Bad news, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" fans, new installment "Mutant Mayhem" gets the Ninja Turtles all wrong. You know how the characters are usually voiced by adults that make you forget that the characters are even supposed to be teenagers? This movie settles for real teenagers that can play off each other with age-appropriate chemistry. You know how the jokes are usually so lame that the joke itself is how lame they are? This movie can't go a straight sixty seconds without getting a genuine laugh from me. You know how every big-screen version of the Ninja Turtles has been critically lambasted until this point? This movie has a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a glowing recommendation from me. This movie may not follow in the tradition of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but only because it's something else, something better, entirely.
Don't get me wrong, the setup is still the same: four baby turtles and an adult rat are exposed to radioactive ooze and become anthropomorphic mutants. The rat, Splinter (Jackie Chan), raises them in the sewers of New York City to become ninjas, but only so they can sneak around undetected and defend themselves if necessary, which they won't have to do if they're good enough at staying undetected by the humans that surely want to kill them. But now that the turtles have come of age, they yearn for adventure outside of the sewer, including taking in human culture and even making human friends.
The turtles consist of self-appointed leader Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), brainiac Donatello (Micah Abbey), muscle Raphael (Brady Noon), and goofball Michelangelo (Shaman Brown Jr.). They team up with teenage reporter April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri) to track down a gang of dangerous thieves that have been terrorizing the city. What they find are more mutants, including insect Superfly (Ice Cube), rhino Rocksteady (John Cena), pig Bebop (Seth Rogen), alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), and gecko Mondo (Paul Rudd, possibly this movie's biggest scene-stealer), among others. These characters are all so funny and likeable that the film briefly runs into a problem where it looks like there's no one to root against. We get a forgettable villain in evil corporate executive Cynthia Ultrom (Maya Rudolph), but we know this series is just biding its time until another, more popular villain shows up.
I could go on and on about how much "fun" this movie is, but I don't want to spoil any of the many great jokes, and the actors' cadences might not translate well to the page anyway. Okay, since this is a movie about teenagers, I think I can give away that my favorite line includes the word "hormones." Aside from the jokes, another area where this movie is fun is in its animation. I've never seen quite this style before, but I love it. Many frames look like the animators just threw paint at a canvas and added in some squiggles with a magic marker, but at the same time it's completely effective and gorgeous. Like the movie itself, it's sloppy and reckless, yet the artists' competence and dedication to creating an immersive world is never in question.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" isn't performing as well at the box office as I thought it would. Not only did it lose in its opening weekend to the third weekends of both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer," it technically lost to the first weekend of "The Meg 2" (but it did finish with a higher total thanks to a two-day head start). So now I find myself feeling compelled to advocate for a franchise that I had previously written off as violent toy-commercial garbage. I still feel that maybe the turtles are a little too quick to violence, but otherwise this is a terrific family film, right on par with the "Spider-verse" movies. Kids will love it, and for the first time ever, they'll be right to love it.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is rated PG for sequences of violence and action, language and impolite material. Its running time is 99 minutes.