It started as a joke. Way back in the ’80s, the phenomenon we now call “superhero fatigue” was already a thing, at least among comics afficionados. Frustrated with pulp creators recycling the same old ideas, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird hatched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The idea was to poke fun at how lame mainstream heroes had gotten, but the parody got so popular, it spawned a mini-empire of its own: movies, games, TV series and a whole lotta merch. At a certain point (around the time Michael Bay got involved), the brand got out of hand. Time for a reset.
With “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” Nickelodeon Movies takes the fertile turtle property back to its roots: Tapping “permanent teenager” (as the trailer cleverly dubs the former “Freaks and Geeks” star) Seth Rogen to produce, the toon studio commissioned an animated reboot that focuses on the ooze-boosted vigilantes’ awkward adolescent identities, while giving the franchise a fresh comic-book look.
More from Variety
Behind the scenes, helmer Jeff Rowe takes the loose, pseudo-hand-drawn style of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (which he co-directed) and pushes it even further here, such that every frame has a scribbled, street-art aesthetic. It’s a radical choice — in both the strategic and surfer-speak senses of the word — given how same-samey most big-budget computer-animated movies look these days (Pixar’s “Onward,” Netflix’s “The Sea Beast” and DreamWorks’ “Ruby Gillman” may as well have been made by the same studio). And it couldn’t be more different from the darker vibe and photorealistic textures seen in the Turtles’ last two theatrical outing.
Instead of being shredded martial arts pros, the foursome — named, as you know, after Renaissance painters, but barely distinguishable beyond their preference of weapons and eyewear — are presented as endearingly immature and understandably hormonal. They’re teenagers, after all, itching to get out of their shells … and the sewer where they’ve been raised by rodent sensei Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan).
With a welcome dose of self-deprecation, the script by Rowe, Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit recaps the reptiles’ backstory, the waits a beat. “If you think about that, it couldn’t make more sense,” Chan quips, essentially acknowledging that everything about the Turtles’ origins is ridiculous — but that doesn’t mean the movie can’t have a sense of humor about itself. “Mutant Mayhem” can be a blast at times, and exhausting at others, as the four guys jabber on top of each other, as in the movie’s thowaway “bacon, egg and cheese” gag.
The bickering and bonding tickles more than the main story, which involves a mutant fly (Ice Cube) and a handful of other critters we see being experimented upon by mad scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) when the villainous Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph) and her stooges from the Techno Cosmic Research Institute burst in. TMNT fans know what the name “Utrom” means, though that twist will have to wait for a sequel or TV spin-off (both of which are coming, per a recent Nick announcement).
For now, the film focuses on the mutant fly, which Stockman’s research swole into a jive-talking blaxploitation hulk who calls himself “Super Fly.” His plan is to mass-produce the ooze and release it into world, turning all creatures into freakazoid versions of themselves. The Turtles intervene, resulting in a singalong (to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Going On”) that mutates into a surreal car chase — easily this absurdist comedy’s most memorable scene.
The movie works best when its creators allow themselves to get truly, unapologetically weird. (The fight scenes are pretty awesome as well, mixing the toon’s unusual look with some very dynamic virtual camera moves.) Less effective is the thing that Rogen and Goldberg have made their signature, but which now feels more like shtick: namely, all the “teenage” stuff, which is neither relatable nor especially original.
I’m pretty sure you could ask ChatGPT to write a TMNT script in the style of Seth Rogen and get something just as funny. There’s even one moment, mid-finale, when aspiring reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) glances up at the now-kaiju-sized Super Duper Fly and delivers what should’ve been an epic catchphrase. The five guys credited with the script could have come up with something incredibly original for this moment, but instead, she yells, “Not on my watch!” (a line Rogen himself screamed in “Pineapple Express”).
While members of the Writers Guild of America are on strike, demanding (among other things) protection from AI, here’s a script that was made by human brains in an oddly similar way: It’s wildly original in places, and a recycled glob of tired clichés in others. The film’s unique look raises similar questions of how humans and algorithms work together, suggesting that animators took what the computer rendered and then retouched every frame by hand. In fact, the job almost certainly involved a more complex mix, where people made the judgment calls, but relied on filters and tools to render the result.
In any case, the movie’s mostly just meant to be fun, and that it is, skewing young while giving lifelong fans (including those who grew up on the Turtles) plenty to geek out about. Here, in the year 2023, the underlying IP feels tired, and yet, liberated by Sony’s “Spider-Verse” movies, Rowe and company shake up how studio toons can look. By extending the material’s anarchic spirit to the animation itself, “Mutant Mayhem” sets the course of not just TMNT sequels, but future studio toons as well.
Best of Variety