Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Pop culture's favourite heroes in a half shell get the 'Spider-Verse' treatment — and it's their best spin in cinemas yet.
September 07, 2023
Before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Seth Rogen and his regular behind-the-camera collaborator Evan Goldberg had more than a few hands in Sausage Party. Lewd and crude isn't their approach with pop culture's pizza-eating, sewer-dwelling, bandana-wearing heroes in a half shell, however. Instead, the pair is in adoring throwback mode. They co-write and co-produce. Platonic's Rogen also lends his vocals — but to warthog Bebop, not to any of TMNT: MM's fab four. That casting move is telling; this isn't a raunched-up, star voice-driven take on family-friendly fare like Strays and Ted, even when it's gleefully irreverent. Rather, it's a loving reboot spearheaded by a couple of patent fans who were the exact right age when turtle power was the schoolyard's biggest late-80s and early-90s force, and want to do Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo justice.
Affection seeps through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem as pivotally as ooze, the reason that there's even any adolescent marine reptiles that aren't at all like most of their species, and are also skilled in Japanese martial arts, within the franchise's narrative. Slime might visibly glow in this new animated TMNT movie, but the love with which the film has been made is equally as luminous. Indeed, the Spider-Verse-esque artwork makes that plain, openly following in the big-screen cartoon Spidey saga's footsteps. As it visually resembles lively high school notebook sketches under director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs the Machines) and Kyler Spears' (Amphibia) guidance, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem feels exactly like the result of Rogen and Goldberg seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, wondering how Leo and company would fare in a picture that aimed for the same visual flair, then making it happen.
Computers did the animating, of course, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem's appearance may as well have smudgy fingerprints where someone has coloured in heavily with a texta, then accidentally slid a digit over the page before the ink was dry. While the TMNT realm has delivered good entries and bad, plus memorable and bland renderings of its core quartet — fittingly, these turtles have kept mutating — their current iteration is warm, retro and nostalgic while veering in its own aesthetic direction. So, the turtles aren't 80s-era slick like the OG cartoon series splashed across the small screen. They're not costume-wearing men (costumes by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, no less) as seen in the 90s live-action flicks, either. It's for the best that this Leonardo (voiced by Nicolas Cantu, The Fabelmans), Donatello (Micah Abbey, Cousins for Life), Raphael (Brady Noon, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers) and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr, The Chi) haven't been spawned in the likeness of 2007 picture TMNT, either, or the motion-capture efforts of 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its 2016 sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
Fun: that's how TMNT: MM looks with its scribbled-on, graffiti-leaning style, and it's also what Rogen, Goldberg, Rowe (also a co-scribe), Spears, Koala Man's Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (the last of the flick's five screenwriters), and the Bad Neighbours movies' Brendan O'Brien (who gets a story credit) are overtly after. So were comic book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird when they created the anthropomorphic crew four decades back to parody superhero tales — as are the adopted turtle children of mutant rat Splinter (Jackie Chan, Hidden Strike), too. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem's key group just wants to be teens, and the movie wants to hang out with them as they try. In addition to an updated take on their origin story, TMNT: MM sketches Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo into a coming-of-age story. They practice ninjutsu. They bust out their fearsome fighting skills. They sneak out to watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the ultimate teens-just-wanna-have-fun film. They also just want to be accepted for who they are, because this is a Frankenstein story as well.
Here, living below New York City's neon streets has become a drag for Leonardo who leads, Donatello who does machines, Raphael with the attitude and Michelangelo the party dude. Emotionally scarred from humanity's worst impulses, the protective Splinter forbids the turtles from venturing above ground for anything but supplies — which is where the stealth outdoor cinema trips come in. The ageing rat is certain that the world isn't safe for four slime-transformed humanoid critters. Unlike Ferris, though, his 15-year-olds would like to spend their days in classrooms and hallways, and with teachers and fellow pupils, a wish that they can only dream about. Then they meet April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri, The Bear) as a high schooler who aspires to be a journalist and is investigating Big Apple crime for the school paper. She becomes a friend when the katana-, sai-, bo- and nunchuck-wielding brothers help her with the thugs who steal her scooter.
Like slipping into toxic sludge when they were babies, crossing paths with April is just the beginning of the turtles' latest journey. All of those robberies link back to Superfly (Ice Cube, The High Note) — and soon there's a menagerie of mutants, including Bebop and his rhino pal Rocksteady (John Cena, Barbie), bat Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou, What We Do in the Shadows), alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne, Physical), manta ray Ray Fillet (Post Malone, Wrath of Man), and also Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd, Only Murders in the Building) and Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress, Spider-Man: No Way Home). Being a teenager is about yearning to fit in, and so is standing out because you're seen as a monster by everyone around you. Those Frankenstein nods are well-deployed, but then so is most of this turtle tale: cowabungas, Beyoncé love, jokes about both Ratatouille and Shrek, and a soundtrack that's catnip to 80s and 90s kids (think: Blackstreet's 'No Diggity', 4 Non Blondes' 'What's Up?' and A Tribe Called Quest's 'Can I Kick It?').
Getting Trent Reznor, the rock-god patron saint of angsty alternative teens of three decades ago, on score duties with his usual composing partner Atticus Ross (Bones and All) is a genius move, and always sounds that way. Who else can craft tunes to fight frenetically in sewers and slink through the street by? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem caters expertly to millennial adults, clearly, but it doesn't forget that it's for today's young viewers as well. Although that mix of audiences requires a balancing act, Rogen and co know how to amuse themselves and still serve up TMNT for the next generations. All those famous names among the voice cast? Crucially, they always come second to Cantu, Abbey, Noon and Brown Jr in a lively, energetic treat of a flick — the franchise's equivalent of fresh-out-of-the-oven pizza and, yes a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles renaissance.
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