REVIEW: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023, dir. Jeff Rowe)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 100 mins

UK Distributor: Paramount Pictures

WHO’S IN TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM?

Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Shamon Brown Jr., Micah Abbey, Jackie Chan, Ayo Edebiri, Ice Cube, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Giancarlo Esposito, Hannibal Buress, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou, Post Malone, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jeff Rowe (director, writer), Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (writers, producers), Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (writers), James Weaver (producer), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (composers), Kent Seki (cinematographer), Greg Levitan (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Leonardo (Cantu), Raphael (Noon), Michelangelo (Brown Jr.) and Donatello (Abbey) face off against an army of fellow mutants…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM?

If there’s one thing that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem proves – other than it being entirely possible to make a movie based on the hugely popular franchise that doesn’t suck – it’s that the crime-fighting adventures of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello work best in animated form. Most people already remember them from the late 80s cartoon series, or even the darker comics wherein they first appeared, so seeing the Turtles within that artform – as opposed to witnessing the awkward puppetry and CG monstrosity of the live-action versions – feels so much more organic and fitting for these four irreverent, and extremely cartoonish, heroes.

But even in an already stellar year for animation, one that has seen the likes of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Elemental, Nimona and The Super Mario Bros Movie win favour with critics and audiences alike, there’s something special about seeing Mutant Mayhem join those ranks. As someone who was never really that into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles growing up, I do find it quite heartening to see people who really care about this franchise put their own spin on it while still making it a really fun movie, and it might well be the first time that I ever, for a second, took seriously the adventures of pizza-loving reptiles that practise ninjitsu in the sewer – in animated form, no less.

The film is another origin story – following all the regular beats from scientific ooze finding its way to baby turtles, to them mutating and learning to become warriors under their surrogate rat father Splinter (voiced here by Jackie Chan) – but unlike previous incarnations, the focus is very much on the Turtles themselves. Here, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Donatello (Micah Abbey) yearn to be accepted in the human world, where they have been taught by Splinter to be filled with hateful people that will cast them out the second that they make themselves visible. After befriending human teen April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), they soon decide to win the favour of other humans by setting out to take down the criminal mastermind known as Super Fly (Ice Cube), whom they soon not only discover to be another mutant just like them, but heads an entire gang of mutants – including fan favourites such as Bebop (Seth Rogen, also a writer and producer on the film) and Rocksteady (John Cena) – who are seeking to wipe humans off the face of the planet.

Mutant Mayhem’s most notable feature right off the bat is how great its CG animation is. Although clearly inspired by the hand-drawn look and slowed framerates of the Spider-Verse movies, it has its own unique visual style, with the designs of characters, backgrounds, props and just about everything having a rough, crude edge to them that looks beautifully ugly at all times. There’s a neat grunginess to the New York environment, wherein the streets and pavements on the surface don’t look that much cleaner than the sewers underneath, while the lighting is at times cleverly rendered to look like something you’d see in a regular live-action movie (notably, there is a credited cinematographer on this movie – that being visual effects artist Kent Seki – which is rare for an animated film to have). On top of that, the style helps the hyperactive action sequences to really pop off the screen, often going by at such a relentless pace – almost to where you’d prefer it slow down every now and then to show certain things – that it’s like watching a bunch of manic doodles springing around and landing blows on one another, with the effect being never less than engaging.

One thing I never thought I’d also say about a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is how genuinely sweet and heartfelt it is, but once again the movie surprises you with its unexpected emotional baggage. Beyond the Turtles themselves sharing great chemistry as well as having fun and endearing individual personalities, which lean heavily into their identities as teenagers (perhaps more than any other Ninja Turtles variation I’ve yet seen), you do genuinely care about them as they feel like well-rounded characters who are easy to be around, and have understandable desires about wanting to fit in that most teens, or even those older or younger than that age group, might relate to. There’s also some very good arcs given to characters like Splinter (an excellent Jackie Chan), April O’Neil (a lively Ayo Edebiri), and even the numerous mutant hench-folk of Ice Cube’s main antagonist, who remarkably prove to not just be there for light comic relief. The writing is really strong here, as it brings out the heart and soul of the Turtles and their numerous allies/enemies in ways that few other renditions of the characters have bothered to explore.

The movie is a lot of fun, filled with plenty of rapid-fire gags and set-pieces set to that brilliantly stylish animation, and filled with enough heart and tenderness to keep you invested in the story and its characters. However, it’s not a completely perfect movie, for the script is heavy on a lot of topical references and Gen-Z slang, much of which is put to humorous use here but may seem distracting to those outside that age group. The movie can also get quite dark in a lot of places, which I personally don’t have a problem with (if anything, I welcome it, especially in an animated film aimed at families), but it might be a bit too intense for younger viewers, since there is stuff here that is so weird and nightmarish, like a character design in the third act that’s straight out of a David Cronenberg fever dream, where I’m genuinely surprised that it got away with a PG certificate.

However, if you feel as though your kid can handle some intensity every now and then, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem taking them to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, a movie that despite its flaws is an oozing cavalcade of grimy, unapologetically adolescent fun that you don’t necessarily have to be a kid to enjoy.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a hugely fun animated take on the popular franchise that boasts some gorgeously stylised animation and a surprising amount of heart and soul that might, for the very first time, have you caring about pizza-loving reptilian heroes in what is by far their best theatrical outing to date.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now showing in cinemas nationwide

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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