Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael: four famous Italian Renaissance artists to some, sure. But to the really cultured among us, they’re of course better known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They’re also the latest characters to get an animated makeover for the big screen. Emulating the highly-stylized animation enjoyed in the likes of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and both of the Spider-Verse films, director Jeff Rowe breathes new life into these classic comic-book characters in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.
Having previously co-directed The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Rowe is a smart choice for this reboot. It’s unsurprising, then, that the film looks brilliant, with its vivid style harkening back to the pages of the characters’ comic-book origins. These striking visuals – highlights of which include some unconventional character designs – help to set it apart from the Turtles’ previous outings on the big screen. This allows Mutant Mayhem to establish its own unique aesthetic and exciting momentum, the latter of which can be observed most clearly in a frantic second-act car chase that sees the film firing on all cylinders. Thanks to such quality in its animation and its varied character design, this reboot is set up with every chance of succeeding. It even has a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score up its shell.
It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that by comparison, the more clichéd story fails to capture the animation’s same level of creativity or imagination. However, audiences are thankfully spared any laborious retelling of the characters’ origin story. This well-trodden chapter of the Turtles’ tale is communicated relatively swiftly, by way of the opening action scene and just one further sequence soon after. Moving forward, the film proceeds by seeing the Turtles attempt to earn the acceptance of the world they’ve been kept from – with the help of student and aspiring journalist April O’Neil – by taking down Superfly, a mutant villain carrying out mysterious heists across New York City.
Penned by Rowe, as well as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who also produce), with writing partners Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit in the mix too, the film’s screenplay, much like the antics of the main characters, is a real group effort. You would expect with so many comedic personalities and pre-existing relationships involved that the script would be an absolute riot, but sadly this isn’t quite the case. It is completely serviceable and often quite amusing, but the script seldom manages to achieve anything especially funny. Instead, it favours a jarring abundance of try-hard pop culture references, and while these make sense as the reptilian brothers dream of one day joining the world they’ve so long been sheltered from, the film over relies on them, suggesting a lack of confidence in its own screenplay. Yet, when you consider the talented and enthusiastic cast assembled to bring it to life, this really shouldn’t be the case.
Mutant Mayhem boasts an impressive roster of star-studded names offering their vocal talent to the eclectic range of characters littered throughout the script. Jackie Chan delivers a heartfelt turn as the Turtles’ overprotective father, Splinter. Meanwhile, Ice Cube chews the scenery as the aforementioned villain, Superfly, bringing equal parts menace and fun to his role. Paul Rudd offers some comic relief as Mondo Gecko, a skateboarding mutant who just wants to be everyone’s bro. And Maya Rudolph hams it up as the film’s secondary villain, Cynthia Utrom, complete with a truly unhinged accent, which alone should have doubled her scarce screen time. Elsewhere, the film features voice work from Rogen, John Cena, Rose Byrne and many more. Despite this wealth of recognisable actors and their spirited performances, none of them manage to steal the spotlight from the Turtles themselves.
Refreshingly, the four central characters are actually portrayed by teenage actors, marking the first time that this has happened in seven movies. Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr., Micah Abbey, and Brady Noon are the four tasked with donning the coloured bandanas as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, respectively, and they are wonderful. They are the heart of the film, as they should be, and the narrative’s coming-of-age themes suit the characters well, even if, like the comedy, these aren’t as developed or ambitious as they could be. Nonetheless, the foursome, alongside Ayo Edebiri’s April O’Neil, share an authentic chemistry that becomes intrinsic to the film’s success, warming audiences to the characters and their stories with ease.
Ultimately, the young cast lead the entertaining acting ensemble with all the self-belief that the screenplay lacks, introducing a new generation to the heroes in half-shells as passionately as possible. With a sequel and series already in the works too, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem lays solid groundwork, but hopefully it can be improved upon to allow these heroes to fully come out of their shells.
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Although the film’s writing can’t quite keep up with the standard of its animation or the capabilities of its cast, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem reboots the franchise with enough fun and flair to make it worthwhile.
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