The Spider-Verse style, as many call it, is becoming a source of inspiration across various animation studios. Yet, few feel like an imitation of what the Spider-Verse crew innovated. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish blended Spider-Verse vibes with a storybook aesthetic. The Mitchells vs. the Machines gave a notebook of doodles a state-of-the-art twist. Jeff Rowe, who co-directed Mitchells, brings a similar visual flair to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. It’s grittier than the aforementioned films, which is appropriate for characters who live in the sewers. Yet, Mutant Mayhem is every bit as dazzling as Mitchells or Spider-Verse. It’s an unlikely equilibrium that suits the moral about not judging a book by its cover.
I know what some of you might be thinking. A moral in a Ninja Turtles movie? Some may see the heroes in a half shell as an excuse to sell toys. Technically, the 1987 animated series was created as a means to promote the toy line. Over the decades, though, we’ve seen the turtles evolve (and devolved in the case of the Michael Bay-produced movies). Through the highs and lows, though, the turtles have remained prevalent. Mutant Mayhem is not only a love letter to longtime fans, but it takes these characters to another level. It’s reminiscent of Kung Fu Panda, turning a seemingly goofy concept into something meaningful.
Mutant Mayhem even features a KFP alumnus with Jackie Chan voicing Splinter. Chan’s Splinter is more overprotective than the character’s past incarnations. He’d rather his adopted turtle sons use their ninjutsu to stay in the shadows rather than fight crime. Yet, the turtles long to be on the surface where the people are. The turtles themselves are voiced by actual teenagers with Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo, Brady Noon as Raphael, Micah Abbey as Donatello, and Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo. The cast recorded dialogue together, and you can tell that every session was a blast. This creates a genuine rapport between the brothers with the occasional improv also capturing the Ninja Turtles spirit.
Ayo Edebiri continues her winning streak as April O’Neil, a teenage journalist looking to restore her reputation after a vomit incident. The ultimate testament to this movie’s quality, the filmmakers make the vomit scene work! Investigating a mutant crime ring, April enlists her new friends to uncover the identity of a mysterious foe called Superfly (Ice Cube). This paves the way for energetic action, clever comedy, and a climax worthy of Ghostbusters. It’s all tied together by an invigorating animation style that colors outside the lines. This offbeat touch ties into the film’s central theme of acceptance.
Seth Rogen, who reteams with writing/producer partner Evan Goldberg, made his debut on Freaks and Geeks. Akin to that high school dramedy, Mutant Mayhem embraces the oddities you’d often find eating pizza alone in the cafeteria. This leads to a heartfelt resolution that – without spoiling anything – takes the characters to uncharted territory. It caps off what’s easily the best TMNT movie since 1990. Does that make Mutant Mayhem the best incarnation of Ninja Turtles to date?
It’s hard to compete with the 2012 series, which balanced the darker elements of the comics and live-action films with the comedy of the 1987 cartoon. Of course, the 2012 show also had five seasons to flesh out its characters and story. Paramount is already planning to expand upon Mutant Mayhem with a sequel and streaming series. Time will only tell where this version goes, but Mutant Mayhem is an exceptional launching point. It’s also an ideal introduction for newcomers. Even if you weren’t a diehard fan growing up, Mutant Mayhem reminds us not to pass preconceived judgment, even when the title is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.