I can’t decide if I’m the best person to write this review, or the worst. As a plucky young child, I saw the original Ninja Turtles flicks in the theater and rented them on video. The NES video game was my favorite to rent at Showbiz Video–even if it was hard as hell. (Yes, kids–I can remember the olden days when we pioneers went to the store to rent video game cartridges.) My little boy is gonna be Leonardo for Halloween this year. Long story short, my nostalgia bias could affect my opinion of Mutant Mayhem to an unnatural degree.
And you know what? I don’t much care. This new Turtles movie is the most fun this franchise has had in a long time. Mutant Mayhem finds that sweet spot, plunk in the center of an imaginary Venn diagram: It has enough cool kung fu action for kids, but also enough pop culture riffs to keep parents involved. It’s not too violent for little kids, but nor is it too soft for tweens. Mayhem serves up a little something for everybody.
It also functions as a reboot, unfurling a fresh take on this familiar tale. As with earlier versions, four baby turtles were once exposed to an incandescent ooze, thus mutating them into the anthropomorphic superheroes of the title. Likewise, a sewer rat named Splinter (voice of Jackie Chan) is also irradiated, and becomes their sensei and surrogate father. He correctly figures these mutations will make them outcasts, so he trains the turtles in self-defense and forbids them from human contact. Cut to fifteen years later, and this makeshift family enjoys a happy existence beneath the streets of Manhattan. At the same time, a taste of independence has made the boys hungry for knowledge of the outside world. They begin to rebel against Splinter’s rigid mandates.
And, wouldn’t ya know it? All hell’s about to break loose in NYC! You see, the sludge that supercharged the turtles also created a small army of misfit creatures, and some of them aren’t nearly as benevolent. These beasts are led by Superfly (Ice Cube), a burly, streetwise kingpin with a grudge against humanity. He concocts an evil plan to subjugate mankind and unleash a fury of mutant sea creatures. (Superfly’s goons are voiced by a platoon of celebrity cameos. I won’t spoil them here.)
Meanwhile, the Turtles are just beginning to tiptoe into the surface world. They meet cute with April (voice of Ayo Edebiri), an aspiring reporter with her high school paper. April sees a hot story with these wisecracking amphibians, while they start to suspect that humanity is not all bad. An alliance forms, with the new group determined to stop Superfly and uncover the conspiracy that’s fueling him.
That’s really all the plot you need. Mutant Mayhem was written by a platoon of screenwriters (including Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), and they do a pro job of keeping this meat nice and lean. At 99 minutes, this movie runs the perfect length for short attention spans.
Mayhem will also keep viewers hooked with its amazing visuals. The animation feels like a aesthetic cousin to Sony’s Spider-Verse epics. They may not look alike, but Mayhem deploys the same bravura flourishes: At times, the animation almost takes on the depth and texture of claymation. In other moments, we see the meticulousness (and deliberate flaws) of hand-drawn artwork. As with the Spider flicks, Mayhem displays the best aspects of CGI, and the artisanal gusto of old-school animation. Much like its content, the look of this movie has a little something for everybody.
That goes ditto for the voices. Chan is the perfect choice for Splinter, who finds himself as the flustered father of headstrong teenagers. The film also gets points for casting the turtles (Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Shamon Brown Jr., and Micah Abbey), with voices that sound like actual kids. (Too often, the foursome comes across like post-collegiate surfers.) Edebiri brings jittery ambition to April, the group’s loyal human advocate. I also loved Cube as a hardass housefly. He’s not the voice you’d expect for a Turtles villain, but that’s a big reason it works.
Taken in all, this is probably the best outcome for a story about crime-fighting turtles who love pizza and John Hughes movies. What else could be said for a film that features Ol’ Dirty Bastard and 4 Non Blondes on the same soundtrack? Mutant Mayhem is everything this franchise needed: It’s goofy, self-assured, and deceptively smart. I’ve loved the Ninja Turtles my whole life, and this represents a high point for the heroes in a half shell.
99 min. PG. Paramount Plus.