Since 1990, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film has arrived just over once every five years on average, so it stands to reason that eventually one of them wouldn’t be hideous. The most surprising thing about this new cartoon take from Nickelodeon Movies isn’t just that it’s bearable, however: it’s that its makers have gone so far above and beyond the call of churning out another Turtles film that it stands on its own merits as a thrillingly kinetic piece of pop art.
Mutant Mayhem takes its aesthetic cue from the recent Spider-Verse films – and also Netflix’s The Mitchells versus the Machines, where its director Jeff Rowe previously helped pioneer the hybrid old-meets-new-school mode of animation that is deployed again here with such scribbly verve. Watching the reptilian quartet battle a team of rival mutants led by Ice Cube’s fearsome Superfly is like stepping into a felt-tip doodle on a high-schooler’s folder: every frame crackles over with energy and colour; in the best possible way, it actually looks teenage.
For better and worse, it sounds it too, with a script that’s doused in US-centric topical gags and motormouthed wisecracks. (Mercifully, they’re funny for the most part.) Rowe’s co-writers include Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad and Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, and the film’s sense of humour sits precisely at the PG-rated midpoint of those two films’ own.
Besides, it’s hard to complain too much, considering trashiness has always been coded into the Turtles’ DNA, from the gorging on pizzas to the surfer-slang catchphrases. The screenplay’s main achievement isn’t classing up the Turtles – it’s hard to imagine what that would even look like – but rather rewiring their identity in a way that turns them into genuinely interesting cultural objects.
The root of the conceit’s original appeal was arguably its fruit machine randomness – whirr-ping-teenage, whirr-ping-mutant, whirr-ping-ninja, et cetera. But here, from their taste in music to their surprisingly sweet orphan-gang camaraderie, the Turtles feel like organic 1990s urban New York creations.
Like a green-skinned Wu-Tang Clan, their ninja skills stemmed from the vintage kung fu movies they drew inspiration from as kids – and as such, the sizzling Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross synthesised soundtrack is woven through with classic 1990s East Coast hip hop cuts. Jackie Chan even voices their adoptive dad, the giant rat Splinter – and his character gets a distinctively Chan-like fight scene of his own later in the film.
Like all the others, it’s a thrill to watch: witty, vibrant and snappily choreographed, and packed with flourishes that would have only been possible in this still-evolving mash-up style of polished CG modelling and scrappy hand-drawn lines. During one such sequence, a car’s headlights sweep round the interior of a garage, and the way the light plays on the battling characters isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before in the medium. Mutant Mayhem is peppered with such moments: it’s summer-holiday eye candy with a sherbetty experimental fizz.
In cinemas now