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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023) Review

Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.

There aren’t many media franchises as large as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For nearly 40 years, the Turtles have dominated comic books, toys and Saturday morning cartoon channels. They can even cross every style and tone, having been dark, satirical, fantastical, funny and adventurous. Their immense success has prompted many imitators, but none have come close to the Turtles’ popularity. Given their cultural relevance, it stands to reason that they’ve been adapted to the big screen on multiple occasions. From the 1990s trilogy, to the Michael Bay produced duology, we’ve seen many interpretations, yet none of them have been particularly impressive. Granted, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), holds a special place in many fans’ childhood memories, but it’s no classic, and it’s far from flawless. Therefore, it’s ironic that this entire film series has been trying to recapture the glory of a film which isn’t actually that glorious. Enter Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jeff Rowe, and their computer animated reinvention, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023).

Ayo Edebiri, Micah Abbey, Brady Noon, Shamon Brown Jr., and Nicolas Cantu as April O’Neil, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo.

Deep in the sewers of New York City, lives four anthropomorphic teenage turtles, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey) and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and the anthropomorphic rat who raised them, Splinter (Jackie Chan). They were once normal turtles and a normal rat, but when mysterious, radioactive ooze fell down the sewer and landed on them, they transformed and became the human sized and sentient beings they are today. Initially, Splinter didn’t want to bring them up in the sewer, but it proved necessary when he learnt that regular people fear mutants. In order to protect them from harm, Splinter taught himself and his ‘sons’ ninjitsu, while also trying to make their grimy home as humanlike as possible. He hoped this would make the Turtles satisfied with their home beneath the city, but instead it just made the boys want to be there even more. They aren’t the only mutants looking for acceptance, as there is a mysterious being known as Superfly (Ice Cube) also trying to ascend to the streets above. However, his plans are far more destructive.

The Ninja Turtles have always worked best in animated form, so it’s odd that Hollywood has repeatedly tried to push live-action versions on us. Thankfully, producer (and the main creative mind behind the project) Seth Rogen, understands the importance of matching a franchise’s creative needs to its creative style. As such, Rogen sees animation as a legitimate form of storytelling, opting to translate this beloved property into a format which suits it. This was also his main trick with the TV series Invincible (2021), an animated masterpiece which proved that an animated adaptation can be even more culturally important than a live-action adaptation. That lesson has certainly been taken to heart, as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem easily eclipses every previous Ninja Turtles film.

Ice Cube as Superfly.

A key element of Mutant Mayhem’s success is its very modern depiction of its youthful heroes. Originally conceived in 1984, the Turtles’ were built on that era’s very specific teenage experience, and those foundations have persisted through each subsequent version. The fact is that teenagers are different today, and bear very few similarities with how they were in the 1980s. Therefore, it’s always been a little odd to see Leo, Donny, Raph and Mikey remain completely unchanged year after year. Mutant Mayhem smartly reimagines these protagonists, making them recognisably part of Generation Z. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s actually made the Turtles feel more real and more endearing than ever before. Despite being cartoons, these characters exhibit modern hopes, dreams, and amusing teenage awkwardness. Just like its predecessors, it’s possible this film will feel out of date in 40 years time, but there’s no reason not to update the Turtles and their world again when the time comes.

With that in mind, Mutant Mayhem capitalises on another modern trend, taking inspiration from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s (2018) groundbreaking animation and design style. Every animation studio is desperately trying to replicate that earlier film’s Oscar winning success, but few have managed to do so. Happily, Mutant Mayhem steps up to the plate and delivers a colourful, tangible and vibrant palette, finding its own identity wholly apart from Into the Spider-Verse. While it’s obviously rendered entirely with computer generated imagery, the final result looks like an exciting mix of claymation, watercolour painting, and crayon. It’s a truly wonderful art style which perfectly matches the film’s fast paced energy, toe-tapping soundtrack, and joyful action. If there are any minor drawbacks to find in the animation, it’s that Into the Spider-Verse’s own sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)already uplifted this trend before Mutant Mayhem was released.

Jackie Chan as Splinter.

On narrative level, Mutant Mayhem’s merits are further displayed through its tight, funny, cute and relatively clever script. This is most evident through how easily and quickly the film makes us understand every character’s signature thoughts, motivations, feelings towards each other and the world around them. This isn’t limited to the heroes, as the wide array of villains are also given similarly quick, yet subversive depictions. When it comes to the main plot, the story beats remain fairly functional and fall into many superhero genre tropes. However, there’s a satirical edge to it all which keeps it from feeling completely stale. What also helps the story feel fresh is that it explores some ideas The Ninja Turtles never have before, and mixes it right alongside things we recognise. On another note, there are some fairly awkward subplots which aren’t fully resolved by the time the credits roll, but they don’t detract from the main story. Additionally, these hanging threads are clearly intended for the eventual sequel.

Seth Rogen and John Cena as Bebop and Rocksteady.

Should Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem be successful, it will surely spawn a new, ongoing series of films for the current generation of kids. Given the overall satisfying result, this is a strong start, and we can certainly be confident the quality will be maintained.

8/10

Best way to watch it: With your inner 14-year-old.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem Poster.

Robert Fantozzi

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