation gives it a uniquely painterly feel and look of a comic book pops to vivid life. The character designs are top-notch, and I love how the Turtles move. The fight sequences are fluid and exhilarating, with one of the action set pieces taking place in a chop shop worthy of a mention. Using the ‘Spider-Verse’-like animation also allows Rowe and his animators to create a distinct sense of mood, contrast, and colors within the animated background, reflecting the vibrant and gritty New York City setting.
‘Mutant Mayhem’ gets an extra boost from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross handling the score, where their musical compositions blend an eclectic mix of different genres, namely jazz, and synths.
Then, there are the added needle drops, ranging from M.O.P.’s “Ante Up (Robin Hoodz Theory)” to Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” (a nod to 1991’s ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze’) and my personal favorite, the keyboard-tinged hip-hop classic of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”
The pace is brisk throughout its lean 99-minute runtime, as Rowe doesn’t waste time with expositions. Credit also goes to the director for bringing out the best in his actors, delivering their superb voice works. I’m not just talking about the energetic young cast of The Turtles and Jackie Chan’s Splinter but also the rest of the supporting roles.
This includes everyone from Ayo Edebiri’s spunky turn as April O’Neil to Ice Cube’s hilariously ghetto vibe as Superfly. Even minor roles such as John Cena, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd, who voiced Rocksteady, Bebop, and Mondo Gecko respectively are equally praiseworthy.
Rowe, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside four other writers (two of them include Rogen and Goldberg), clearly have a field day pouring out pop-culture references from a certain DC character to one of John Hughes’s iconic ‘80s teen-comedy classic and even poking fun at the three Chrises.
‘Mutant Mayhem’ is not without its fair share of flaws. As much as I enjoy the presence of the villainous Superfly and his gang of mutant animals, the movie doesn’t delve deeper beyond their perfunctory character arcs. Superfly’s primary motivation is nothing more than your standard-issue villain hell-bent to destroy humanity and take over the world. The overall plot is predictable, complete with the obligatory go-big-or-go-home final showdown in the climactic third act.
But even with its shortcomings, ‘Mutant Mayhem’ emerges as one of the best ‘TMNT’ movies I’ve ever seen in a long while. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies are already gearing up for a sequel and even planned a two-season animated series on Paramount+.