Okay, before I begin the actual review, I must address the mutant elephant in the room which negatively impacted my theatrical experience: at my screening, at least, this film was dark. And no, I’m not talking about the tone. I’m talking about the screen being so shaded that I could barely tell what was going on or even get a glimpse at the green stars when I was clearly meant to be able to do so. Over and over again I was asking myself “is this supposed to look this way?” It got to the point where it was driving me crazy. From what I’ve gathered from talking to others, however, I’ve been able to more or less confirm that the movie isn’t intended to leave its viewers quite literally in the dark, which probably means there was something wrong with the presentation at my theater…which is especially frustrating when you consider that I went to this in RPX, which is advertised as having “the best picture quality possible.”
If the above rant felt either petty or random, I have a good reason for it: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem looks great! While at first glance the animation might seem overly similar to the Spider-Verse flicks, Ninja Turtles is far less polished and more rough around the edges, making it appear hand-crafted. In fact, the Turtles themselves feel like they were made out of clay. Fire seems like it was drawn onto the screen using crayons, explosions look like pencil scribbles, and New York City is large, enticing, and messy. Seriously, you could take stills from this and easily mistake them for concept art. It’s good stuff.
And the stylization doesn’t end there, as Mutant Mayhem fully embraces its sketchbook design to the point where nothing looks “realistic” for want of a better term. If someone gets an electric shock, their bones will appear as they get zapped like they’re a Looney Tunes character. If there’s an extended gag involving vomit, it’s handled in such a cartoony manner that it will make you howl with laughter instead of wanting to throw up yourself. This is a movie that skillfully manages to be gritty without ever coming across as edgy just for the sake of being so, embracing the gross-out nature of the franchise while not being off-putting about it.
But enough about the animation. I suppose there is also a story, although it’s basic enough that I didn’t even feel I needed to open this review with a plot summary. If you’re familiar with the Turtles, you’ll have a good idea of what you’re getting here, and despite the “Mayhem” of the title, everything is fairly straight-forward, with villain Superfly’s “destroy all humans” scheme being almost identical to those of Magneto in multiple X-Men outings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does keep things from getting quite as bonkers as you might expect from a Ninja Turtles movie (at least until the climatic battle, when the film throws everything at the screen at once and sees what sticks).
Speaking of Superfly, however, Ice Cube is absolutely the MVP of a stacked voice cast. He’s clearly having a blast, making the bad guy (bad fly?) hilarious, charismatic, and dangerous (he even gets to swear a little, which might make a few parents in the audience flinch). Superfly doesn’t actually appear until around the mid-way point, but when he does, he gives everything a jolt of energy, initially viewing the Turtles as allies and claiming he wants exactly what they want: acceptance from society. I suppose there’s some form of social commentary to be found in how the human characters are designed–they look more “mutated” than the actual mutants–but rest assured, Ninja Turtles doesn’t come anywhere close to being heavy-handed, and while there are gentle themes of prejudice here, they never in any way feel like a lecture.
Contrasting the borderline grotesque appearance of most of the humans is April, the only “regular” person to be found who is, it must be said, more grounded that previous incarnations of the heroine. Fortunately, she is also very appealing and likable, working as a good companion for the Turtles and balancing their genuine goofiness with a more rational look at the world. Even better, the film allows her to be funny (she’s responsible for the aforementioned vomit gag, so take that however you will), making her feel right at home in this universe.
Which brings us to the title characters. As much press surrounding this has noted, the Turtles are all voiced by actual teenagers this time around, resulting in performances that feel remarkably organic and spontaneous. The only “downside” to this–if we can even call it that–is that this makes their personalities sort of meld into each other sometimes. The distinctive characteristics are there for those familiar with the bunch, but newcomers may have a hard time telling their Raph from their Mikey.
That said, it seems really unfair that the teenage stars don’t have their names included in the main end credits, with the more famous cast members getting billing before them (even if this does lead to a funny reference to Halloween 6 of all things). Mutant Mayhem has a lot of talent behind the microphone, and they do a good job with what they’re given, but many audience members are going to miss what are essentially glorified cameos from John Cena, Rose Byrne, and several others. Apart from Ice Cube, only Jackie Chan really has a major role as Splinter, providing the beloved martial arts master with more social awkwardness and anxiety than we are used to seeing from him. Chan is terrific, his voice warm and world weary, even if the casting may feel slightly too on the rat nose.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a fun-filled if not familiar ride, with inventive action, good humor, an awesome soundtrack, and endearing characters. In other words, all of the ingredients of a typical successful animated movie. What sets it apart is its bold animation, which is brilliant, and makes this a bodacious trip worth seeking out on the big screen…especially if it’s one that doesn’t make the film look too dark!
|Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies
August 2, 2023
Directed by Jeff Rowe