Four teenage boys run through the streets of New York City. They go to their local bodega, pick up pizzas, watch a movie in the park, and head back home later than their expected curfew. Except: they’re mutant turtles grown to human-size! The idea of the teenage turtles has always been absurd in concept. With constant attempts to reboot it for younger audiences, the franchise exists in a state of fluctuated success. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem should bring the turtles back into the mainstream, as director Jeff Rowe takes the four brothers throughout multiple boroughs on a mission to save the humans that have dismissed them.
Produced and co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Rowe’s film takes the wackiness of the Turtles franchise in stride. The film knows how ridiculous it is. It’s happy to be silly, cracking self-knowing jokes about the flimsy premise holding this story together. The brothers must battle a group of other mutant animals led by Superfly (an incredible Ice Cube). Using the help of their singular human friend, April (Ayo Edebiri, who continues to impress in everything this summer), the Renaissance-named teenagers leave the comfort of the sewers and go out into the world hoping to become heroes, eagerly praying to be accepted.
And that’s what Mutant Mayhem gets right. There’s universality in the simple urge to be accepted, especially as a 15-year-old. Self-consciousness runs rampant at that age, and the film doesn’t say any different. The boys think that they might be cool, but who knows? They think they could make friends, but there’s no evidence otherwise. They contain an awkwardness that lends audiences to sympathize with them. Unlike other Turtles films, Rowe’s story contains endlessly likable versions of these characters. Mutant Mayhem focuses on the teenage aspect of these four brothers, rather than their turtle or mutant qualities. First and foremost, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo are teenagers.
Employing a style similar to Rowe’s previous work on The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the film bursts with color and fervor. The animation is fast, loose, fun. Mutant Mayhem straddles the line between being weird yet inviting, and its animation follows suit. The filmmakers design creatures of all kinds, misshapen mutants that edge towards likable with each passing minute. These mutants aren’t monsters, and they aren’t drawn like them.
The comedy in the film veers too heavily into the moment, though. Broad jokes populate every conversation, as the script uses terminology and slang specific to the last 12 months. The humor doesn’t have staying power; it’ll lose appreciation in six months, maybe fewer. Teenagers spending their time on TikTok will find it funny, but their parents (mostly) won’t have a clue as to what the brothers are saying. People who spend time online will enjoy it more than those that don’t.
There’s a hollowness in the realization that the film is quotable for this moment and this moment only. Mutant Mayhem, despite its overall sweet message of acceptance, contains little depth. It doesn’t want or need to be about more than four brothers trying to go to high school, and its larger metaphors about society and culture are unnecessary missteps. This is a studio offering that coasts on likability and enjoyment––luckily, there’s enough of that fun to go around.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now in theaters.