After several failed live-action attempts, it seems as if Hollywood has finally realised that 6ft tall, nunchuck-wielding, roided-out reptilians shouldn’t ever exist outside of animation. Thank god. When the foam latex masks of the Nineties live-action films graduated into Michael Bay’s uncanny CGI creations of the 2010s, responses shifted from mild unease to full-blown horror. Tipping its hat to that inauspicious past, with a brief blast of Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap”, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem blends a hyper-aware but affectionate love of the franchise’s past with the look and lingo of the present. It’s learnt all the right lessons from the current Spider-Verse craze.
Director Jeff Rowe had already adopted the Spider-Verse “computer animation as hand-drawn concept art” ethos for his own The Mitchells vs the Machines in 2021. Here, he chucks in the raw, slightly misshapen quality of adolescent doodles – a sort of artful ugliness, that envisions New York City as one gigantic, blacklight-coloured laser quest venue. You imagine every floor is at least a little bit sticky. Mutant Mayhem, like The Mitchells vs the Machines or Puss in Boots: The Last Wish before it, suggests that studios are actually allowing animation filmmakers to do more than thoughtlessly hop on the latest trend. The film looks exactly how a franchise born out of the independent comic book scene and bolstered by Saturday morning cartoons should look.
It’s also clearly written by millennials with a childhood love of these pizza-scarfing crime fighters – specifically Rowe, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit – but feels convincingly tailored to the incoming generations Z and Alpha, too. The origins of our heroes – four baby turtles exposed to a nuclear agent known as “the ooze”, then raised by a rat trained in the art of ninjutsu – remains firmly tongue-in-cheek. It’s also in keeping with the desires of original creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to parody superhero conventions as a whole.
And, refreshingly, these teenage turtles are now actually voiced by teenagers. As a result, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr), and Raphael (Brady Noon) sound convincingly young and dumb. When Leonardo claims he’s got “rizz” (for the oldies, that means “flirtatious charm”), it doesn’t sound four years out of date – a near-miracle in the world of studio filmmaking. And when they all start chanting “bacon, egg, and cheese”, it’s with the impenetrable chaos of four siblings so close that they’ve concocted their own dialect.
The film’s starry quality comes from its supporting cast: not only is the turtles’ rodent patriarch, Splinter, voiced by Jackie Chan, but they find themselves up against a crew of zoological mutants born out of the same “ooze” that made them. Superfly (Ice Cube) is their leader, joined by Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Rocksteady (John Cena), Bebop (Rogen), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), Ray Fillet (rapper Post Malone), and Mondo Gecko (a totally rad, scene-stealing Paul Rudd). The Bear’s Ayo Edibiri, meanwhile, voices April O’Neil, journalist and longtime human ally of the turtles, with her winning, trademark deadpan, allowing the standard straight woman of this franchise to have a little fun of her own.
The film pitches Superfly against the turtles in a sort of Magneto vs Professor X dispute over whether the oppressed and marginalised should seek vengeance or acceptance from society. It’s hardly revolutionary stuff, but Mutant Mayhem’s script never pretends otherwise. All it knows is that these sorts of movies need just a smattering of sincerity and humanity to soar. And, for a franchise that’s never had the best track record on the big screen, it’s exactly the makeover the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles needed.
Dir: Jeff Rowe. Starring: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr, Brady Noon, Nicolas Cantu, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Ayo Edebiri. PG, 100 minutes.
‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ is in cinemas from 31 July