This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.
It takes no time at all for audiences to realize that the seventh and most recent reboot of the Ninja Turtle franchise is unlike its six predecessors in almost every way. For an IP that’s been in perpetual motion since 1984, that’s no easy feat. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is refreshing, endearing, and maybe the property’s best version yet.
Mutant Mayhem review: smells like teen spirit
There have been six theatrically released Ninja Turtle films, spanning live action to animation to…whatever Michael Bay’s version is. Some, like the animated TMNT (2007) lean in on the “Ninja” portion of their moniker. Others, like the aforementioned Michael Bay-produced joints, focus on the “Mutant” part. With Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, executive producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and James Weaver accentuate the “Teenage” aspects of the franchise.
Voiced for the first time by actual teens (Micah Abbey as Donatello, Shamon Brown as Michaelangelo, Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo, and Brady Noon as Raphael), these turtles feel authentically, refreshingly young. In fact, in a featurette that played before the advanced screenings, Rogen and director Jeff Rowe state that the boys would add their own slang into the dialogue, giving us the first utterance of words like “rizz” in the Turtle-verse. Like most teens, these turtles dream about high school dances, improv clubs, and being popular. Even this version of April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) is a teen.
As such, no one in this film is at the top of their game. Donatello is smart, but he’s not Tony Stark. April has a journalistic mind, but she’s not winning a Pulitzer any time soon. This is an origin story as much as it is a reintroduction to these characters.
Their father, a mutant rat named Splinter (Jackie Chan), feels more like a well-meaning but out of touch parent than the all-wise sensei he’s been since 1984. The divide is reminiscent of immigrant parents and first-generation children, thanks in no small part to Chan’s accent.
TMNT review: a style all its own
It’s easy to watch the trailer for TMNT:MM and declare it an opportunistic imitation of the transcendent animation seen in Spider-Verse. Alas, such comparisons are hasty, lazy, and erroneous. The art style at work in this film is on par with any universe in Sony’s arachnoid franchise. Unsurprisingly, the style is informed by the choice to lean in on the turtles as teens above all.
The character designs, textures, movement, and environments are all carefully crafted to be reminiscent of the doodles and drawings in the margins of a teenager’s notebook. Faces are asymmetrical, frames are rigid, and pencil lines fill shadows and New York streetlights alike. The colors look like oil paintings, even claymation at times. Every inch of this movie appears grimy and tactile.
Every once in a while, some big CGI fantasy film shares concept art among the special features in the Blu-ray box. Inevitably, the concept art looks more interesting and more beautiful than the finished product. TMNT:MM feels like the concept artists were allowed to animate the whole thing. The characters, prop designs, and environments look uncompromised from the concept artist’s initial vision. Some of it is downright ugly, but in the most gorgeous way imaginable.
Musically, this might be the soundtrack of the summer, especially for millennials. There are needle drops everywhere from Blackstreet to 4 Non Blondes. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score adds a sort of retro-synth melancholia that punctuates the down tempo moments perfectly.
To make something super good, get the guys from ‘Superbad’
The gold standard for 21st century movies about teenage boys being teenage boys is Superbad. It’s no surprise that the creative minds behind Superbad, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, have a hand in producing and writing TMNT:MM (Rogen also voices the mutant warthog Bebop in the film). Just as with the tale of Seth, Evan, and McLovin, TMNT:MM feels natural, authentic, and as unscripted as possible while still delivering superhero antics.
Of course, this isn’t the pair’s first foray into comic book IP. Rogen and Goldberg have carved out a niche, executive producing such independent comic fare as Preacher, The Boys, and Invincible. While those properties are acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, it is still a risk to take those sensibilities and apply them to a TMNT movie from Nickelodeon. Luckily, that risk pays off tenfold.
Four shells, one rat, and even more heart
While the animation is gorgeous and the jokes are flying, TMNT:MM’s secret weapon is the heart at the center of it. These boys are lovable, and they feel like brothers more than ever before.
In too many prior iterations, the interpersonal relationships follow a similar formula: Leo and Raph butt heads over the balance of emotion vs. control while Donnie and Mikey crack jokes in the gaps. TMNT:MM takes an entirely different approach. These brothers make fun of each other, and pick each other up. As a man with three brothers of my own, the dynamic rings true. Splinter loves his boys, and it comes across. He’s more vulnerable than in prior versions. This feels like a true family.
It appeared that the race for Best Animated Feature at the 96th Oscars might be over when Sony released Across the Spider-Verse, but not so fast. While that film may still be the favorite, and deservedly so, there is more than enough going on in TMNT:MM to garner consideration.
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'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem' Review'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem' Review
- Perfect tone of comedy and action
- Funny where it needs to be without sacrificing heart
- Stunning visuals
- Fantastic soundtrack/score
- Refreshing vocal performances