From left to right, Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael return in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
LOS ANGELES, July 27 (UPI) — The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have touched several generations since the ’80s. The animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, in theaters Wednesday, is faithful to their characters — with a modern day twist.
Fifteen years after a raid on Baxter Stockman’s (voice of Giancarlo Esposito) lab, mutated turtles have grown up in the New York sewers, hiding from humans.
Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu) and Raphael (Brady Noon) team up with TV news writer April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) to stop mutant Superfly (Ice Cube) from terrorizing the city.
Mutant Mayhem embraces the teenage quality of the characters more than any other incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With a voice cast aged 15 to 19, and probably younger when they recorded, the high-pitched voices convey youth.
So, too, does the turtles’ behavior. They are hyper and rebellious and become distracted like teenagers do. Mutant Mayhem keeps their behavior endearing, which is a fine line to walk, especially when all four talk over each other.
The turtles’ “father,” the mutant rat Splinter (Jackie Chan) is more of an overprotective disciplinarian than usual, but it is relevant to the movie’s theme. Splinter tried to go public once and people reacted aggressively in fear toward human-sized talking animals.
So, the turtles hope that if they stop Superfly, they might be welcomed back as heroes — a childlike idea of winning acceptance by performing tasks for approval.
The young characters will learn that that kind of acceptance is fickle, too, and that doing the right thing can bring more positive rewards, whether those include popularity or not.
April, too, has an embarrassing high school experience to overcome, which is both funny and sympathetic.
Mutant Mayhem handles Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Easter eggs much more subtly than many nostalgic movies. References to the original comic books and ’90s movies don’t stop the movie to say, “Look at this reference!”
Those references play as seamless aspects of the scene. For longtime fans who recognize them, they generate genuine surprise, and the fact that they even went to the trouble of incorporating them is humorous.
The turtles are hardly stuck in their own past, though. They talk about recent pop culture that would have been part of their lives since 2008. The turtles and Splinter also use cell phones now.
Splinter’s story has an irreverent way of explaining the turtles’ origins. Mutant Mayhem leaves out the explanation that Splinter named them all after painters, but also has fun celebrating the absurd notion of mutated animals doing martial arts.
The animation style feels like perhaps a young artist is drawing this story, though the team of artists making Mutant Mayhem are much more sophisticated. Scribbles and brush strokes are visible in the skies and walls.
Most important, the style makes the turtles and other mutant animals look cute again. The last live-action movies used visual effects to make the turtles monstrous. Flashbacks look even more childlike, as if perhaps someone is drawing them with crayons.
Animated fights seem to be designed with respect to live-action gravity and physics. Their moves mimic plausible martial arts until the finale transitions into a giant monster movie.
The most impressive Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies were the live-action ’90s trilogy in which actual martial artists did choreography while wearing turtle costumes. They’re never going to do that again, so Mutant Mayhem offers a fun new way to reinterpret the Turtles.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.