Mutant Mayhem review: a gorgeously grimy reintroduction to the TMNT

There has seldom been a moment during the past 20 years when there wasn’t a relatively new spin on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airing on TV, playing in movie theaters, or appearing in comic books, which is part of what made director Jeff Rowe’s Mutant Mayhem animated feature such a curious surprise when it was first announced. With there being so many different modern takes on the characters first created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, it wasn’t all that clear what more that could be done with them that 4Kids, Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, and parent company Paramount hadn’t already tried multiple times over.

Narratively, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is such a classic and straightforward Turtle tale that it’ll ring almost too familiar to anyone who knows the heroes in a half shell — especially those who’ve kept up with the franchise over the past couple of years. But between the movie’s delightfully grimy art direction, its hyper-kinetic action sequences, and its quintet of strong, pointedly youthful lead performances, Mutant Mayhem is also hands down one of the most exciting and definitive outings the Ninja Turtles have ever had.

Set largely in the slime-filled sewers of New York City, Mutant Mayhem tells the slightly updated story of how Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Raphael (Brady Noon), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) grew up to become pizza-munching, anthropomorphic, reptilian crime fighters after being exposed to mutagenic ooze as ordinary baby turtles.

After years of living in secret and being raised by their similarly mutated adoptive rat-turned-father figure, Splinter (Jackie Chan), the boys all know just how dangerous the surface and the humans who call it home can be for people who aren’t considered “normal.” But as teenage boys who’ve spent their entire lives being forced to hide in the shadows and made to practice their ninjutsu arts strictly for self-defense, the brothers can’t help but be curious about the bright, bustling world above that’s always been just out of their reach.

Almost all of the early beats in Mutant Mayhem’s script from Rowe, producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit feel like the movie checking off a list of TMNT basics for newcomers. But it breezes through them with a swift and stylish precision that telegraphs Rowe and co-director Kyler Spears’ razor-sharp sense for crafting the bigger, busier action sequences that come later on and brilliantly showcases Arthur Fong and Tiffany Lam Almack’s absolutely stunning art direction.

While the Ninja Turtles have been varying degrees of cute, “cool,” and alarming, throughout their almost 40-year-long history, there’s always been an innate ick factor to them that’s a big part of their appeal. Mutant Mayhem’s Turtles are still a gaggle of sewer-dwelling teenage boys who don’t clean behind their ears because they’re not entirely sure if they have them. But one of Mutant Mayhem’s most brilliant moves is the way it parlays the TMNT brand’s classic grossness into a more expansive grotesque aesthetic that defines the entire world around the Turtles, but — interestingly — not the Turtles themselves. 

Unlike the Turtles, who — despite being unique in small ways — all share a recognizable symmetrical wholeness, basically every single human who appears in Mutant Mayhem is rendered as a kind of artfully bizarre nightmare person whose faces all feel like reflections of the city (and humanity’s) ugliness. It’s as true of the innocent strangers the Turtles sneak by during their bodega runs as it is of ​​Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph) — the villainous head of the research lab desperately trying to replicate the process that led to the mutagenic ooze’s creation. But it’s not at all the case with high school student April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), whose chance encounter with the Turtles one evening gives them all hope that they might finally have a shot at making some real new friends.

Occasionally, Mutant Mayhem might feel a bit too packed with pop culture and brand references for its own good — particularly to older theatergoers who lived through previous corporate marketing blitzes designed to turn people into lifelong Turtles fans. But everything about Mutant Mayhem’s quippy sense of humor, its scribbly / sketchy visual language, and its focus on the Turtles’ obsession with the surface is meant to remind you that — in addition to being mutant ninjas — they’re a bunch of goofy kids whom actual children are meant to be able to relate to in an organic way.

It’s exactly the sort of vibe that a reboot meant to kick off a new era of films and spinoff series should have, and while it remains to be seen whether Paramount can really keep this momentum going long term, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the studio’s absolutely knocked it out of the park.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem also stars Ice Cube, Giancarlo Esposito, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Hannibal Buress, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou, Post Malone, and Paul Rudd. The movie’s in theaters now.

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz