Ever since their creation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has remained one of the oddest cultural phenomenons in popular culture. They started as an underground, independent comic by Kevin Eastaman and Peter Laird, but quickly grew in popularity due to the Fred Wolf produced cartoon series and associated toy line. For the past forty years, the Ninja Turtles have been reimagined and reconsidered in almost every imaginable medium, from comics to TV shows and movies, to videogames and a cult classic tabletop roleplaying game, and of course countless toys upon toys.

The latest iteration comes from producer Seth Rogen and director Jeff Rowe, the cumbersomely named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. The benefit that Rogen and Rowe have is those forty years of iterations and re-imaginings, which range from straight-faced action melodrama to tongue-in-cheek shenanigans. It gives them a wide range of inspiration to draw from. Luckily, they have the vision to pull from most of it without undermining any one aspect. They don’t shy away from the absurdism of the very premise, but also play it mostly straight.  This approach provided what may be seen as the definitive vision for the long-running franchise, paying respects to its origins but also paving a way for a birth future. It also has created the best Ninja Turtles film to date.

As with all Ninja Turtle reboot, some specifics have to be set into place. Our titular heroes started as normal turtles who were exposed to a mysterious mutagen which they refer to as “ooze”. Thankfully so was Splinter (voiced brilliantly by Jackie Chan,) a lonely and cautious New York City rat who takes on the role of being their father. Due to his own anxiety and fear of humanity, Splinter teaches the turtles martial arts, and emphasizes the need for them to stay out of sight from humans. Inevitably though, they long for connection, and the closest option is normal human existence. Namely, they want to go to high school, or the romanticized version of high school they know from John Hughes movies.

Luckily for the turtles, they meet normal human teen April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) who is an aspiring youth journalist. They see her support as the bridge to normal teenagerdom and a possibility for public fame, while she sees them as the scoop to make her name. Together they investigate the mysterious criminal kingpin Superfly (Ice Cube). To their shock however, her turns out to be an actual giant fly, another mutant like the turtles who has his own plans on how to deal with an indifferent human world.

There is a lot more world building in Mutant Mayhem, but none of it is overcrowded or feels bloated. Rather it all flows together and creates a massive world that is great table setting for a new take on the world of the mutants. The brilliant move that Rowe and Rogen fall upon that sets their vision aside is leaning into the teenaged aspect of the TMNT formula. By using actual teenagers as the voice actors for the four star turtles, and giving them space to improvise and riff off of each other in real time, it gives the atmosphere of the story a lighter, breezier mood. It also taps into the playful anxiety that is at the center of the turtles’ story. The characters all reflect their knowable versions (Leonardo the teacher’s pet leader, Raphael the rageaholic, Donatello the tech geek and Mikey the goofball), but somehow feel more genuine than ever before because they are given the space to breathe 

The other inspired choice the film makes is tapping into TMNT’s history as an underground comic, specifically in an exaggerated, borderline grotesque art style and production design that feels like the sketches in the margins of a notebook. This gives the film a punk rock, street level aesthetic that taps into the roots of the franchise but also feels like a fresh, untapped direction. In a clever twist, the most unsettling artwork is dedicated to the human characters in the film, with strange asymmetrical features and leering eyes. There is a joy in the oddity of it all that is infectious.

There are other parts that all add up to a holistic whole that is a thrilling new take on an evergreen playset. The Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score melds perfectly with a needle-drop wonderland of classic 90s hip-hop tracks. The humor is sharp and winning, as are the flashy fighting sequences. In total it creates an exciting cinematic experience that celebrates the anarchic core of one of pop culture’s strangest stories, and the end result is thrilling and singular: an adventure that is in a single breathe refreshing and nostalgic.

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