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Go behind the scenes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem with Ice Cube and friends
Featurette: Paramount Pictures

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears
Rated PG
Oozed 2 August 2023
#TMNTmovie • #MutantMayhem

The turtles are back again and, while the pizza and looks are fresh, the story’s gone a little stale.

Mutants Reborn

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem movie poster

Set aside all the iterations of comic books, TV animated series and action figures. This is the third major Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theatrical launch, following the live-action movies of the early 1990s and the two features starring Megan Fox from 2014 and 2016. In Mutant Mayhem, the big new conceit is to focus more squarely on the teenage aesthetic and with that comes a rough animation style that projects a vibe of high-school sketch art.

Conceptually it’s all good. Strictly in terms of appearance, the turtles are less buff and more toned down; they look like four scrawny teenage boys (in a half-shell), which isn’t entirely a great idea. They are, after all, teenage mutant turtles. The animation has a curious appearance of Claymation, but the excitement of the visual element starts to wear off as the movie mutates into a fairly standard TMNT tale.

That story, of course, includes a run-through of the origin narrative. As told here, Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) is a mad scientist, the kind of guy who’s mad because nobody ever liked him. He has a diabolical plan for world domination that involves all kinds of experiments in mutations.

During a police raid, his plans go ka-boom and a vial of his experimental ooze plunges into the sewers of New York City.

Pick it up 15 years later and the baby turtles, rats and all sorts of other creatures exposed to the green sludge are fully grown and fully fluent in speaking English. Some want to do good in the world; the turtles sound quite a bit like Kermit the Frog when they talk about wanting to be loved (and, basically, make millions of people happy). In their eyes, that love reaches no higher pinnacle than the love the world (or at least Chicago) has for Ferris Bueller (okay, that’s a cute scene which weaves in the Danke Schoen scene from the live-action ‘80s classic starring Matthew Broderick).

The Rogen Effect

It seemed like writer-producer-co-star Seth Rogen was starting to grow up, particularly after his appearance in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, but TMNT has him reverting to some of his baser instincts.

Mutant Mayhem sports a relatively rare PG-rating, so there’s nothing offensive going on here, but the humor certainly trends toward the Nickelodeon end of the spectrum. Green ooze, puking (one or two vomiting scenes too many) and a strange running joke about milking turtles (who have no nipples) keep the humor grounded in a juvenile level. But that adolescent humor gets buried under a guise — a turtle-esque mask — of sophistication thanks to a mountain of pop culture references and name dropping that includes Beyonce, Drake, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Brady, Missy Elliott, Adele, John Legend and the New York Knicks.

It's also likely Rogen’s clout brought in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score and pulled together a terrific voice cast, particularly frequent collaborator Rose Byrne as Leatherhead. A big surprise is Jackie Chan as Splinter, the turtles’ adoptive rat father, as well as John Cena (Rocksteady), Paul Rudd (Mondo Gecko), Post Malone (Ray Fillet) and Maya Rudolph (Cynthia Utom, ostensibly an overarching enemy in a proposed new series).

As for the turtles, in keeping with that newfound interest in emphasizing the “teenage” in TMNT, the turtles are voiced by four teenagers: Shamon Brown Jr. (Michelangelo), Micah Abbey (Donatello), Nicolas Cantu (Leonardo) and Brady Noon (Raphael). As for their journalist buddy, April O’Neill, she’s now voiced by Ayo Edebiri; while April is a high-schooler, Ayo is not.

Bigger, Better, Faster Superfly!

Ultimately, the movie belongs to Ice Cube as Superfly. He is — hands-down — the single best part of this Mutant Mayhem. The tone, the energy — everything — picks up when Ice Cube’s rather disgusting character enters the frame. Between Ice Cube’s Superfly and a whimsical take on the timeless 4 Non Blondes song What’s Up?, the movie has elements that touch on greatness. (Here’s a bit of trivia: their sole album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, also includes a song called Superfly.)

But that’s not enough to elevate the rest of the material out of the sludge and transport it to those dizzying heights the movie clearly is aiming to reach.

Co-directors Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears, who previously collaborated on The Mitchells vs the Machines, are working with a screenplay Rowe also contributed to, along with the same brain trust (Rogen and Evan Goldberg) who brought the world Superbad and Sausage Party in conjunction with the brain trust behind Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit).

No wonder the movie at times seems a little schizoid.

Sure, there are plenty of funny bits. In one fleeting moment, an ecstatic woman rushes the turtles and asks them to sign her baby. In another — a scene of society rallying around Splinter and the mutant turtles in ninja garb (and by the way, they’re teenagers) — a person asks, “Do you need a hospital – or a vet?”

With a sequel and yet another new TV series already in the works, Paramount seems ready to take TMNT down the same path of aggressive franchise expansion as Dungeons & Dragons, but in this uncertain theatrical environment, only time (and box office) will tell what’s really going to stick.

• Originally published at

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