For many, myself included, the quintessential depiction of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will remain the 1990 film adaptation. It hit all the right notes to appeal to both the older viewers of the original Mirage comics as well as the younger audience more familiar with the kid friendly cartoon. Despite incredible success on the small screen and various other media, other film attempts of the terrapin warriors have never quite reached the heights of that first film (and the less said about the Michael Bay produced live-action films the better). With Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Paramount’s latest endeavor for the franchise, I’d dare say it’s closest yet to replicating the magic of the 1990 film.  

Mutant Mayhem

You all know the story. Four turtle brothers Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Raphael (Brady Noon) are mutated by ooze and raised in the sewers by their ninjitsu sensei and rat father Master Splinter (Jackie Chan). Despite Splinter’s warnings about humans (and a running gag about being “milked”) the turtles long to be part of a world they’ve admired from afar. A chance encounter with high school student and aspiring reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) inspires the Turtles to join her on a quest for acceptance disguised as fame to uncover the mysterious criminal known as Superfly (Ice Cube), leading to a larger mutant conspiracy with the fate of the world in the balance.

Under the helm of director Jeff Rowe, who co-wrote the film along with Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but still manages to put a new spin on the heroes in a half-shell. The four turtle brothers don’t deviate drastically from their established personalities, which have remained fairly consistent over the years, but what sets these versions of the turtles apart from previous incarnations is the inspired decision to cast actual teenage actors to portray the titular characters for the first time in the franchise’s history. This simple yet innovative choice in casting lends a certain authenticity to the performances. It also doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers made the effort to record all four actors together and encouraged them to improvise.

Each actor voices their respective turtle to perfection, but particular praise has to be paid to Cantu as team leader and favorite son Leonardo. He’s basically the equivalent of Cyclops from the X-Men, and thus the easiest to hate. Despite acting as the proverbial stick in the mud early in the film, this iteration of Leonardo has far more nuance than one would expect. It’s a much-needed exploration with a satisfying character arc that showcases what sets Leonardo apart from his brothers and why nobody else but him can lead the team.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume many watching Mutant Mayhem will be reminded of the idiosyncratic animation style of the Spider-Verse films. It’s not without merit since Mutant Mayhem utilizes some of the same techniques, specifically the lower frame rate, that have only grown in popularity. Rather than simply imitate a popular trend, though, Mutant Mayhem establishes its own aesthetic style distinct from not only Spider-Verse but animation in general.

As Rowe has said in interviews, the idea behind the designs was to resemble notebook drawings of actual teenagers. As a result, characters and even backgrounds are asymmetrical and misshapen and essentially have an unpolished feel. Nevertheless, there’s an inherent beauty to this ugliness that harkens back not only to those early TMNT Playmates toy designs but the original Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird comics. Just like Spider-Verse, I can’t encourage people enough to see Mutant Mayhem on the best screen and as many times as possible to appreciate all the details you missed the first time.     

A word of caution for those of you with sensitive constitutions. This latest iteration of the TMNT leans quite heavily into the gross-out humor. One particular “gag” with April O’Neil might turn off the more squeamish viewers. To be fair, disgusting humor has been the bread and butter of both TMNT and Viacom subsidiary Nickelodeon for years, so I think most people would be shocked if it wasn’t prominent in some way. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between and don’t detract from the overall story.

It’s a perfect encapsulation of the film’s humor and tone which can best be described as the “intersection between smart and stupid” as espoused by comedians like Conan O’Brien. It’s an incredibly delicate balance that could go horribly wrong if mishandled. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem threads the needle carefully for the most part. Some jokes and pop culture references in the first half of the film may illicit an eyeroll at first, but in fact come back around for some unexpected and brilliant payoffs.

Mutant Mayhem

Without a doubt, the film more than lives up to its title Mutant Mayhem. Unfortunately, some of these fan-favorite mutants, and by extension the incredibly talented voices behind them, don’t get nearly enough screentime or dialogue to make as big an impression as they deserve. There are certain exceptions like the ever-lovable Paul Rudd as happy go lucky Mondo Gecko. Others don’t fare quite as well and are criminally underutilized, like Rose Byrne and Natasia Demetriou as gender-swapped versions of Leatherhead and Wingnut respectively. It’s basically Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. However, as Paramount has recently announced not only a sequel but a two-season series that will serve as a “bridge” between the films, this will hopefully be rectified.

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and quite honestly, there’s never been a better time to be a TMNT fan. If this film is any indication, the franchise, much like the era of their Italian namesakes, is indeed entering a new Renaissance.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is out in theaters tomorrow, August 2nd.