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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023) Review: Back to the sewers in style

Mutants evolve, and that’s evident by how many cool versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles we’ve seen over the last four decades. Fans often worry about the changes, how these new versions will look and sound, or if their attitudes feel right, but with every fresh iteration, there are viewers who appreciate them, those who fall in love with the heroes in a half-shell for the first time or all over again and want to shout – Turtle Power!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is that current hotness, the minty new take on our favorite pop culture icons, and a film poised to set a strong standard for the mean green machine going forward. This is the seventh theatrical adventure for the characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, being handled by director Jeff Rowe and a team of writers featuring Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg this time around. It is a re-telling of their origins, re-establishes their relationships with mainstay characters like Splinter and April O’Neil, and sees the brothers fight for acceptance and attempt to save the city of New York, their home, even if they are forced to live under it.

TMNT: Mutant Mayhem

If all four are named after artists, the visuals have to be good, right?

The main thing that was discussed from the release of the first trailer and that seemingly sticks out to everyone who sees the film is the art style. It’s chalky, messy, and a bit crude, as if it was drawn in a high schooler’s notebook, reaching back to something closer to the comic source material while keeping its bold nature. These backgrounds look rich and detailed, but are also scuffed and scratchy, letting the characters pop out without overpowering the scene. It’s something that’s meant to be eagerly chaotic, let outside of the lines, but reigned in with other layers of environmental color, expert shading, and melding. I described it to someone as punk rock and feel like its imperfections are what will keep it in the minds of many viewers for the long term. For me, the only issue was the way the smoke looked, but I was probably alone there.

The story may be the weakest aspect of the movie. This brought the mutants, the mayhem, and a lot of other powerful elements to the table, but just when it feels like there’s something worth digging into, it’s time to move on to the next action scene or setup. That’s not to say the plot is bad, as I found some interesting tidbits in there and enjoyed seeing what a solid TMNT film looks like without Shredder (remember that TMNT3 failed us all). 

This particular outing is about acceptance, the desire to be a part of the world, and taking chances — all solid themes for these characters. The Turtles occasionally have their moments of crisis, when things feel down or Ralph is hurt and in a tub, but we rarely see them completely lack confidence. It’s an intriguing story beat here, a younger and less-experienced version of the heroes who want so badly to be citizens of the city. Maybe they get into the hero game for the wrong reasons at first, but watching them grow and rise up to the threat that could have just as easily given them the family they were looking for endears us to these brothers.

These Turtle boys don’t cut him no slack!

Mutant Mayhem has a wealth of energy, and much of that can be credited to the young actors portraying Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and Raphael (Brady Noon). Their camaraderie is infectious, not only because they sound and act like pre-teens, but also because the voice actors apparently recorded in the same room together as well as were encouraged to improvise lines. In several ways, these young performers helped shape the finished version of the film and delivered one of the more realistic and vulnerable iterations of the characters we’ve had yet. 

This brilliant chemistry can be extended to April (Ayo Edebiri) as well, who is now much closer to the boys in age and, instead of feeling simply like a conduit to the outside world, comes across as a resourceful partner. Their overprotective instructor, Master Splinter (Jackie Chan), has a lot of personality in what’s potentially a softer version of their “father,” but also perhaps the funniest as well. A couple of Chan’s lines could have probably used a second take, but overall, he’s quite enjoyable.

The Turtles are handled so incredibly well that I feel odd saying this aspect is also almost a negative. This movie was packed with mutant characters (gotta live up to that title), but it is pretty crowded and took away from some much-needed scenes that could have given audiences more of the main characters, expanding on their quirks, motivations, and relationships. Superfly (Ice Cube) is a fantastic villain for a movie like this and giving him a gaggle of henchmen that the Turtles are envious of was smart, but exploring the main four a bit more in this origin movie may have been the better call.

We have some gnarly fight scenes, ripe with bold colors and a ton of movement. The animation looks great in action and this feels like younger, inexperienced combatants trying their best to subdue the bad guys in frantic situations. The music supports these chaotic scenes spectacularly, especially the score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. The licensed music also hits right, focusing on ‘90s East Coast hip-hop and pop anthems erupting in key moments, tickling that nostalgia itch and nodding to the age of the franchise, while also embracing the new (like a meme in one case). Also, there’s an homage to Old Boy, so it feels like the ambition was totally there.

There really aren’t a ton of flaws to point out in the movie, as Mutant Mayhem is built well and plays perfectly to new and old fans. I loved the old references (especially to the action figures) and nods at the end to the future films and television shows that have been discussed. My hope is that they stay on track. As I sat there watching the movie, I wondered about the kids sitting a few rows behind us, if they felt the same way watching this TMNT as I did with the first one back in 1990. It’s an amazing feeling that created a long-lasting memory for me, and I want that for them as well. That’s why I want more of these.

I made it through this entire review without yelling Cowabunga somehow, but it is heavily implied.


Posted in Reviews