In a summer where the off-the-boards success of original movies including Barbie and Oppenheimer is all the rage, the seventh-or so feature film iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise wasn’t one with great expectations. Except when you read the credit block and discover the co-writers and producers are none other than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and the director is Jeff Rowe, who most recently was an Oscar nominee for the wildly inventive animated hit The Mitchells vs The Machines.
They have delivered exactly what you might hope they would: a fiendishly clever, funny but appropriately faithful take on a brand that just hasn’t quit since coming into the world as a modest comic book in 1983 from the minds of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. Their little creation has spawned countless comics, TV series, all those feature films, video games, toys, bedsheets — you name it. Several generations have been weaned on them, especially boys, and now we have a new toon that takes pride in emphasizing the teenage in the title. It also has lots of heart.
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Rogen’s and longtime partner Goldberg’s script is heavy on pop culture humor in all the best ways but takes a cue as well from the youth emphasis of the Tom Holland Spider-Man as well as the hit animated versions. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is young to its core, virtually reinventing the concept right down to the casting of the voice actors in the four title roles.
Fans will not be disappointed with any of the decisions here, notably the scattershot animation that feels rough around the edges, stylish, visually surprising and satisfying and anti-CGI blandness. The producers said they were going for a look that a high school student might have drawn for fun in their notebook. It is all on the screen here thanks to Owen, his co-director Kyler Spears, production designer Yashar Kassai and the talented team of animators, particularly the character department.
Storywise, the screenplay written by Rogen, Goldberg and Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit finds New York is being terrorized by criminal mastermind Superfly (voiced ferociously by Ice Cube), one of many mutant creatures determined to end humans any way he can. He plans to do it with his crew — characters that will be familiar to TMNT fans everywhere — including Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Ray Fillet (Post Malone hilariously singing his name), Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou) and Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress). Good buddy Be Bop, the mutated Warthog, is voiced by Rogen, and it isn’t his first rodeo as that particular creature (remember Pumbaa in The Lion King?), and Rock Steady gets life from John Cena.
The plot revolves around TMNT veteran April O’Neil (The Bear Emmy nominee Ayo Edebiri), the reporter in previous versions who here has been aged down considerably to also being a teen with high ambition to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. She gets her chance when she encounters the TMNT quartet, who have been sheltered by adoptive father Splinter (voiced by the great Jackie Chan), the mutated rat who befriended them when they were toddlers and who were the only ones who liked the rat. Oozed into the sewer, they all live down there munching on their beloved pizza but are taught to distrust and hate humans. In April, though, they find one they like, and her plan is to use them to seek out Superfly, do him in and become the basis for a major news scoop that will catapult her — and them — to glory.
This all does lead to the Ninja Turtles’ encounter with Superfly and his gang. The villain actually takes a liking to them at first, thinking that since they became mutants at about the same period 15 years earlier (where the film begins its pre-credits sequence) they actually are cousins. Soon, though, Superfly’s true intentions and dark side takes over, and the battle is on.
I have to say I found this version of the Turtles to be irresistible, each one very specifically and distinctly drawn and voiced with excellent work from the young actors including Nicolas Cantu (The Fabelmans) as natural leader Leonardo, Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo, Brady Noon as Raphael and Micah Abbey as Donatello. Losing some of the bulk and imposing look of some of the past creations of this foursome, they are all truly believable as excited teens looking to find their way in a world they are just beginning to experience.
Rogen has made his mark on a franchise that still finds new ways to smartly entertain amid all that mayhem.
Title: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release date: August 2, 2023
Director: Jeff Rowe
Screenwriters: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg and Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit
Cast: Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr. Brady Noon, Micah Abbey, Jackie Chan, Ayo Edebiri, Ice Cube, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Post Malone, Paul Rudd, Natasia Demetriou, Hannibal Burgess, Maya Rudolph
Running time: 1 hr, 39 min
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