This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Jeff Rowe
Starring: Shamon Brown Jr., Micah Abbey & Jackie Chan
Rated: PG (sequences of action and violence & language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 39 minutes
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” is something we, especially myself and my millennial brethren, have seen done multiple times before, but this time it’s possibly been done the best we've ever seen it. Having been born three years after the first TMNT comics were released and the same year the more brightly-colored animated series debuted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been a part of my entire life and hold a special place in my own sewer of nostalgia. The ‘90s movies (yes, even the third one) are a cornerstone of my childhood and yet, ‘Mutant Mayhem’ might just surpass them on the sheer charisma of the cast and genuine camaraderie of our heroes. Not that those live-action features didn't have well-defined characters with interesting arcs, but they couldn't help but to feel a little stiff whereas here things are as natural and effortless as could be if not more so given we're talking about "turtle mutant karate teens".
Effortless is maybe the key word here as everything in this latest animated incarnation - from the music to the execution of age-old ideas and of course the animation style itself - feels effortlessly cool and surprisingly fresh. Director Jeff Rowe (“The Mitchells vs the Machines”) seemingly utilizes every tool at his disposal to emphasize the unrefined quality of our heroes and push that mentality to the forefront of the film. The style of animation will undoubtedly be compared to the ‘Spider-Verse’ films, but in all honesty, they each convey a different energy as the film’s “rough around the edges” approach simultaneously lends the tone a bit more of an edge while still maintaining a child-like wonder as the turtles long to be part of a world that fears them. We can see the sketch marks, the incomplete outlines, and not only this but the way the city, the sewers, as well as the people and/or mutants are depicted is far rawer - almost ugly - in a way we haven’t seen before. It’s not that the film itself is revolutionary, but what does feel so is how unconventional and hip they have managed to make a piece of IP and furthermore, the coming-of-age story it’s telling. Like, another ‘TMNT’ movie could have very well felt played out and tired, but instead, this feels very much akin to a "cool kid club" you'll want to be in on. This a real statement on how much execution truly elevates.
The film also does well to focus on each of the four turtle’s personalities and fighting styles giving each a moment to utilize their different weapons which was such a crucial part of picking which turtle you were as a kid. Moreover, the actual (and well-realized) teenage approach to the film works on multiple levels, but maybe - most importantly - it makes the whole experience a fun one. Yes, the look, the style, and the personalities all contribute to this sense of fun, but obviously what pushes Mutant Mayhem into extreme rewatchability territory (key for any Turtles movie made for tweens) is simply how funny it is. And again, effortlessly. Nicolas Cantu (Leo), Brady Noon (Raph), Shamon Brown Jr. (Mikey), and Micah Abbey (Donny) each possess a distinct tone to their voice that kind of immediately identifies each of our heroes' temperament and how they fit with one another which, as the umpteenth version of these characters, is a dynamic the movie didn't have to define yet is so organic it never feels like it takes away from the plot or that it short-changes any of the supporting players; in fact, it is this inherent brotherhood among the four turtles that helps define the attitude of the movie overall.
Add in another banger score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that combines the angst of early-‘90s rock with the high-energy, synth and percussion-infused tracks that scored any number of ‘80s films aimed at youths as weaved freely with a soundtrack that features the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and it’s hard to resist. The needle drops are crucial and work well to highlight fight sequences that have, up to this point in the turtle’s big screen history, been hindered by limited practical effects and costumes or an over-reliance on CGI. While the dingy but never dull animation style already gives these sequences a kind of unexpected brutality they are also insanely stylized though not to an obnoxious level, but rather just to the point of being as effortlessly cool and impressive as everything else around them.
As a lifelong ‘TMNT’ fan who has found something to like and appreciate about each of the films and TV series that have come out over the years (I mean it when I say 2016's ‘Out of the Shadows’ is severely underrated) and there have been some odd ones (looking at you, ‘The Next Mutation’) it was a nice change of pace to not have to necessarily try and find the good in ‘Mutant Mayhem’ because of how overwhelmingly energetic and compelling everything about it is. Director Rowe and his team along with writers/producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg go all in on the mayhem of the mutants they promise in the title while giving vets like Jackie Chan some of the funniest lines and running gags as Splinter while Ice Cube and Paul Rudd do what they do best in the supervillain department. Of course, as with many a Rogen/Goldberg production, ‘Mutant Mayhem’ circles back around to key themes of those transitional moments in life where the expansion of one’s world helps them understand themselves better and where/how they might want to fit into that world. Acceptance is a key word here, but the film is tactful about presenting its ideas and opinions regarding not doing things only for the sake of having others like you which, again, makes it...ya know...cool. Oh, and there’s plenty of pizza too.