Perhaps unfairly, I went into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem with fairly low expectations. The Turtles spawned one of the best animated series of the 1990s, sure, but they also gave us some fairly dreadful live-action movies in the 2010s, produced by Michael Bay. Thankfully, director Jeff Rowe’s animated take on the ooze-enhanced reptiles is very special – standing as one of the best movies of 2023 so far.
After a mercifully brief prologue of an origin story, we meet the turtles as frustrated adolescents, desperate to experience the world but kept in the shadows by their protective guardian Splinter (Jackie Chan, in a genius bit of voice casting). They have been taught to hate humans, but this all changes when they meet budding journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) and become convinced that they’ll be beloved by the world if they can bring down the supervillain terrorizing New York: the mysterious Superfly (Ice Cube).
That all seems like pretty standard superhero-adjacent fare that we see in new movies every week, right? Well actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Firstly, the animation is spectacular. The gargantuan success of the Spider-Verse movies has clearly thrown open the door for American animation studios to ditch the homogenized aesthetic of the noughties 3D animation boom for something more inventive and impressionistic.
The animation in Mutant Mayhem is about one thing: movement. It’s all blurring brush strokes and quivering outlines, as if neither the characters nor the animators are capable of sitting still for a second. For a story about over-enthusiastic and hyperactive kids trying to find their place in the world, it’s perfect.
One of the most welcome moves here is the decision to cast the turtles age-appropriately, rather than bringing in adult voice talent. Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr, Brady Noon, and Micah Abbey bring a delightfully chaotic energy to their performances, helped by the fact they recorded their lines together in order to leave room for improvisation and excitable cross-talk.
This is a bit of a double-edged sword though, given some of the cultural references seem likely to age about as well as a gallon of milk in a heatwave. Forza Horizon? BTS? Roku?
There is star power to be found elsewhere in the voice cast, with Chan as Splinter a definite highlight and Ice Cube bringing his trademark charismatic menace to Superfly. Other A-listers pop in and out with little fanfare – this is yet another 2023 blockbuster to underuse John Cena in a comic role – though Post Malone deserves a mention for his enjoyable turn as a mutant manta ray who just wants to sing.
More than anything, though, Mutant Mayhem’s main asset is that it’s really consistently funny. The dialogue flies at you thick and fast, densely packed with wordplay, pop culture references, and exquisite slapstick. This is right up there with the best comedy movies of the year, with Superbad writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg proving they can tell jokes for kids too, assisted by Rowe and the Detective Pikachu duo Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit.
That sense of fun translates to the action scenes as well. They’re beautifully choreographed to make the most of the mutants’ arsenal of weapons without troubling the censors too much, packing in plenty of sight gags in the process.
These scenes are also assisted by an eclectic soundtrack that delivers some of the best needle drops of the year, giving equal moments of genius to Blackstreet’s No Diggity and Natasha Bedingfield’s pop banger Unwritten. Now that’s range.
There’s plenty of room for emotional storytelling, too, though we could have done with more of the individual turtles’ personalities. The portrayal of Splinter as a put-upon single dad is really nicely done and April’s struggles at high school contrast neatly with the turtles’ determination to be “normal”.
The ending is less sure-footed than what comes before, with a pretty standard “city in peril” action scene followed by a big exposition dump in the post-credits scene. Given how original and energetic the previous 90 minutes have been, the finale is a little disappointing.
But those are minor, churlish complaints in the face of a wildly enjoyable and exceptionally creative spin on a property that has often eluded Hollywood. Forget Barbenheimer, these are the mutant hybrids we want to spend time with this summer.
If you’re desperate to know more about these turtles, check out our Jeff Rowe interview. And for more of the best animated movies, learn about the connection between Spider-Verse 2 and Demon Slayer. In the wake of our glowing Across the Spider-Verse review, we’ve also looked ahead to the Spider-Verse 3 release date.
An age-old franchise gets a new lick of paint with this innovative animation, helped by the sheer kinetic energy of its young voice cast.