The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
It took the better part of four decades, at least two separate reboots (three, depending on how you’re counting) for Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles to finally receive the big-screen treatment they’ve always deserved and yet – somehow inexplicably – they haven’t received until writer-producer Seth Rogen, his longtime writing-producing partner/lifelong friend, Evan Goldberg, and writer-director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Gravity Falls) stepped in to take over a perpetually floundering big-screen franchise.
Of course, the turtles have had ample success in other media beyond their comic-book origins and merchandizing second to none, specifically multiple animated series across those four decades, series that, individually and collectively, primed generations of TV viewers of all ages for the literal heights of movie-theater screens. Why, however, that success has eluded them until now probably has something to do with a lack of, if not ambition, then imagination, relying on crude live-action hybrids (first animatronics, then CGI/mo-caps) to do the serious lifting story- and character-wise.
With Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, that’s no longer true. Despite once again focusing on the turtles and their origin story, the decision to go not just fully animated, but to fully embrace a distinct, rough-hewn style for character designs, backgrounds, and the inevitable set pieces, but to also deliver a layered story involving the bickering protagonists and their distinctly teen, distinctly relatable concerns, while also mirroring those concerns thematically in a villain and his mutant cohort is nothing short of brilliant. That Rogen and company don’t forget to keep the story constantly moving forward while also delivering a fair share of comedic bits and consistently humorous sight gags makes this latest reboot the first film in the series to be actually worthy of a sequel.
After rapidly dispensing with the overly familiar origin story involving a rogue scientist, mutagenic ooze, and said ooze infecting the teens of the title, Leonardo (voiced by Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and their adopted father figure/martial arts mentor, Master Splinter (Jackie Chan), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, skips ahead 15 years. Living in the sewers with dear old xenophobic dad, the turtles have taken his anti-human advice to heart, fearing what they don’t understand and avoiding human contact wherever and whenever possible, running errands in the dead of night while wistfully conjecturing about the human world below.
That desire for connection, adventure, and experience, all universal to the teen experience, drives the turtles’ first meeting with April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), here an enterprising teen reporter for her local high school hoping to get the kind of world-changing scoop that will make her name and her reputation. That she’s trying to overcome an unfortunate on-air incident adds to her relatability; likewise, her natural curiosity when the turtles, springing into action hero mode for the first time, help April recover her stolen scooter.
And thus begins a beautiful friendship between the turtles and their first but by no means last, human ally. Having stumbled into something far greater and far more sinister than a stolen car/scooter ring, the turtles and April find themselves playing detectives to track down the latest in a long series of high-tech machinery being collected by the turtles’ bizarro mirror image, Superfly (Ice Cube), an incredibly bitter human-hater with a typically grandiose, comic-book villain-inspired plan to literally remake the world in his own image.
Superfly’s plan doesn’t win points for originality, but at least it gives Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem the high stakes it needs to put the titular heroes in world-saving mode. Not surprisingly, the set pieces get bigger along the way, allowing Rowe and his team of ultra-talented animators to leverage their imaginations to the highest degree possible. To say the turtles have never looked like they do here is an understatement. To say they’ve never better isn’t one.
The deliberately unfinished, hand-drawn look of the turtles and their environments may just be worth the price of admission alone but add to that engaging storytelling, lively characterizations, and positive, community-centric character arcs, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem qualifies as a win for the turtles without hesitation, reservation, or doubt.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem opens theatrically on Wednesday, August 2nd.