This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem lives up to the mayhem in its title and then some. The first theatrical TMNT adaptation since the two live-action Michael Bay-produced films of the 2010s, and the second animated adaptation after 2007’s TMNT, Mutant Mayhem reintroduces the beloved turtle brothers Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello for today’s generation of youth. Directed by Jeff Rowe, who was the co-director of the Oscar-nominated The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – with all three working on the script alongside writing duo Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (Detective Pikachu, Koala Man) – this rendition of the turtles was always going to stand out from the franchise with the combined comedic talents of its creators. However, there’s much more heart to this story than you might be expecting, resulting in a new animated classic that brings old and newer fans together.
After a quick introduction to the disgraced genius scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) and his secret mutant experiments and “ooze” that accidentally led to the creation of the turtles, the film wastes no time in bringing audiences up to speed with the four brothers already in their mid-teen years. Master Splinter (Jackie Chan) has already trained his adopted sons in the ways of ancient Ninjutsu, but not for fighting crime or offense. Instead, the brothers have been given their signature swords, nunchucks, sai, and bo staff purely for self-defense. Splinter has previously tried to introduce his turtle sons to the human world, though they were attacked and deemed monsters. All four boys would do anything to be accepted as normal teenagers outside of the sewers. This puts them in an interesting position when faced with the evil Superfly (Ice Cube) and his gang of fellow exotic mutants.
Superfly and his mutant crew were birthed from the same ooze that created the turtles and have too been labeled as “monsters” by society. When Superfly reveals his plan to overthrow the human race by launching a device that will turn every animal on Earth into mutants, the fresh-faced ninja turtles must make the ultimate choice to either align themselves with those who relate to their struggle or to look deeper and find the good that humanity has to offer. In their journey to becoming fully-fledged crime fighters, the brothers also befriend the outcast human teenager April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri). She’s the only person who doesn’t see the turtles as abominations and plans to use her journalistic skills to develop a news story that will make the rest of New York City think so as well.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem may touch upon familiar themes of acceptance and unity, but it never takes the easy route when conveying the emotions of the script. The relationship between the four boys and their father lies at the center of the story, with Splinter forcing the turtles to stay in the shadows and far away from humans out of his fear of losing the only family he will ever have. The more strict he gets, the further he pushes his sons away. The back-and-forth dynamics between an overprotective parent and their kids who just want to break free is something that any viewer can relate to. And rather than opting for an easy answer to this conflict, Mutant Mayhem fully goes through the ropes of showing how both Splinter and the turtles must own up to their own faults and progress together side by side.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the great Jackie Chan and the stellar quartet of young voice actors who bring the turtles to life; Nicolas Cantu (Leonardo), Brady Noon (Raphael), Shamon Brown Jr. (Michelangelo), and Micah Abbey (Donatello). Unlike other adaptations of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s TMNT comic books, Mutant Mayhem actually portrays the titular heroes as genuine kids. The boys here dream about attending high school as regular teens – wanting to date, join the improv club, meet fellow anime fanatics, etc. – as much as they dream about devouring the next box of pizza. The four young voice actors hilariously embody each of the turtles with their own distinct personalities, which feel exactly like the source material while still giving them a one-of-a-kind Gen Z twist. And when they energetically riff on each other as brothers naturally would, the film is at its best.
The main four teenage voice actors also deserve huge credit for improvising a good chunk of their dialogue, as confirmed by director Jeff Rowe. No group of adult writers was ever going to organically capture the spirit of four Gen Z turtles, so the actors themselves create a large amount of the film’s humor through shared improvisation in the recording booth. This couldn’t be more obvious, as hearing Leo, Raph, Donnie, and Mikey make pop culture references to things like the MCU or Adele and use current slang like “rizz” never feels forced. You would imagine that the script was already funny enough and packed with emotion, yet it’s these actors who really make the turtles who they are. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan brings a charming balance of grumpiness and stoicism to Splinter. But when the going gets tough, Splinter is rightfully given his action-packed moment to steal the show.
The supporting voice cast is just as hysterical too, with Ice Cube clearly loving each of his lines voicing Superfly. The villain basically is Ice Cube with a comical god complex, and gets to deliver some of the best jokes of the entire movie. The rest of the mutants – Bebop (Seth Rogen), Rocksteady (John Cena), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), Ray Fillet (Post Malone), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress), Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), and Scumbug – all get equally spotlighted in the script with their own special comedic beats. Paul Rudd as Mondo Gecko, in particular, is going to be a new fan-favorite as everyone is about to fall in love with his laidback skater-bro personality. Maya Rudolph, who plays the secondary evil scientist villain Cynthia Utrom, is even having a blast in her minimal screen time as well.
Diving into the unique art style of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Mikros Animation has taken the right lessons from the success of Sony’s Spider-Verse franchise. Now, many people are going to quickly compare Mutant Mayhem to the Spider-Verse films simply for the fact that it blends 3D and 2D animation. The same thing happened to Puss in Boots: The Last Wish last year. Mutant Mayhem certainly follows in the same footsteps by breaking even more rules and norms for modern animation. However, its art style is nothing like that of Spider-Verse. The visual style of Mutant Mayhem is inspired by children’s drawings and notebook sketches, often looking misshapen or off-putting on purpose. With additional shades of influence from comic books and abstract paintings, the movie feels like something you would see on MTV in the ’90s squeezed somewhere in between Æon Flux, The Maxx, and Beavis and Butt-Head.
Backing up the film’s eye-popping action and zany visuals is an incredible original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Famous for their long list of collaborations with David Fincher and HBO’s Watchmen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is their second animated venture after Pixar’s Soul, for which they also share the Oscar for Best Original Score. The duo proves to be the perfect match for TMNT, bringing a griminess with their signature analog synths that match well with the turtles’ underground heroism. At the same time, the duo captures the youthful energy of the four turtle brothers with lively drum beats and compositions. When you throw in a few delightful needle drops, from Gucci Mane to De La Soul to A Tribe Called Quest, it’s hard not to watch Mutant Mayhem while bopping your head from time to time.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a visual triumph that continues to raise the bar for the animation industry in its own special ways. Underneath all of its style and flair is a fervent heart and soul that has the power to unite audiences of all ages. These turtles may be specifically targeted for Gen Z, but that doesn’t make it any less accessible for anyone else and that’s where this film’s brilliance lies. This is further proof that modern animation is evolving right before our eyes on a mass scale – more and more major studios are leading the charge now. With a Mutant Mayhem sequel and streaming series with the same voice cast already in early development, Paramount knows that it has something hot on its hands. If you thought Across the Spider-Verse was your favorite animated film of the year, then you’re about to think twice.