For nearly 40 years, mutant ninja turtles have been carving out a very specific space in pop culture, but the “teenage” part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ moniker has largely been ignored. The reptilian protagonists have largely operated as anonymously-aged crime fighters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem firmly grounds these versions of the heroes in a half-shell in a world of teen-dom, full of hormones, insecurity, and unknowing hilarity. There is an endearing level of self-awareness and a firm sense of setting that separates this as one of the best entries in the history of the titular Turtles. While it occasionally trips over itself with an over-reliance on reference-based humor, Mutant Mayhem is the most creatively-successful TMNT film since the puppet-centric first film from 1990.
Against all odds, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who first appeared in a surprisingly self-serious, black-and-white comic book from the mid-80’s, have become some of the most sustaining, popular heroes of their era. Granted, their vibe in the greater world of pop culture is more in-line with the goofier, more laid back energy established in both the animated series, which premiered in 1987, and the original film trilogy, which ran from 1990 to 1993, progressively becoming sillier and more firmly entrenched in the wild world of early-90’s pop phenomena (Mutant Mayhem even references the infamous scene in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze in which Vanilla Ice sings “Ninja Rap.”) Mutant Mayhem ends up being a clever alchemy of the Turtles lore that has come before and a contemporary take on the foursome, folding in elements of social media, leaning into the meta-humor of the casting of most of the supporting characters (including Rose Byrne, John Cena and Maya Rudolph), and embracing the stylistic doors opened by the Spider-Verse franchise to create inspired images and designs that reach levels of creativity and cleverness not often seen in animated films (certainly not until recent years).
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem finds Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello (voiced by Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon and Micah Abbey, respectively) confined to the sewers 15 years after exposure to a mysterious, green ooze turned them into humanoid Testudines (yes, that’s the scientific name for turtle) who were taught ninjitsu by their father figure, a mutant rat named Splinter (played by Jackie Chan, perhaps the most famous martial arts film legend of all-time). Little does this waste-wading family know that there are many more mutant animals hiding in New York City, plotting to destroy humanity by creating a new environmental order. Feeling spurned by the population of New York, the gang’s leader, Superfly (you guessed it, a mutant fly, played by Ice Cube), has been stealing technology capable of mutating the entire animal kingdom in an effort to rise up against the perceived evil of mankind. In an effort to preserve the human culture they so admire and to gain acceptance from the New York public, the Turtles decide to take matters into their own hands to stop Superfly’s plan.
The stakes could not be higher, but director Jeff Rowe manages to squeeze a great amount of humor out of the film’s darker elements, as well as give the supporting cast of villains real, believable arcs over the course of the film. No side character feels better-realized, or more comedically-valuable, than Mondo Gecko, the fun-loving, chilled-out bro who just wants to vibe with his buddies and shred on his skateboard. Mondo is voiced with incredible assuredness and vibrancy by Paul Rudd, one of several big names who lend their voices to supporting roles. Rudd steals just about every scene he is in, walking the tightrope of pop humor and classic comedy better than anyone else.
One of the most welcome changes Mutant Mayhem makes from the franchise’s typical construction is the transformation of April O’Neil, the Turtles’ famous ally and, usually, piece of eye candy. The shift of focus to the teenage-dom of the world allows the film to give April more agency and makes Leonardo’s crush on her far more palatable. Look no further than the recent Michael Bay-produced TMNT films for how the adoration of April can get very icky, very quickly. Ayo Edebiri, who between this, The Bear, Theater Camp, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Bottoms, is having a pretty phenomenal 2023, voices April with a similar, insecure energy that eats away at the turtles. One of the film’s most memorable and hilarious scenes features the greatest source of her insecurity, which could very easily be called an homage to the most overtly comedic scene in Broadcast News. Edebiri brings an angsty edge that fits the tone of Mutant Mayhem like a glove, successfully undercutting some of the film’s more ridiculous moments and grounding the film in a level of humanity that teeters on the edge of being overwhelmed by the bombast and heightened nature of the events that unfold.
There is the lingering question, though: is Mutant Mayhem simply a branch off the Spider-Verse tree, or is it a rehash, merely a reminder of how great those other films are? There is an argument to be made that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most influential movie of the last 5 or 6 years. The unique animation style and high-energy propulsion of that film has bled into so many animated films that came after it. Last year’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, one of the surprise hits of 2022, and 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines (co-written by Mutant Mayhem helmer Jeff Rowe) are very indebted to Spider-Verse, and Mutant Mayhem only further establishes that franchise as a totemic work of its era. It would be disingenuous to not acknowledge the monolithic shadow that Spider-Verse occasionally casts on this film, even if it dissipates, over time. The film’s emphasis on the gang of mutants even mirrors the sensation of the multiversal revelations in the adventures of the friendly neighborhood spider.
Still, if a movie is going to wear its influences on its sleeve, it may as well make those influences some of the best works of animation of the last decade. Mutant Mayhem shoots the viewer out of a cannon and relentlessly propels them through a world of creativity that blends the iconography of Turtles’ past with newer, bolder sensibilities. Take, for instance, the balancing act of the wonderful 90’s-hip hop score (featuring tracks from the likes of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and every child’s favorite rapper, Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and the bumping score from super-duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. While the see-saw of cross-era cultural references can cause a bit of whiplash, the blending of the musical styles works wonders for the film, always keeping the viewer engaged and surprised.
There is a new normal in the world of animation, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles drafts off of those trends as a license to shine a new light on a 40-year-old franchise. The Turtles have always transformed with the times, but never has their name felt so appropriate. Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello want nothing more than to go to high school and shop at the nearest bodega out of the shadows. In Mutant Mayhem, the ooze is a blessing and a curse, giving them abilities never before seen, but trapping them in a world that won’t accept them, or so they think. There is a catharsis and genuine loveliness to the film’s finale, rolling the credits with a sense of hope. Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to the film is that the Turtles have never felt more empathetic. Through the colors and references shines through a sense of humanity. For a movie about turtles with swords and nunchucks, that’s pretty impressive.
Paramount Pictures will release Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem only in theaters on August 2.