Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is as delightful an entry in the long-running franchise as one could hope for — re-introducing the quartet of half-shelled heroes for a new generation of kids while keeping things recognizable for adults who still care maybe a little too much about the canonical fidelity of stories about mutant turtles dressed as ninjas and fighting weird, super-sized animals.
I’m neither of those things. I haven’t watched anything from the franchise since 2007’s TMNT, which I recall enjoying; I guess I did read the comic book cross-overs with Batman, which were also fine. My 4-year-old son, who has never seen anything involving these nutty reptiles, sat still through most of it but has not yet asked me to buy him any toys, which is a win in my book. We’ll see if that changes.
This time around, the story of the Turtles is told with an impressive visual flair. While inspired by the audaciousness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, director Jeff Rowe, co-director Kyler Spears and their art team lend Mutant Mayhem a distinctly worn roughness. Although visually stunning, it also feels tactile, like the art of a teenager never quite finished — painted with mountains of feeling but never given a coat to seal it from the elements.
The same amount of effort has gone into the characters, which also emphasizes the Turtles as teenagers in an empathetic way. It starts with the casting: Unlike previous iterations (OK, now I remember seeing that awful Platinum Dunes version a few years ago), this time around, each of the four leads is actually portrayed by younger talent. Donatello (Micah Abby), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu) and Raphael (Brady Noon) all feel like teenagers, brimming with energy and a level of headstrong determination as brave as it is self-destructive. Their traditional personalities are all present. But to the script’s credit, they’re not quite as pigeonholed into their roles as in other iterations. Donatello is still the brains, Mikey the joker, Leo the leader and Raphael the hot-head. These are the Turtles fans love, only younger. They’re joined by April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), a high-schooler with dreams of being a reporter.
The rest of the voice cast is filled out with more big names: Seth Rogen (who also produced and co-wrote) as Bebop; John Cena as Rocksteady; Rose Byrne, Giancarlo Esposito, Maya Rudolph and Paul Rudd also in vocal cameos. The standout, however, is Jackie Chan as Splinter, the mutant-rat father figure for the turtles. Chan’s at his best here, playing a warm and loving paternal presence with his own lessons to learn. For an actor who sometimes struggled to play characters outside his own brand, Splinter feels like a surprising stretch.
Story-wise, well … whatever: It’s kind of the same-old, same-old for superhero stories. Misunderstood angry villain Superfly (voiced by Ice Cube) wants to use a machine to turn the world’s animals into mutants who can subjugate the heroes who ruined his life. The Turtles must stop him and discover selflessness, which is generally the “origin story.” The finale goes on a little long even though the inventiveness of Superfly’s final form is pretty fun.
If you’re going to a Turtles film, however, the plot is probably secondary to the characters, and thankfully Mutant Mayhem delivers on that front along with its gorgeous art design. I’m sure someone online is angry about whatever changes it makes to a notion of canon. But frankly, there’s rarely been a year in the last three decades without some sort of content from this endless franchise. At least this one is a little inventive.