By Lynn Venhaus
Cowabunga dude! Surprisingly funny and entertaining, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” oozes unexpected charm.
Heavily sprinkled with snappy pop culture references, this new chapter is told in a zippy yet gritty animated style and aims for multi-generational appeal. Millennials who grew up fans of Turtle Power in its first wave can enjoy a nostalgic blast while new fanboys from the fourth series reboot can delight in familiar details.
The four Turtle brothers, rescued as babies after being doused with radioactive material, have been sheltered from the human world by a toxic avenger, their sensei Splinter (Jackie Chan). Now humanoids living in their sewer home, they yearn to interact with New Yorkers and be accepted as normal teenagers. After an encounter with high school journalist April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) they take on the role of evil crime fighters. When an army of mutants is unleashed by a crime syndicate, they are spurred into action.
Co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who gave us the endearing dorky teen bromance movie “Superbad” in 2007 and have teamed up on many buddy comedy films since, including “This Is the End,” “Pineapple Express” and “Sausage Party,” are clearly fond of the heroes on the half-shell.
The best-buds duo has joined forces with creatives behind the ingenious “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” to create a summer release that’s far from an August throwaway. Jeff Rowe helped write the script and helmed the film, along with Mitchells’ alum Kyler Spears.
They smartly frame this comedy like a family sitcom, with Jackie Chan the overprotective dad Splinter, a rat, whose distrust of humans has led to all sorts of goofy dysfunctions. He is the one who taught them ninjutsu, which is a martial art survivalist strategy using espionage, guerilla warfare and unconventional practices from ninja warriors. And the Turtles act like real kid brothers, which is refreshing.
The film’s all-star cast enlivens the experience, especially Ice Cube as a formidable villain Superfly and “introducing” Paul Rudd as Mondo Gecko, played for laughs. Ayo Edebiri (Emmy nominee for “The Bear”) is their feisty ally April, who becomes their link to the real world. Here, she’s an aspiring news reporter, still in high school.
While their nemesis Shredder isn’t a major presence, his ally, mad scientist Baxter Stockman, figures into the plot to take over the world and is voiced by “Breaking Bad” baddie Giancarlo Esposito. The Shredder’s buffoonish henchman, a rhinoceros named Bebop and a warthog named Rock Steady, are comically voiced by Seth Rogen and John Cena.
The TMNT, named for Italian Renaissance artists Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and identified by color-coded bandana masks, are portrayed by young teen actors Micah Abbey, Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr. and Brady Noon.
Typically, Leonardo is the disciplined leader, who wears a blue bandana and is seen using two katana swords. Donatello is smart and invents gadgets, using a bo staff and wearing a purple mask. Raphael is the strongest and at times hot-headed, using a pair of sai pronged stabbing weapons and wearing a red bandana. Michelangelo, aka Mikey, is the most fun-loving and fastest, wearing an orange bandana and using nunchucks.
The Turtles are the fertile creations of comic book authors Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who, in 1984, conceived the quirky characters as a parody of superhero elements back then. Supposedly inspired by the teenagers of New Teen Titans, the mutants of Uncanny X-Men and the ninjas of Daredevil, they combined them with a funny anthropomorphic animal image and in the spirit of underground comics.
When their company, Mirage Studios, licensed the characters to Playmates Toys three years later, the action figures, vehicles and playsets developed a huge following and sold more than $1 billion from 1988 to 1992. The Turtles became the third bestselling toy figures ever, following G.I. Joe and Star Wars.
Influenced by He-Man and Transformers, the comic book guys developed an animated series, which debuted in 1987 and ran for nearly a decade. That’s when the Turtles’ fun-loving personalities emerged, as did their love of pizza. Peaking in the ‘90s, live action movies came out in 1990 and 1991 (“The Secret of the Ooze”) and had a darker tone than the cartoons.
After the creators sold their shares, a new comic series began in 2003 and ran for seven seasons. A computer-animated film “TMNT” was released in 2007. Now owned by Nickelodeon, a third series ran 2012-2017.
A fourth live-action film came out in 2014, followed by a sequel “Out of the Shadows.” They were disappointing in quality, but successful at the box office.
The fourth animated series “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” premiered five years ago, running for two seasons, and Netflix released a film last year. leading to this new animated film.
With this rich history and fresh content, TMNT seems unstoppable as a pop culture force. A sequel has already been announced. The pedigree here is particularly impressive, as is the soundtrack, with music by Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Oscar winners for “Soul” and “The Social Network.”
Set in the streets of New York City, this story is darker in tone, with a nefarious gang of mutants intent on worldwide domination – and are grotesque, hulking beasts. The action is intense, and in the final act, the mayhem turns into overkill, with much time spent on whiz-bang combat and explosions.
But all is well, for the Turtles not only save the world but get to attend high school. Hey, it’s a fantasy, rooted in reality, and a swell time in air-conditioned comfort on a hot August day.
“The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” is a 2023 animated adventure directed by Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears, and voice actors include Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, John Cena, Seth Rogen, Ayo Edeburi, Micah Abbey, Nicolas Cantu, Shamon Brown Jr. and Brady Noon, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and Rose Byrne. It is rated PG for sequences of violence and action, language and impolite material. It opened in theatres Aug. 2. Lynn’s Grade: B
Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.