There’s a simple hard truth out there that is difficult for many to swallow. There hasn’t been an actual good film adaptation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. The classic 1987 animated series is likely the best representation of the comics created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984. The 1990 film certainly has plenty of charm with slickly-choreographed martial arts sequences and memorable voice work to fit alongside the Jim Henson-created puppets. For many, myself included, it’s the campier 1991 sequel Secret of the Ooze, which is a nostalgic favorite. From the heavy slapstick — a result of many parental groups complaining to the studio the first film was too violent — and indelible images of pizza eating, to its impressive practical effects work and, of course, the infamous Vanilla Ice cameo. It’s a glorious slice of early 90’s cheese. And while many iterations have come and gone since — most notably the two occasionally amusing but soulless Michael Bay-produced films from 2014 and 2016 and the 2007 animated film with unfortunately-aged CG animation, there has yet to be a film adaptation that replicated the style and attitude of the original comics. With yet another adaptation, this time from producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the heroes-in-a-halfshell return to the realm of animation. It may have taken nearly forty years, but fans, and audiences, finally have a true adaptation worth celebrating.
The four famous ninja-trained turtles named after the renaissance masters, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Donatello (Micah Abbey) and Raphael (Brady Noon), are just teenagers living in the sewers of Manhattan, raised by their adoptive father Master Splinter (Jackie Chan, giving some genuinely heartfelt voice work). The four brothers, who are raised to hide in the shadows and to fear humans, meet April O’Neil (Theater Camp and Hulu’s The Bear breakout Ayo Edebiri), here, a shy teenager with dreams of being a journalist, but also has a fear of being on camera. It’s fun to see April be a true peer to the Turtles, as opposed to their assistant or damsel-in-distress the character has typically fallen into. Together, they try to solve a recent string of robberies leading them to mutated fly and gang leader Superfly (Ice Cube, providing fun, spirited work) and his team of mutant associates. Cube’s Superfly is seen as a Killmonger-like figure, coming from the same background as the Turtles, a result of experiments from rogue scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito). He’s a reflection of the Turtles, one whose cause is just in his eyes, attempting to mutate every creature to take over the world from the humans, who are surely too evil and unable to accept the mutants for who they are.
The eclectic voice cast gives performances as good as any live-action performance you’ve seen this summer. The banter between the boys is highly infectious, truly nailing the youthful energy of the source material. The other mutants are a who’s-who of actors including producer Rogen and John Cena as fan-favorite characters Bebop and Rocksteady. There is also the chill Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), Ray Fillet (Austin Post aka Post Malone), Leatherhead (Rose Byrne) and Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress).
The mix of different animation stylings is entirely distinct and inspired. Taking the grungy aesthetic of the original comic book series and blending it with the shadings of a drawing illustrated by an actual teenager, Mutant Mayhem is a stunning accomplishment. We’ll often see little squiggles and rough hues on the characters and in backgrounds, giving the film a hand-drawn feel. The CG animation blends these 2D elements with psychedelic colors mixed with rough hues to create this intensely acid-tinged and wondrous visual experience. The oddball character designs are particularly inspired, with the other mutants looking like Phil Tippett-inspired claymation figures and the big, Godzilla-inspired climax taking some of these designs to the extreme. This is another blistering achievement in the world of animation, perhaps the most innovative CG-animated film post-Into the Spider-Verse.
However, despite the impressive animation, what makes Mutant Mayhem such a satisfying adaptation is its clear and firmly-realized emotional core. Director Jeff Rowe (co-scribe of The Mitchells vs The Machines) and co-director Kyler Spears (the Disney Channel series Amphibia) harken back to the roots of the source material, honing in on the familial bond between the four main characters. Rather than immediately overload your senses with action and set pieces, the film works up to its action sequences, instead, solidifying its character dynamics and establishing emotional stakes before moving forward with the many characters it will later introduce. Mutant Mayhem easily builds the most effective, and affecting, depiction of the family core between the Turtles and their adoptive father, Splinter.
The scrappy charm of Mutant Mayhem is further elevated by its boisterous soundtrack of 90’s hip-hip. A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” is featured as an unofficial theme of the film with M.O.P.’s classic “Ante Up” getting its share of usage. Rather than rely on heavy music supervision ala The Super Mario Bros Movie, the film uses its needle drops appropriately, complementing the synth-heavy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score. The filmmakers use the soundtrack in plenty of unique directions, such as a crime-fighting montage set to Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” with inspiration taken from the hallway fight from Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, no less.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is an absolutely delightful big-screen adaptation of the classic heroes-in-a-halfshell. Overflowing with kinetic visual energy, backed by a heartfelt emotional core and an infectious voice cast, this feels like the ideal Ninja Turtles movie. It also made me feel eight years old again.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now playing in theaters.