Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
The stylistic animation oozes passion. The script and characters? Cowa-bummer.
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At the mention of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most of us probably think of them eating pizza, skating sewerways, and cracking wise while cracking down on crime. Phrases like “Radical, dudes!” and “Cowabunga!” Some might also think of the infectious power of merchandising, and how the Turtles were a seemingly unstoppable source of toys, lunchboxes, and more throughout the ‘90s. Heck, TMNT still sells well today. Clearly.
Maybe I’m just a big ol’ nerd. (I mean, I am—no “maybe” required.) Maybe it’s just my love of the Turtles meeting my love of cinematic storytelling. But when I think of them, I think of family, duty, discipline, and most importantly, the power of embracing our individual differences to become stronger together. And yes, pizza, wisecracks, and lunchboxes too.
I’ve always found the Turtles, despite their conception as a parody of ‘80s comic book storytelling, to be an endlessly mineable source of great stories about teamwork and empathy—about the importance of seeking out mutual understanding of those right in front of us with the same curiosity as that with which we seek to understand the world beyond our door (or manhole cover). Underneath a carapace of oddball humor and ninja action, the best Turtles stories are driven by heart and brotherhood.
Those are the things I’m thinking about when I reflect on their latest feature iteration, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, and unfortunately, I’m not sure that is to the film’s benefit.
In this film, we meet the titular turtles as relative novices in the ninja game—and fresh on the pubescent forefront of the “teenage” part too. Classically, Leonardo (Nicholas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and Raphael (Brady Noon) live in the sewers with their adoptive father Splinter (Jackie Chan), a mutant rat who has spent much of his life studying martial arts and passing it on to his sons.
On a daily basis, Splinter assigns the brothers “missions,” which mostly consist of mundane tasks, like grocery shopping, with a stealth twist—do not be seen by humans. Live in the shadows, move like the wind, grab me some eggs. Leo, the de facto leader of the quartet (much to the others’ chagrin), tries to make each errand feel as important as he can. But his brothers see through the façade of ninja discipline and yearn to be truly out in the world. If he’s being honest with himself, so does Leo.
The apparent brainchild of comedy writer-producer duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and directed by The Mitchells vs. the Machines helmer Jeff Rowe, Mutant Mayhem seems to be aiming for a two-pronged approach: on one hand, update the Turtles and their world for a 2023 audience, and on the other, return them to their roots—if not in tone, then at least by making them actual teenagers again.
On both fronts, I think it’s relatively successful. It feels like a natural rendition of what a TMNT movie would look and sound like for Gen Z. Throughout the early parts of the film, the brothers’ banter showcases a script stuffed end-to-end with the kind of hyperactive, mile-a-minute comedy that has dominated recent animated films through the likes of The Lego Movie, Spider-Verse, and Mitchells—in essence, the “Lord & Miller” style.
Not to mention, of course, an art style that borrows heavily from Spider-Verse, but which also makes itself distinct through rougher textures, a darker palette, and a heavier emphasis on hand-drawn, chicken-scratchy line work. Even amongst the many very pretty Spider-Verse-adjacent films of the last few years, Mutant Mayhem stands out as a uniquely impressive piece of animation.
The film also commits to portraying the Turtles as being realistically in the same developmental space as its target audience. Cantu, Abbey, Brown, and Noon all sound like kids (they are), and they effectively imbue that spirit into the characters. Meanwhile, the script makes abundant references to pop-culture touchstones like Avengers: Endgame, Attack on Titan, and Shrek, making it clear that this is a “modern” TMNT story, rooted firmly in the 21st century.
But somewhere along the way, in the process of evolving TMNT for a new generation and emphasizing the Turtles’ youth, some of my favorite elements that make these characters unique and memorable are distilled out in order to make room for myriad recurring gags and a plethora of “pick me” references to other properties.
Often, Mutant Mayhem doesn’t feel specific enough, as though these four brothers could be any four adolescent brothers at the center of any comedy adventure film. Rowe, Rogen, and Goldberg seem more interested in going for every laugh at every possible juncture, or squeezing in one more nod to the movies and music of today, than in enhancing our understanding of the characters or capturing what really makes them special and still worth exploring 40 years after their creation.
One night, while out on another of Splinter’s errands, the Turtles get their chance to do something meaningful with their ninjutsu skills when they witness a fellow teenager, aspiring high school journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), losing her scooter to some thugs. In the process of chasing down the scooter, and with the help of April’s investigative insight, the boys find themselves at the door of a criminal organization, comprised almost entirely of other mutants.
This mutant gang is led by Superfly (Ice Cube), a bulked-up human-housefly hybrid created by the same radioactive ooze that turned the Turtles into mutants 15 years ago. Under his leadership are a whole cavalcade of bizarre, mutated creatures, from fan-favorite pig-rhino duo Bebop and Rocksteady (Rogen and John Cena) to deeper cuts into TMNT lore, including Aussie alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), the musically-inclined manta Ray Fillet (Post Malone), and too many other wacky creatures to name, each one voiced by another surprising star.
The Turtles are enamored to find another group of creatures like them: mutants who belong in neither animal kingdom nor human society. Rejected by the rest of the world, Superfly’s gang has a mission of their own: to force humanity to accept them, either murdering or mutating anyone who would oppose.
The intersection the film reaches here, between found familiarity and righteous duty, is probably the film’s strongest aspect, and it makes a good case for centering this turtle tale around the existence of other mutants. It gives the Turtles something to immediately relate to beyond their sewers while simultaneously drawing out their drive to protect the innocent, even if it means standing in the way of their mutant brethren.
But like almost every other dramatic element, this mutant dilemma is given the minimum airtime needed to justify its inclusion. We don’t get to see any of the brothers really reckon with their conflicted feelings about the surface world, what it means to be a mutant, or why they do what they do. I think of the quiet contemplation of the farmhouse scene in the 1990 film. There’s nothing like that here, because there’s no room; sorry, another “milking” joke just ate up that runtime.
Really, we don’t get any kind of internal perspective from the brothers at all, save for Leo, in the mildest way. Even that is almost entirely summed up in one early joke from his brothers paid off by a slightly more sentimental callback toward the end.
Raph, Donnie, and Mikey are even less studied as individuals. Raph apparently has “rage issues” that we never really see—he just, kinda… enjoys fighting? (Don’t they all?) Donnie is too young to be a tech-wiz, I guess, so he never really “does machines” save for a fleeting moment in the finale. And Mikey gets the shortest shrift, his role as free-spirited class clown made virtually invisible by the fact that all four of them are made equal vessels for the script’s constant comedy.
Splinter is also an unfortunate casualty of preoccupied writing. Chan plays the character with an ungodly amount of adorable charm, which is wonderful. But like his sons, Splinter feels more just like any cartoon dad, rather than the stern and dogmatic sensei with a soft heart. He’s primarily played for jokes until the end of the second act when he finally gets to join the fray, but at that point, he’s an undercooked and unnecessary addition to the conflict at hand.
I really don’t mind “jokey” screenplays, especially in animated movies designed for children! I often roll my eyes at the reductive, tired criticism of superhero films being “too quippy”—even though, yes, sometimes, they can be. But to invoke Spider-Verse once again, those films are quite literally perfect examples of how a movie can pack a ton of heart and a ton of laughs into one space. This style of rapid-fire comedy writing doesn’t have to come at the cost of an emotional through-line.
I have to imagine children will enjoy this more than I did. It’s vibrant, moves quickly, and has no shortage of characters who look and sound unique. But I find it hard to settle for “Well, it’s a kids movie!” when there have been so many recent examples of animated films that resonate meaningfully with all ages. Besides, kids loved Mario; what do they know?
In Mutant Mayhem, drama and relationships—even the Turtles themselves—feel like an afterthought. Emotional beats are slim, late, and under-developed. All things "serious" in the story are tacked-on, and all four brothers feel vaguely the same. Gorgeous animation and quick wit do most of the leg work in making this a frothy adventure that some might enjoy, while others will find it half-shelled.
It’s a shame to be in the latter camp, as I happen to share Rogen and Goldberg’s belief in the Turtles’ staying power. But given their apparent disinterest in emphasizing what exactly that power is, Mutant Mayhem is a bit of a “Cowa-bummer” for me, dudes.