Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
After decades of false starts, a new take on the characters finally gets the concept right.
For nearly a quarter century, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been fixtures on movie screens.
Until this week, it never really worked.
The closest brush with big-screen success came way back in 1990, when the original, live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was just weird enough to work — a gritty, tonally awkward crime drama that just happened to star mutated amphibians (who never looked like anything other than besuited stunt performers). Sequels to that film in 1991 and ’93 lagged; an animated attempt in 2007 turned out flat.
The other live-action films, produced by Michael Bay in the mid-’10s, should never be discussed or acknowledged again.
In all of those attempts, no one attempted to imitate the actual source material: The 1980s comic books by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. That has finally been corrected with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” a slickly animated and breezy adventure from “Mitchells vs. the Machines” co-creator Jeff Rowe.
These turtles are actually teenagers, with all the accompanying anxieties and attitude. The tone is, blessedly, PG-13 — rude and slightly violent without gore or sleaze. And the style is, well, that of a comic book, ; much like the “Spider-Verse” films; , each framing apes the dramatic angles and careful composition of a comic panel.
The adventure consists of fairly typical chelonian hijinks: The adolescent heroes are sick of the sewer and want to live in plain view, but Splinter (Jackie Chan) knows the human world will reject them. After a meet-cute with teen journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), a plan is born: The Turtles will defeat the rampaging villain Superfly (Ice Cube), O’Neil will break the story and the city will hail the Turtles as heroes.
Wisely, “Mutant Mayhem” uses actual teenagers — Micah Abbey, Shambon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu and Brady Noon — to voice the shelled crusaders, breaking with every prior incarnation of the characters. For the first time, the characters actually seem youthful; in the worst versions (again: Michael Bay), they were gruff-voiced adults inexplicably behaving like teens. It’s an obvious move, but it works wonders to revive the franchise. (Star power is reserved for the supporting cast; among others, Hannibal Buress, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph and co-writer Seth Rogen turn up in smaller roles.)
“Mutant Mayhem” could be a bit funnier and might have dispatched with some of the well-trod origin story. But it’s an enjoyable trip to the theater, and the perfect bridge film to unite adults who grew up with the Turtles and kids who are ready for an introduction. It took a few decades to get it right, but — as a Turtle fan from way back — I’m glad it’s finally here.
My Rating: 7/10
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” is now playing in theaters.