Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a Chaotic and Lively Outing for the Heroes in a Half Shell

There have been so many iterations of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles it would be nigh on impossible to list them. From the self-published early eighties comic riffing on Teen Titans, Daredevil, and The X-Men, to a series of toys and cartoons later in that decade, to the first feature film in 1990 by Steve Barron to other more recent cinema reboots – the TMNT phenomena is an example of cultural osmosis. It is likely audiences have encountered the heroes in a half shell via some form of media which ranges as much in quality as it does in proliferation.

Jeff Rowe and co-director Kyler Spears provide and entry point to the TMNT universe in Mutant Mayhem which doesn’t necessarily need the audience to know all that much about the iconic characters as it offers its own origin story for the ninjitsu trained tetrapods and their rodent father figure, Splinter (Jackie Chan). However, there are many call backs to the dynamic quadruple that are scattered through the film to delight long term fans. If you have been living under a rock for forty years, or if you weren’t born (as many of the intended audience were not) here is a quick rundown of our cowabunga dudes.

Living in a sewer as infants four baby turtles – Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon) are exposed to some ‘ooze’ created by a lonely scientist, Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) which turns the critters into mutants with the ability to speak. Taken in by a despised rat (it’s NYC, no one likes rats) who comes into contact with the ooze, they grow into hyperactive teenagers who are obsessed with the human world they can’t live in. Splinter tried to introduce them to human society when they were very young but quite naturally people were terrified of the anthropomorphic rat man and sent him scuttling back to the sewers from whence they came. Deciding that the turtles needed to defend themselves from violent humans, Splinter learns martial arts (in a sequence that is genuinely hilarious including clips from Shaw Brothers movies, and… Jackie Chan movies) and passes on his knowledge to his kids.

Getting tired of being disconnected from the world they idolise from the shadows the foursome extend their late night grocery runs into secret outings across Brooklyn. They dream of going to high school, after all if you go to high school you can have your own float in NYC (thank you Ferris Bueller) and just be “normal.” Bred on a diet of pizza, pepsi, and pop culture, the turtles just want to be accepted. Leonardo, the katana wielding leader of the siblings is as faithful as he can be to Splinter’s teachings which isn’t made easy by Michelangelo’s rebellious attitude, nor Raphael’s constant challenges to his leadership, nor Donatello’s tech genius that brings the outside world inside via a sophisticated computer setup.

Inevitably the turtles meet up with long term team stalwart, the human April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) a feisty high school “print only” journalist via an incident with a flying star and a stolen scooter. The first human they’ve encountered who hasn’t utterly freaked out at seeing them (there was a small freak out, but they did get her scooter back from a chop shop filled with violent thugs in their first actual fight), April is a gateway to the world above and being a teenager in general. Far from the seasoned adult reporter in other versions, this April is a bit chunky, a general outcast herself, and has experienced more than her own share of cringe teenage moments trying to get people to like her.

All of this is a lot of exposition, but it is necessary. The radical change in having April be an outsider kid is thematically essential. Wanting to be liked and accepted is at the core of the film, and also the teenage experience. It’s also the inverse motivation of the villain, Superfly (Ice Cube) who was part of Baxter Stockman’s original experiments and who saved his own mutant family from the evil TCRI run by Cynthia Ultrom (Maya Rudolph) who wanted Stockman’s formula to create an army of animal mutant super soldiers. In many ways Mutant Mayhem is a variation on the X-Men with Superfly being Magneto and having his own cadre of outcasts. Instead of wanting acceptance, he wants to eliminate non-mutants which he sees as the only way his kind can be on the planet.

The voice cast alone is staggering with appearances from John Cena, Seth Rogen (also partially responsible for the script), Rose Byrne, Hannibal Burgess, Post Malone, Natasia Demetriou, and “introducing Paul Rudd” as Mondo Gecko. One of the most important aspects of Mutant Mayhem is having the TMNT voiced by actual teenagers (the last time this happened on the big screen was with Corey Feldman voicing one of the turtles in the 1990 film). It gives the film an energy and authenticity that has been lacking from other cinematic versions, especially the woeful 2014 and 2016 outings. The voice cast all have excellent moments to shine (Post Malone’s Ray Fillet just wanting to chill out and sing some stuff, Rogen and Cena’s dopey Bebop and Rocksteady).

Of course, the animation itself must be mentioned. Moving between the original comics (grimy and grungy) to an almost 3D animation style, and flipping backwards and forwards between them, Mutant Mayhem is wonderfully chaotic if a little grotesque at times. NYC is far from a shiny metropolis, it’s street and sewer level verisimilitude. The humans are weird and off-putting making our mutants appear more appealing than their counterparts (April is an exception, but even she seems drawn with untidy scribbles). The frame is filled with action, perhaps sometimes too much action, as it switches modes. For 2023, however, the hectic short attention span approach is apropos.

The one part of the film that doesn’t gel as well as it could is we don’t really get to know our turtles as individuals. Because everything moves so fast, we have implied characteristics more often than overt ones. A passing reference to Raph needing therapy for his anger issues is where we infer that he’s had a problem. It’s easy to pick up on Donnie’s nerdiness, but we only get Mikey’s “cool guy” persona through his interactions with Mondo Gecko and their bro vibes. Leo trying to toe the line between leader and brother is explored and given eventual payoff, but the melange of fast talking and quick cutting often leads the audience to wonder what their personality traits are.

The jokes and references do flow at a phenomenal speed and certain portions of the audience will understand parts that others don’t depending on their age. Rowe and co-writers Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are pitching in part to the elder millennials who grew up with the series as kids but also trying to make it relevant to younger children and our current batch of teens. It’s not an easy balance to achieve but they generally make it work with jokes about the MCU and who the best Chris is (it seems it is Pine) along with K-pop and Beyonce bits mixed with classic Gen-X music including a wild remix of 4 Non Blondes. There is something for everyone but not everything is for everyone.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is essentially what the title implies. It’s also a quite sweet coming of age story for the heroes who learn that doing things to please people to be accepted isn’t the path to acceptance. Doing things because they are part of your values and personal compass is how to be you without compromise – something that some other mutants learn along the way too. The film is also quite cutting about the madness of crowds and how hero worship can turn on a dime depending on the way a story is framed by the media. It isn’t quite the heights of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, nor the animated Spider-Verse, but it is impressive on its own terms. The team behind the movie is setting up a sequel and it is easy to imagine it will be hotly anticipated. We can all shout a rousing “Turtle power!”

Directors: Jeff Rowe, Kyler Spears

Voice Cast: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon

Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, (based on a story by Brendan O’Brien, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, and based on characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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