Since the late ‘80s it seems like every generation has been getting their own version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” through various TV series and spin-offs, both live-action and animated. So it’s no surprise that the beloved quartet of anthropomorphized mutant turtles who are pizza and martial arts-loving teenagers, receive a makeover on this side of the 2020s, too.
Enter “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” an eager-to-please outing across the sewers and streets of New York City, designed for an era that is still obsessed by origin stories taken from comedic superhero tales like “Deadpool” and recently influenced by the colorful and rule-breaking animation style of the “Spider-Verse” films.
The result is both as original and predictable as you’d expect. In that regard, “Mutant Mayhem” hardly feels like something you’ve never experienced before. But considering how over-exploited this particular IP is, co-directors Jeff Rowe (of the wonderful “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”) and Kyler Spears still deserve praise for having some light and stylish fun with their standalone chapter that moves just right through an economic 90+ minutes without overstaying its welcome despite some occasionally overworked story machinations.
In addition to the kaleidoscopic animation style that is delightfully detailed and immersive—one that subverts the soulless CGI look, much like the “Spider-Verse” films—part of the credit for making “Mutant Mayhem” a good time at the movies goes to Seth Rogen. Apart from having a screenplay credit and voicing Bebop, the multi-hyphenate Hollywood powerhouse is among the producers of this offshoot that was apparently born out of Rogen’s and his creative partner Evan Goldberg’s own enthusiasm for the original “TMNT” series in their youth.
That eagerness shows throughout “Mutant Mayhem,” fortunately not as a blind and overprotective fandom. On the contrary, Rogen and his co-writers—Rowe, Goldberg, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit—invitingly nod to the essence of the classic “TMNT” and freshen it up with a teen spirit, an inclusive cast and a few amusing internet pop-culture references. These range from funny to tired—one that debates for the millionth time which famous Chris is the best Chris. (Sorry, Evans fans)—and on rare occasion, to SNL-level unfunny. Yet, on the whole, it leaves the right wise-cracking aftertaste that you come to these movies for.
The story is as you might remember it. A more sympathetically rendered Master Splinter, the mutant rat (voiced by Jackie Chan), strives to survive in the human world that hates his guts. After his only friend, a cockroach, crushingly dies (no pun intended), Splinter takes the four baby turtles he finds in the sewer under his wing as a mysterious ooze fashions the bunch with human-like traits while maintaining their turtle bodies.
Fifteen years later, the now teenaged turtles—named Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey) and Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu)—still live inside their shell, secretly stealing groceries and feeding on pizza. Due to Splinter’s overprotective instincts, the quartet are banned from mixing with humans. Though, in the expected teenage style, that doesn’t stop them from sneaking into an Adele concert (“She can hit those notes,” one of them observes) or an outdoor screening of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
One of those outings introduces them to their guiding friend April (Ayo Edebiri), an outcast and much bullied high-schooler with a sensitive stomach and grand aspirations of being a reporter. “Mutant Mayhem” is a story of acceptance and inclusion for all these aforesaid recluses. So what better task is there for them than to team up to bring down the evil villain Superfly (Ice Cube, giving the film’s most inspired voice performance), film their heroic triumph and broadcast it to the entire human world to win their approval once and for all?
Truth be told, you don’t feel a real sense of stakes during this pursuit, with most of the foes becoming friends fast and humans displaying a level of generosity our kind isn’t necessarily known for. Still, the animation as Superfly morphs into something frightening is memorably stupendous throughout a sequence that throws various “Godzilla” references into the mix. And the parting message on family, unity and heroism is unadulteratedly disarming.
Who knows if the creative team behind this sufficiently unique “TMNT” will be able to preserve this lean and sweet demeanor through the already announced sequel. But for now, “Mutant Mayhem” is a small win in the tiresome world of IP, one that doesn’t need to mutate into anything further in order to be accepted.