Before diving into the New York City sewer system via a manhole cover to explore the living quarters of 4 teenaged, mutated turtles and their mutant rat father, I want to know what the music budget for Mutant Mayhem is because it passes the vibe check with flying colors. Full of early to late 90’s and 00’s R&B and Hip-Hop that are placed perfectly to where the tracks are used during a scene to immediately set the tone. These turtles have great taste in music if this is what they go out on adventures to. And then there’s the score by the Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who double down on a full musical emersion – when the music plays, Mutant Mayhem is the type of party you want to be at.
Now back to the topic at hand, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and the 4 mutant turtles named after Italian renaissance artists Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicholas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon). All of whom are adopted, fathered and overly protected by Splinter (Jackie Chan). No wonder they crave pizza every day. When we first meet the turtles they are on a very important mission, their eyes are whited out and self-proclaimed leader of the group Leonardo uses a mysterious deep voice to assign the nights grocery pick-ups.
Batman voice aside, director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) establishes the one prevailing theme throughout his film – acceptance. From an early age Splinter has sheltered his sons from the world because mutants are not looked at favorably by humankind and in doing so trained the turtles in martial arts for protection – each turtle mastering a different weapon. This in turn causes the turtles to aspire to become heroes and assimilate in the world which would result in humans accepting the turtles for who they are not what they look like.
They are teenagers after all and what do teenagers do best when told not to do something that is unacceptable by a parent or guardian? They do the opposite, they rebel, sneaking out after dark to do exactly what they were told to avoid at all costs – curiosity gets the better of the turtles who attend free movie screenings in the park, practice their sick martial arts moves on the roof and record them, and daydream about life if they were accepted by society. One being going to high school and getting girlfriends.
To become the heroes the turtles aspire to be, they come across beautiful human girl April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), aspiring journalist who turns the turtles onto a string of criminal activity around New York led by the mysterious Superfly (O’Shea Jackson Sr.). Soon the turtles learn that Superfly is also a mutant derived from the same scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) who created the ooze that mutated the turtles the gang that Superfly protects. For once, the turtles feel like they belong – they finally feel accepted after meeting this gang of mutated animals.
In the sea of this truly remarkable ensemble cast that includes Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogan (co-writer), John Cena, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou (kind of meta to have Natasia voice a mutated bat named Wingnut), Austin Post, and Paul Rudd, only a couple stand out among them all. Aside from the turtle actors, O’Shea Jackson commands the screen behind his powerful voice, adding in his California style and hip-hop jargon into the mix. Almost eclipsing Jackson is Paul Rudd who brings his own laid back surfer vibe as Modo Gecko (picture his Forgetting Sarah Marshall character Kunu).
But all these talented names don’t hold a slice of pepperoni pizza to the turtles and their respective actors. Being that “teenage” is one of the very descriptive identifiers of these turtles, having actual teenagers provide the voices only elevates their performances. All four recording their lines together, feeding off each other’s energy jumps off the screen, the chemistry is organic and natural keeping you on your toes to hear every little nuance from their interactions and dialogue proving it was the right move to shift to a younger actor for these roles. Written by Rogan, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, Benji Sami, and Jeff Rowe, the dialogue pops, keeping a modern touch to today’s generation while featuring comedy that an older fan of the turtles can appreciate.
There is one joke that repeats throughout that sticks the landing every single time. Mutant Mayhem will only further benefit from its diehard fans and a packed theater.
Undoubtedly the comparisons Mutant Mayhem will get to Across the Spider-Verse will make some noise, though both share very similar animation styles, Mutant Mayhem feels very much in its own lane. Featuring a style that can be found in a high schoolers notebook, the animation has some shine and polish to it, despite staying on the darker side of the contrast wheel. Considering both films, animation has taken a giant leap forward for what the medium can accomplish but that’s where the comparison should stop. Mutant Mayhem looks clean with a grime and grit washed over it – colors bleed outside the lines and the design of the turtles are immaculate.
At its core, the theme of acceptance is something we all experience in our lives. It comes at the same age these turtles are – grade school and continues from there. But countering the longing for acceptance comes the fear of rejection. Splinter holds onto this fear from his own experiences, projecting it onto Mikey, Leo, Donnie and Ralph which does more damage than letting the world take the turtles as they are. The writing team establish these themes early on giving weight to its relatability – we all cling to this feeling of being accepted by strangers despite our differences – the message is conveyed from all characters, even superfly who has a more negative view than Splinter.
Overall, Mutant Mayhem packs so much up into a compact runtime. The lighthearted tone is given just enough emotional heft to its shell to balance the comedy and the four leading performances of Abbey, Brown Jr., Cantu, and Noon steal the show with their charm, nuance and humor. In the world of TMNT, Mutant Mayhem is a step in the right direction for a franchise that sorely needed a win, and it’s not just a win but a statement that the medium is big enough for more than just a multiverse of spider people.
Screenplay By: Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit & Jeff Rowe
Story By: Brendan O’Brien, Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg & Jeff Rowe
Directed By: Jeff Rowe
Music By: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Starring: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Jackie Chan, Ayo Edebiri, Giancarlo Esposito, O’Shea Jackson Sr.
Edited By: Greg Levitan
Release Date: Aug 2, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 40 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Based On: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Peter Laird & Kevin Eastman