What do we talk about, when we talk about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem? What seemed like a dormant big-screen franchise has been successfully rebooted to the tune of $100+ million in a couple of weeks at the global box-office, with a sequel and follow-up series already coming down the sewer pipe in short order. This animated feature rolls back multiple cinematic wrong-turns to double down on the first thing we ever knew about the Ninja Turtles; they’re meant to be teenagers, duh. And being a teenager is about more than shouting ‘Cowabunga dude’ and liking pizza; there’s a world of growing-up angst to be explored, and fortunately the team behind Jeff Rowe’s Mutant Mayhem deliver on that promise of authentic teen voices.
Lines like ‘I know it’s objectively prejudiced but that’s what they taught us,’ flag up early that these ain’t the bland characters we’ve previously known; this is an origin story for the loquacious ‘little Shreks’. It’s also a self-proclaimed ‘tragic backstory’ of sorts; we see the turtles in a lab, getting doused with the mysterious, power-sharing ooze, meeting up with their adoptive rat father Splinter (Jackie Chan) and introduced to tv reporter April O’Neill (Ado Edeberi). Yes, every generation gets the April O’Neill they deserve, and while others made do with Sarah Michelle Gellar or Megan Fox, this April is known as ‘puke girl’ due to her tendency to vomit when nervous. Once assembled, the team are up against extremist antagonist Superfly (Ice Cube), who shares the turtles’ dream of acceptance by the outside world, but seeks it in a rather more direct way…
Mutant Mayhem also resolves multiple issues about the size and scope of a turtle adventure by focusing on the traditionally ignored business of fighting crime; the meat and potatoes of any kind of super-hero, so no time-travel, multiverses, vortexes, portals or any of that nonsense; we’re firmly in scuzzy New York City and foiling robberies is how the turtles aim to win our hearts. ‘You sound like such a leader…that was so heartfelt bro,’ is the kind of cheery dialogue that lays bare the crushing need to be liked that the turtles share as a common cause. It’s not easy to miss the influence of Superbad’s Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on the funky new direction here, but they generally rein in their cruder impulses in this family friendly feature; they keep it clean AND keep it green. It’s also, in the vein of the Spiderverse animations, impressive to look at, with a knowing super-stoner sound track including Take it To The Limit, Eye Know by De La Soul, Can I Kick it? by A Tribe Called Quest and of course, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya.
‘I like your vibe’ says one of their allies Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), and Mutant Mayhem is a movie that surprisingly manages to cause far more of the warm and fuzzy feels we’d hope for in a TMNT movie. As with Barbie, the secret of reviving old IP is having a fresh and relevant vision that expands on the original promise of the material; TMNT: MM has all that in plentiful quality. Even if they don’t have nipples, or last names, these guys are easily the best big-screen version of the Turtles we’ve seen to date; with Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne and other talent properly engaged, it’s one of 2023’s most surprising successes. It’s also a kids/family film that’s smarter than most films for adults, and should cross-over to audiences of all ages; in the immortal words of Y Kid K, get ready to spin that wheel, because these heroic turtles just got real. Awesome!