Director: Jeff Rowe Screenwriter: Seth Roge,n Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit Cast: Micah Abbey Shamon Brown Jr. Hannibal Buress Rose Byrne Nicolas Cantu John Cena Jackie Chan Ice Cube Natasia Demetriou Ayo Edebiri Giancarlo Esposito Post Malone Brady Noon Seth Rogen Paul Rudd Maya Rudolph Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 100 min. MPAA: PG

The Ninja Turtles were my jam growing up. I loved the toys, the cartoons, the live-action movies, and I even watched the absurd musical stage show tape too much as a kid. So, with the inevitable return of the Turtles to the theater, there’s sure to be a tizzy of long-time fans getting grumpy over a new iteration. But after having endured the bland and baffling nature of CGI/live-action Ninja Turtles, Mutant Mayhem arrives as a refreshing dose of what made the Turtles great while not remaining trapped in its past of “Cowabunga” and absurd pizza toppings.

The old Turtle gang remains as eccentric and individual as ever. Leonardo strives to be a leader, Donatello is a master of tech, Michelangelo is a party dude, and Rapheal has that feisty attitude that borders on danger. We get their familiar origin story of being mutated by oozed and trained by the also-mutated rat, Splinter (Jackie Chan). But there’s a greater concern within Splinter as he’s not merely the wise master of martial arts, but a paranoid hermit bound by fears of the human world.

For the central characters being posed more as teenagers than childish adults, the Turtles long to ditch their homeschooling of the sewers. They want the high school life but have grown up learning to stay in the shadows. While they make secretive adventures and detours in their discreet errands on the streets of New York, they make the connection that heroism will gain their acceptance. Maybe then they can have as normal a life as expected for teenage mutant ninja turtles.

The pop-culture slinging Turtles meet two types of people that shift their worldview. The first is April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), a teenage amateur reporter who figures that mutant turtles are a big scoop. She’s an underdog herself, and the teen turtles find that they can relate easily. Like the turtles, April also has her own problems, considering the thought of being on camera makes her literally barf.

On the other side of the spectrum is Superfly (Ice Cube), another mutant birthed from the same ooze that made the Ninja Turtles. Less content remaining in the shadows, he’s amassed an army of like-minded mutants who devise a means of tearing down humanity. With the turtles initially being seen as allies to Superfly, there’s a bit of an X-Men situation with opposing ideologies about being accepted.

Despite how that story sounds, the film is still just as playful as the original cartoon, with the Turtles having eccentric charms and a cool vibe in their expert fighting skills. They still eat pizza, reference pop culture (Attack on Titan and Avengers, in particular), and often trip over themselves when it comes to hiding in the shadows or covering their tracks. They’re perhaps more enduring for being more accurate teenagers who make mistakes, stammer with their words, and get easily grossed out when Raphael’s weapon accidentally gets lodged in Donny’s leg.

The problem with the Ninja Turtles diving back into the realm of theatrical animation is that they get lost too much in the manic nature. Any animated action film is expected to have a fast-paced finale, complete with lots of carnage, one-liners, and slapstick in between punches that hit harder. This aspect becomes harder to embrace when the script has too many characters. Before we fully appreciate the titular Turtles, Superfly’s overflowing mutant roll-call of characters like Bebop, Rocksteady, Leatherhead, Mondo Gecko, and more crowd the screen. There are too many characters and not enough time to know all of them.

Its distinct style helps make this film work, setting itself apart from the numerous other animated interpretations. The graffiti-inspired art style feels alive and eye-catching, so much so that there’ll be no confusion about which Turtle is which, as they have more than color-coded. It also has a certain gross factor, which seems par for the course with Nickelodeon, where the studio’s orange ooze has a more fitting green hue in the opening. The grimy look suits this TMNT world, replicating that similar sense of darkness and grit on the surface of the original live-action film.

The soundtrack is also worth noting, considering how it plays well with this street style. The choices in rap music are great (the Vanilla Ice song “Ninja Rap” is referenced only once and for less than five seconds), but the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross kicks so much ass. I can’t get enough of this hard-driving synth score. It may very well be a case of TRON: Legacy, where the film is good, but the music is better.

As a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated movie for the family, Mutant Mayhem hits so much of the right tones that its script issues and crowding elements. It has all the stuff I love about TMNT, but it still has a voice all its own, even if it struggles to speak amid all the carnage that unfolds in the third act. It’s a pleasing picture for the eyes and ears, considering I do not often see an animated action movie for kids go this hard. The Gen-Z vocab will probably make this film more appealing to the younger crowd than long-time Turtles fans, but that’s okay. Part of what makes a franchise go on longer is when the next generation can play with the toys. And in terms of the spirit of what makes Ninja Turtles so exciting, this film nails that appeal so well. As a long-time Turtles fan, this was a pleasant stroll back into a familiar alley with a fresh coat of enthusiasm. The Turtle Power is strong in this film!

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