It’s been far too long since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was fun. The concept of four anthropomorphic turtle brothers trained in ninjutsu is inherently goofy — something that recent iterations of the pizza-loving vigilantes forgot in a bid to compete with every other grim-dark franchise. These are characters whose catchphrase is “Cowabunga!” and whose heightened antics felt totally at home with the “radical!” spirit of the ‘90s. So thankfully, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem brings that radical goofiness back with a propulsive, vibrant animated flick that transforms franchise nostalgia into something invigoratingly new.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem goes back to the creation of the four mutant teens. It starts with Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito), a misanthropic scientist who creates a formula to transform animals into superpowered mutants. But when his laboratory is raided by a mysterious government agency, his mutants escape and his formula makes its way down to the sewers in the form of a green Ooze. A rat and four baby turtles stumble into the Ooze, turning them into mutants. The rat, dubbing himself Splinter (Jackie Chan), takes the turtles under his wing and raises them in the sewers, teaching them martial arts and forbidding them from venturing into the human world except to surreptitiously pick up groceries and pizza. But the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yearn to be accepted by humans, leading them to venture outside, where they stumble on a conspiracy by Stockman’s escaped mutants, led by the vengeful Superfly (Ice Cube), to turn all the animals of the world into mutants.
Director Jeff Rowe (in his first solo directorial feature) brings the same enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of animation that he displayed as co-director of the eye-popping Mitchells vs. the Machines. But this new genre of hybrid CG-animation spawned by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is proving incredibly diverse. Spider-Verse introduced a new type of stylized CG animation which blended hand-drawn 2D elements with 3D techniques, setting it apart from the smooth, Pixar-style computer animation that had become the norm. But no two hybrid CG-animated film looks the same. Mutant Mayhem looks completely different from Mitchells, which looks completely different from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which looks different from Spider-Verse (even if a lot of the same people are working across most of those movies).
Mutant Mayhem is instead inspired by school notebook sketches, and has the same energy as an excitable 10-year-old kid hopped up on too much soda and candy. It moves like mayhem and talks like a teenager. And the truly cool animation — which feels rougher around the edges, like the drawings and sketches are rushing to catch up with the boundless energy of its characters — is a key reason it works.
But if one were to pinpoint the true reason Mutant Mayhem is such a blast, it’s that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (voiced by newcomers Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., and Brady Noon) actually act like teens. Rowe and co-writers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Sami manage to update the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for this generation. They argue about their favorite martial arts moves, make stupid videos on their phones, and dare each other to throw things off roofs — that last one causes much irritation to passerby like April O’Neill (Ayo Edebiri, charmingly awkward). Rogen and Goldberg’s fingerprints are all over this, their knack for capturing awkward teenage angst they first displayed in their true-life-inspired Superbad (admittedly with much less raunch).
Despite the heightened goofiness — which whips between martial arts inspirations, Blaxploitation riffs, and millennial YouTuber chaos with all the distracted frenzy of, well, a teen — at its core, Mutant Mayhem is a surprisingly wholesome coming-of-age story. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yearn to be accepted by the human world. They sneak out to watch screenings of Ferris Bueller (amusingly, the only live-action scenes in the movie), and dream of going to prom. There’s a strange naturalism too in the way that the turtles constantly talk over each other — another charming childish quirk.
Mutant Mayhem is an exciting, energizing breath of fresh air. It is a sorely needed pivot away from the grittier entries of recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptations, and another superb example of the innovations of Spider-Verse animation. But best of all, it’s a totally radical, totally fun time.