The latest incarnation of Eastman and Laird’s adolescent terrapin martial artists are wonderful characters. Watching them in action is a ball. Unfortunately, the rest of the flick does not quite match them.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
For characters who started in part as an affectionate homage to and goof on the character-defining Frank Miller-written Daredevil comics, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are remarkably flexible. This is true in-universe: being bendy is a package deal with being a master of ninjitsu. But I’m talking more about the sheer variety of Ninja Turtle projects.
There are creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s original comics, which blend wild science fiction (an army of Triceratops from space!) with superb action (particularly during the “Return to New York” story, which saw the Turtles face off with the Shredder for what was, for many decades, the last time). There’s the 1990 film, which blended the goofiness of the beloved 1987 cartoon, some of the comics’ sharpness, and stunning suitwork from Jim Henson (one of his last projects). There’ve been a host of cartoons, comics, and video games that continue to this day. While bound by commonalities, no Ninja Turtle project is exactly like the others. Each reflects its makers, target audience, and time of creation.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a prime example of this—it’s very much a movie about being a teenager, about stepping out into the world and figuring out who to be and how to be them. The action, particularly early on, is quite good. Still, it’s the lives and times of Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Raphael (Brady Noon), and their pal/guide to the human world April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), Mutant Mayhem pays the most mind.
The Turtles are good kids, raised with love by their cantankerous, caring father, Splinter (Jackie Chan). He’s heavy-handed and borderline paranoid. As a result, they’ve begun to chafe against his rules and the smallness of their world. Raphael points out that the only faces they see daily are each other’s, and they’re likely to be the final faces they’ll see before they die.
They want a life beyond the sewers, beyond sneaking teenagerhood wherever they can. They’re also acutely aware of humanity’s ability to be vicious, hateful jackals. When a near disaster with a shuriken stunt leads to a brawl with a chop shop crew and friendship with would-be-but-for-intense-performance-anxiety-reporter April, the Turtles see an opportunity. If they can defeat the infamous crime lord Superfly, they’ll be heroes. People love heroes; even if they’re mutant turtles, they reason naively. If April can break the story, she’ll be someone other than the girl who hurled all over Eastman High’s morning news.
Would that it was so simple. Superfly (Ice Cube) isn’t just a murderous crime lord building a doomsday machine. He’s both a mutant and leads a whole crew of other mutants (John Cena, co-writer Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Paul Rudd, Post Malone, Hannibal Buress, Natasia Demetriou). They’re a lovable band, all bonding with the Turtles immediately. Well, all save for Superfily. For him, kinship is nowhere near as important as conquest.
Further complicating matters are ruthless science corporate creeps. Led by Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), they view the mutagenic ooze that created the Turtles and company as their property. By extension, they consider all mutants their property to be harvested and refined to more profitable goals.
When Mutant Mayhem focuses on the Turtles and April or diving into action, it’s a ton of fun. Directors Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Gravity Falls) and Kyler Spears (The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Amphibia) and their collaborators build a vivid, multimedia New York City, teeming with life, potential, and danger. Its feel is dynamic and painterly, with a bit of scrapbooking for flavor. Think of it as a family-friendly but by-design grimier cousin to the Fletcher Moules-directed Kid Cudi project Entergalactic. In action or at rest, the Turtles navigate the city with an endearing mixture of martial skill, teenage goofery, and open-for-good-and-ill hearts. Their brawl in the chop shop, in particular, recalls the gleeful chaos of Chan’s live-action work.
Cantu, Abbey, Brown Jr., and Noon have stupendous chemistry. Scriptwriters Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Rowe, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit ably aid them with solid material. The Turtles’ moments of conflict, bonding, and razzing are grounded in a deep love for each other and their acute knowledge of what makes their brothers tick. Edebiri’s turn as April—peer, outsider, guide, and, in Leonardo’s case, crush—is likewise strong. She knows who she wants to be. It’s just that getting there is physically terrifying and has been horribly embarrassing. It’s fine work all around.
Mutant Mayhem is wobblier outside its heroes and heroines, look and action. For every joke that lands, another hangs around well past the horse’s death. Ice Cube’s performance as Superfly is deliciously eeeeeevvvvvviiiiiiillllll, but the writing fails to dig into his relationship with his crew. Worse, his motivations are muddled to the point of incoherence. Chan’s Splinter is a particularly weak link. While not badly performed, there’s nothing to him beyond his distrust of humanity and his protective-to-the-point-of-smothering love for his sons. Consequently, his big moment doesn’t land. The murderer’s row playing Superfly’s crew is having a good time, but they’re types. The shakiness of the writing for Superfly, his crew, and Splinter stand out, given how well the script treats the Turtles and April.
Likewise, while creative and enjoyably gloppy, the picture’s climax loses some of the kinetic energy and joy that make the Turtles’ smaller-scale brawls so much fun. Indeed, its successes and failings are a microcosm of Mutant Mayhem. The animation is capital letters and italics GORGEOUS. Leo, Michael, Raph, Donnie, and April are expertly drawn and performed. It’s a ton of fun to watch the Turtles move. Beyond them, though, Mutant Mayhem is shakier. It’s a good film, one that I think its target audience will enjoy tremendously. But it cannot and does not match its best work. Mutant Mayhem could have been great. It’s solidly good.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem emerges from the shadows on Wednesday, June 2nd.