In November of 1983, Kevin Eastman hashed out a pen-and-ink sketch of four anthropomorphic, crime-fighting turtles fastened with bandanas, nunchucks, and samurai swords. The drawing was comically dramatic—a parody of that era’s superhero stories—but the unlikely quartet soon inspired him and co-creator Peter Laird to build out a comic book universe and bring the black-and-white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to life. One year later, the pair officially introduced the world to Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo (along with their mutant rat guardian and ninja master Splinter) as sewer-living, skateboard-riding, pizza-munching martial artists determined to take scum off the streets.
Since then, the half-shell heroes have continued to adapt and evolve into new iterations. What started as a comic (and then an action-figure licensing agreement with Playmates Toys) eventually morphed into a string of animated television shows, live-action and animated movies, video games, some recent Michael Bay spectacles, and even a Batman crossover. Throughout all of them, the brothers’ origin story remains the same: a toxic mutagen turns four baby turtles into human-sized and human-speaking reptilian warriors. And yet, even in a crowded superhero world, each new iteration over the last four decades has broken through to a different generation of viewers and developed its own distinct perspective within its grimy environment.
The turtles’ newest animated incarnation, might be their best one yet. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears and co-written by Rowe, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg, offers an exhilarating “2.5D” ride through the bowels and bright lights of New York City, reimagining every aspect of the franchise with a painterly, nonuniform aesthetic and contagious sense of humor. The impressive and diverse cast of voice actors (led by Ayo Edibiri and Ice Cube) along with a mid-week release strategy by Paramount has already catapulted it to a $55.5 million global box office haul, an unlikely success story that promises to keep dominating the month of August. It begs the question: What’s all the fuss about? And why is this one so special? Let’s pop the sewer lid and take a deeper look.
On the one hand, it’s fully an origin story: young viewers new to the voice-cracked and rule-breaking turtles need no catching up. The, humor, hijinks, and action are built for the preteen crowd. But it’s also co-written by Seth Rogen, and that millennial nostalgia that he has for the property bleeds through. Make no mistake: this is a movie crafted for men of a certain age who remember the early ‘90s TMNT movies fondly.
Every previous entry of note seems to forget or dismiss this but, yes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are indeed teenagers—15 to be exact—a distinction that Mutant Mayhem refreshingly celebrates with voice actors who are actual teenagers. Throughout their nightly patrols and errands, Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) share an authentic Gen-Z camaraderie, which Rowe fostered by having everyone record their lines and improvise together in the same studio. The high-pitched chemistry makes it easier to understand the “cowabunga” crew’s desire to escape its underground life and find acceptance on the surface world, filled with bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches and a five-borough population that adoptive father Splinter (Jackie Chan!) has forbidden them from experiencing in full.
But the turtles aren’t the only teenagers with some angst and a desire to be taken more seriously. There’s also April O’Neil (Edibiri), a high school outcast and aspiring Channel 6 News reporter looking to break a big story for the student newspaper as she scooters through the city. After becoming the foursome’s unofficial human sidekick, she and the gang soon discover that the menacing Superfly (Ice Cube), an oversized insect with an attitude problem, is responsible for terrorizing New York with a gang of obscure mutants.
The absolute last thing you’d expect in a present-day set TMNT movie is a soundtrack filled with classic M.O.P. and Ol’ Dirty Bastard songs. But to the surprise of millennials and Gen-Xers, Rowe packs Mutant Mayhem’s soundtrack with a murderer’s row of late-80s and early-90s east coast hip-hop, proving that any fight sequence (especially one inspired by Park Chan-wook’s 2003 action flick Oldboy) set to “No Diggity” is a genius idea.
According to Rowe, early test audiences struggled with the story’s coherence, but they all attested to the music’s head-bopping brilliance. In addition to another innervating, electronic-inspired score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the movie’s playlist includes De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, ESG, and Liquid Liquid. That positive feedback sent Rowe back into the animation lab with some clearer narrative inspiration. “This collection of songs…started becoming a collection of songs with visuals,” Rowe told Box Office Pro. “Then that started becoming a tone and a vibe and these weird esoteric things, but it really feels like a part of the DNA of the film.” Just consider the meta-textual decision to cast Ice Cube, a west coast rapper, as the villain in a movie based in New York City.
Of course, it’s not all hip-hop. Halfway through the movie, in the midst of a thrilling car chase, 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” begins playing, an unlikely needle drop that quickly evolves into a techno remix.
When Rowe, who directed 2021’s immersive The Mitchells vs. The Machines, thought about the visual style of this movie, he wanted to tap into a nostalgic “gross” aesthetic, something akin to Nickelodeon’s heyday of live-action game shows filled with slime and wacky designs. At the same time, he kept considering Eastman’s original, asymmetrical artwork and the anatomical reality of his main characters. “We’re telling a story about teenagers,” Rowe said. “They can’t be super muscular; they can’t be giant, hulking, turtle monstrosities. They need to feel lanky and awkward. They’re still growing into their bodies, like authentic teens.”
In the same way that Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse’s slick and expressionistic color palette mimics its high-flying and web-slinging protagonist, Mutant Mayhem’s slightly-off proportions echo its turtles’ still developing heroics. Using the same hybrid animation techniques as the Spider-Verse franchise, Mutant Mayhem leans into its inconsistencies and basks in its splashes of luminescent and neon light. If not for “Barbenheimer” sucking up the online discourse, there’s a good case to be made that both of these movies would have been the real two-pronged events of the summer.
Most definitely. Considering the creative minds behind this movie and the studio financing it, there’s plenty here to chew on.
Because Nickelodeon owns and produces TMNT, there’s a Hey Arnold! quip and a SpongeBob SquarePants sighting in Times Square. There’s also plenty of movie references, starting with the turtles’ trip to an outdoor screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and continuing with multiple conversations about Mark Ruffalo in Avengers: Endgame. At one point, the turtles even get called “weird Shreks.” My personal favorite? Near the end of Mayhem, Paul Rudd’s Mondo Gecko (which feels like an extension of his airhead Forgetting Sarah Marshall surf instructor) addresses another mutant as “Abra-ca-da-BRO,” a subtle nod to Peter Klaven’s awkward male-friendly pun attempts in I Love You, Man.
Considering the extensive history of this franchise, it wouldn’t be a TMNT movie without some of its own lore. During an early fight scene, the turtles get into a car whose radio starts blasting “Go, Ninja, Go, Ninja, Go.” Sharp-eared listeners will remember these lyrics from Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap,” a hit song that the rapper wrote for 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of Ooze. And don’t leave the theater too early. A mid-credits scene sets up an already-confirmed sequel with Shredder, the series’ most prominent evil samurai. No doubt, to take him down, the turtles will need some extra cheese on the next pie they order.
Look, the August movie slate is pretty bleak right now. But even if that weren’t the case, Mutant Mayhem is a great alternative to missing sold-out shows to Oppenheimer in IMAX for the fourth straight week. It will rekindle your middle school memories, inspire some Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the screen, and, by the time it’s over, might even turn your kid into face-painted 10-year-old Jonathan Ware.