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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

As the leads in Jeff Rowe’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” spoke with all the momentum of my kids when they have a bottle of Prime—it’s a new energy drink for those out of the loop—I thought about the difference between fast-paced and hyperactive when it comes to this kind of movie. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and its incredible sequel are undeniably fast-paced, but the momentum is right for the material. “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” co-written by this film’s director, also packs so much into its runtime that it’s impossible to catch it all on first viewing. Those films are fast because they’re fueled by so much creativity that you can see their ideas bursting off the screen. “Mutant Mayhem” is fast because it thinks it should be. There’s a difference. Using its hyperactive nature to disguise how there’s not much going on, “Mutant Mayhem” is a pretty shallow venture thematically. Having said that, it also has undeniably strong visuals and enough creative voice work to make it tolerable on a hot August day when families need an air-conditioned theater for a few hours. I wish the mayhem of it all led somewhere more rewarding.

Yes, it’s another origin story. Despite being the seventh film to feature these characters, Rowe and co-writers Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg go back to the beginning of the TMNT saga, opening with a scientist named Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) creating the infamous ooze that turns ordinary creatures into mutants. When the authorities break into Baxter’s basement lair, the ooze is spilled into the sewers, and the rest is comic book history as a quartet of turtles becomes fast-talking humanoid creatures named Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon).

Fans of the franchise know that the turtles are nothing without their leader, Splinter (Jackie Chan), a rat who was also transformed by the ooze and became the father to the teenage mutants after teaching them the ninja skills to protect themselves. Splinter is extremely overprotective, ordering the boys to stay away from human beings at all costs or risk being milked by them (don't ask). A flashback reveals that Splinter tried to introduce himself and the turtles to the humans, but they were somewhat understandably terrified. Now they all live underground, as the turtles sneak out to get supplies and wish they could have a normal teenage life beyond the sewers.

Meanwhile, one of Baxter’s experiments responds very differently to the chasm between the human race and the mutants now living underground. Whereas Splinter wants to hide, Superfly (Ice Cube) wants something closer to vengeance. He’s assembled a group of mutants that include Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Rocksteady (John Cena), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), Ray Fillet (Post Malone), Bebop (Seth Rogen), and Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd). Throw in Maya Rudolph as a mysterious figure trying to find the turtles and Ayo Edebiri as April, the human being who befriends the turtles and tries to introduce them to the above-ground world, and you have a stellar voice cast. Once Superfly and his cadre of creatures join the action, “Mutant Mayhem” gets exponentially more fun as each great actor is allowed fun voice beats to shine.

The visuals of “Mutant Mayhem” also explode when Superfly and his gang join in the fun as the animators bring their A-game to creative character designs that recall the source material but also pop on the big screen. The entire film has that “Spider-Verse” aesthetic that looks like a comic book come to life. The characters can go from simple animation that looks hand-drawn to something more like stop-motion animation and then back again in a manner that keeps the film visually engaging.

I just wish those visuals got more depth from their characters and story beats. "Mutant Mayhem" is ultimately a coming-of-age film, the story of four teenagers who discover a reality they want to live in between Splinter’s overprotectiveness and Superfly’s anger. While that’s an interesting theme, and it’s nice to see a version of this franchise take the word “teenage” seriously, it’s also pretty light for kids and their parents who can handle more complex themes. It feels like there’s a variation on this script that takes as many risks as the visuals do instead of going predictably from point A to point B in the coming-of-age playbook. 

Most damagingly, as ridiculous as this may sound, we really don’t learn enough about the turtles, who are reduced to one or two traits as they're pushed along the action track of the movie. De facto leader Leonardo is the most responsible of the crew and develops a crush on April. The other three barely even get that much development. Of course, not everything can be “Mitchells” or “Spider-Verse,” but those films grounded pieces of the coming-of-age genre even as they raced through their stories. Maybe it's a product of my age or lack of energy drink intake, but “Mutant Mayhem” too often just feels hyper.

In theatres on August 2nd.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem movie poster

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)

Rated PG

99 minutes

Cast

Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo (voice)

Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo (voice)

Micah Abbey as Donatello (voice)

Brady Noon as Raphael (voice)

Jackie Chan as Splinter (voice)

Ayo Edebiri as April O'Neil (voice)

Ice Cube as Superfly (voice)

Seth Rogen as Bebop (voice)

John Cena as Rocksteady (voice)

Paul Rudd as Mondo Gecko (voice)

Natasia Demetriou as Wingnut (voice)

Rose Byrne as Leatherhead (voice)

Director

Writer

Characters

Story

Producer

Original Music Composer

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