TEXAS, USA — The pre-CGI scrappiness of the 1990s, the self-seriousness of the 2000s, Michael Bay’s superhero jaunts of the 2010s… “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” may very well be fueled by copious amounts of juvenile, thick-crust-with-extra-cheese-please sensibility, but you’d be hardshell-pressed to find a property this side of Bond or Batman whose cinematic evolution so closely mirrors Hollywood’s aesthetic tastes du jour over the last three decades.
And so it continues with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” an effortlessly fun late-summer offering doubling as proof that even the most hyperspecific concept can be stretched by filmmakers in new directions. In “Mutant Mayhem,” that means tugging our favorite quartet of crimefighting reptiles into the realm of animation for the first time since 2007’s “TMNT”—more specifically, the electrifying blend of hand-drawn and computer-generated wizardry that marked “Into the Spider-Verse” a watershed moment for the medium in 2018 before granting a spectacular dimension to “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish'' that they otherwise might've lacked. The sheer kineticism rejuvenated a Spider-Man property we all assumed was past its prime, and it asserts itself in “Mutant Mayhem” faster than you can say “Cowabunga!”
So eye-meltingly harmonious is the union of style and story that for the first time in several big-screen tries this franchise feels confident enough to embrace the weirdness audiences expect of it in the moment – right there in the multiplex – rather than succumbing to the anxiety of wondering how it’ll be perceived by those who look back in five, 10 or 20 years. Miles Morales swung through New York City so Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael could run through the sewers underneath it…
…and leap, and slash, and somersault between city buildings, too, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the “Spider-Verse” movies, though that isn’t to say the the style introduced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller is at risk of wearing out its welcome so soon. This animation style that closes the gap between filmmakers’ imaginations and the final product, it turns out, has a versatility of its own: Whereas “Into the Spider-Verse” was inflected with neon, its characters nicely shaded and its settings sleekly imagined, “Mutant Mayhem” looks inkier, gloopier, heavier, more haphazard. The effect is such that we’re observing the city through the perspective of the mutant brothers who for 15 years have stolen precious minutes above-ground where they can, drinking in human civilization and daydreaming of being part of it despite the warnings of their adoptive mutant-rat father Splinter (here voiced by Jackie Chan, ironic given it's a much more genteel version of the black-belt-wearing character than we’re used to).
The turtles, then, may be embarking on a mission when we meet them, but it isn’t to stop the Foot clan or foil Shredder’s plans… it’s for a regularly scheduled grocery run pulled off under the cover of night, with a convincingly youthful gusto and joyful spontaneity that helps make “Mutant Mayhem” not just a great action-comedy, but one of the year’s most convincing coming-of-age stories. For one thing, the kid turtles look and sound and move like actual kids – can you believe it! – for what feels like the first time. It’s a wonder the “TMNT” property needed to do some growing up before embracing its core adolescence, and that an ostensibly obvious decision like casting four voice actors under the age of 20 (Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu and Brady Noon) would have such a trickle-down effect through the rest of the movie, but here we are. In “Mutant Mayhem” it’s a gift that keeps on giving any time the lanky, impulsive and lovingly awkward turtle bros remind us this is a braces-wearing, joyfully spontaneous antithesis to 2014’s testosterone-fueled “Turtles” take, which felt too much like it was trying to measure up to the MCU in its prime.
“Mutant Mayhem” – directed by Jeff Rowe, who co-directed and co-wrote “Mitchells vs. the Machines” – places no such burden on itself. The result is a freewheeling time at the movies, and a familiar yet moving allegory of community that plays to the strengths of its dynamic voice cast and a comedic tone willing to rub against the edges of PG-rated decency. In a sly early twist, we realize the iconic weapons we identify our favorite turtles by amount merely to cosplay (at least at movie’s start) for a gang of brothers so isolated that they can only perceive the outside world through the pop culture touchstones they’ve presumably ingested underneath it. BTS, Drake, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the Forza racing videogame—all are referenced here, but not in the eye-rolling way that betrays a lack of effort by the script.
Instead the writers of “Mutant Mayhem” (a who’s-who of comedy veterans that includes, appropriately enough, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) find hilarious entry points into the storytelling tropes you expect from a story centered on outsiders longing to fit in with the world; it effectively conveys the melancholic irony of living in New York City but being forbidden from being a part of New York City, right down to Splinter's paranoia that the turtles will be, uh, milked if captured (just roll with it). The visuals thoughtfully shape the perspective; take the turtles’ shells themselves, which looks suspiciously like loose-fitting spandex they have yet to fill out.
The stakes do inevitably rise, as they must, when we come across a man-sized fly (voiced by Ice Cube) who’s had a taste of the same secret ooze that turned the turtles into walking, talking human hybrids. Like our budding buttkickers, Superfly has had some rough experiences with the human world. Unlike them, he doesn’t want to fit in so much as overtake humans with a global army of mutants (the scene where we meet his accomplices, including Paul Rudd's surfer-dude lizard, is a highlight). Get in line, pal: Superfly's motives are nothing new, which doesn't matter so much as the screen-busting charisma Ice Cube imbues him with.
The scope of Superfly’s scheme is big, but not distractingly so. Even as the movie evolves into a kaiju-sized version of itself, it retains a personality scrappy enough for you to remember that the world is never really endangered so much as the turtles’ potential for finding their own place in it is. Their budding partnership with April (summer 2023 MVP Ayo Edebiri, of “The Bear,” “Theater Camp” and “Bottoms”), the human high schooler driven to pursue the truth if only to rehab an unfortunate reputation at school, helps drive home “Mutant Mayhem’s” main angle on heroism: It often grows from much smaller, but no less primal desires. How funny that this movie about the most inexperienced TMNT crew we’ve yet to see at the movies manages to feel the most mature.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is rated PG for sequences of violence and action, language and impolite material. It's in theaters now. Runtime: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears; written by Rowe, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit
Starring Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon