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Cowabunga dudes! TMNT: Mutant Mayhem sparks a second

Jul 13, 2023

TMNT: Mutant Mayhem (2023 | USA | 100 minutes | Jeff Rowe)

What a time for Nineties Kids to be alive with access to massive studio filmmaking budgets! In what’s been a pretty great summer of adult filmmakers playing with (and recontextualizing) their childhood toys on the big screen, comes another strong nostalgia play in the form of TMNT: Mutant Mayhem. Spearheaded by “permanent teenager” Seth Rogen, we get a satisfying reboot of the teen turtles who cowabunga’ed their way into pop culture ubiquity when they made the jump from comics into morning cartoons, film, video games, and action figure adaptations in the late 1980s.

Jeff Rowe, a co-director of the Mitchells vs. the Machines, takes the helm and recasts the world of TMNT in grungy, shadowy, computer animation. The look is a little bit gross (in a good way!) and feels like stop-motion animation lifted directly from the pages of a teenager’s notebook. The unique look instantly elevates it from the bright look of the cartoon series and leaves room for all the characters to be loaded with visually distinct personality. Along with an expertly curated soundtrack of east coast hip-hop and original score by the can’t-miss team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the film’s strong aesthetic creates a compelling world almost instantly.

Rogen (along with screenwriters Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and director Jeff Rowe) makes the smart choice to contextualize the origin story as a coming-of-age tale, just one whose teen protagonists happen to be mutant, sewer-dwelling reptiles. Like all kids of a certain age, the four brothers (Leo, Don, Mike, and Raph) they’re plagued by feelings of being misunderstood, unseen, and constrained by strict parents who feed them nothing but pizza. In their case that parental figure is a giant mutant rat, more Dude than ancient ninja master as hilariously voiced by Jackie Chan, who has a very good reason for being a suspicious shut-in: humans are the demon spawn of the universe who must be avoided at all costs.

The film yadda-yaddas the more ridiculous parts of the TMNT mythology through the combination of a disorienting home-invasion thriller flashback coupled with a Chan-narrated montage, quickly bringing us up to speed on how we went from adorable baby turtles swimming in ooze to a single dad raising four teens in a crash pad under the streets of New York City. Their only contact with the outside world is through extended errands that they occasionally stretch out to excursions of expand their knowledge of pop culture beyond their phones (like so many of us, a screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at an outdoor Brooklyn movie night provides an unrealistic vision of what high school’s like). In their own way, they’re reminiscent of those kids in Crystal Moselle’s incredible documentary, the Wolfpack.

When the occasion finally comes to put their instructional-video martial arts skills to crime-fighting, their motivation is less related to “doing good” than gaining acceptance from the human world that they so desperately long to join. It’s a fun spin that instantly makes the film more relatable, particularly since they’ve cast actual teens to do voicework for the quartet. Micah Abbey as Donatello (the purple one, who’s smart because he wears glasses), Shamon Brown Jr. as Michelangelo (the red-masked charmer with rizz), Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo (the blue-masked do-gooder dork), and Brady Noon as Raphael (a gamer in an orange mask, incongruous braces, and lots of rage issues). Ayo Edebiri, whose voice will be instantly recognizable to fans of the Bear, shows up as human high school journalist April, whose story neatly parallels the foursome and whose friendship becomes a catalyst for their emergence from the shadows. The voice capture was done as a cast (vs. in isolation) so you can feel the teen stars feeding off each other’s rangy hormonal energy in shaping awkward energetic characters with strong inter-turtle rapport.

Aside from Edebiri, the teen contingent were unknown to me, making the characters like fresh inventions. Conversely older viewers will recognize the star-studded cast of older characters hilariously and vibrantly brought to life by the voices of Ice Cube (Superfly, the primary antagonist) and his mutant gang hilariously voiced by Hannibal Buress (Genghis Frog), Rose Byrne (Leatherhead), John Cena (Rocksteady), Seth Rogen (Bebop), Natasia Demetriou (Wingnut), Post Malone (Ray Fillet), Paul Rudd (Mondo Gecko). Maya Rudolph lurks around the edges of the action as evil executive Cynthia Utrom. I expect the effect will be reversed for younger people who come to the film enmeshed in Nick Jr. and YouTube culture. Either way, the casting is both spot-on and should create a create a cool dichotomy across the generational divide.

For better or worse, aiming for a wide demographic leaves the plot perhaps a bit too straightforward, but it largely exists as an architecture for rapid fire jokes and consistently well-executed action setpieces. The digital camerawork takes in the whole realm, echoing the perspectives and mobility of the young protagonists while never losing track of a sense of space and geography. The grimy world is ever-fascinating, but the kinetic setpieces and realization of some of the characters might be a little much for very young or easily over-stimulated audiences. At least one kid at the press and fan screening resolutely sat in the middle of the aisle, turned away from the screen, and cried until a parent came to rescue them from the upsetting reveal of one of the villains (who was, admittedly, quite disgusting). Still amid the rapid-fire quips and exciting-yet-legible action, there are some heartwarming lessons to be learned through consistently funny antics.

I’m a few years too old to have brought much more than second-hand nostalgia into the screening. We already had one perfect animated movie about a misunderstood New York Teenager in the form of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse, did we really need another? Turns out my skepticism was misplaced. Rogen, Rowe, and their whole crew brought an obvious love for the franchise, a novel point-of-view, and fused appealing animation and comedy chops. If enough people see it, I’d be surprised by anything less than second wave of all-out TurtleMania rising from the radioactive ooze.


TMNT: Mutant Mayhem arrives in theaters on August 2nd. Header image courtesy Paramount Pictures

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist. More information about the strikes can be found on the WGA Strike and SAG-AFTRA Strike hubs. Donations to support striking workers can be made at the Entertainment Community Fund.

TMNT: Mutant Mayhem (2023 | USA | 100 minutes | Jeff Rowe)TMNT: Mutant Mayhem