By Bradley Lane
While it might be hard to believe now after four decades of pop-culture relevance and billions of dollars generated over those years, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started their life as a small-scale indie comic book written by two amateurs in their living room. The source material for this beloved franchise was rough around the edges and unabashedly weird. Free from the constraints of editors, deadlines, or investors, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird worked from a place of love to create something truly special. 2023’s Mutant Mayhem comes from a similar place of love. Co-written and produced by comedy legends and longtime turtles fans, Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, the result is an equally weird and refreshing take on the teenage mutant ninja turtles that functions at the highest level of adaptation.
Avoiding a by-the-numbers’ origin story, the film briefly explains their beginnings, but instead focuses the main plot on the team’s relationship with the world above the sewers. Raph, Donnie, Mike and Leo are enamored by human culture and hope by doing heroic deeds they can one day be accepted by humans despite their mutant condition. Together they have to team up with high school newspaper reporter April O’Neil to track down the mysterious Superfly and stop his rampaging crime spree through New York.
Understanding the source material is imperative to a quality adaptation. The team behind Mutant Mayhem clearly loves the TMNT and because of that fact, they can expand in interesting directions while keeping consistent the dynamics and characters we’ve grown to love. Over the years every generation since then has had their own definitive edition of the four pizza-loving ninja turtles. I myself am partial to the 2003 show, but never before has a piece of TMNT media so focused on the teenage aspect of their identity as much as 2023’s Mutant Mayhem. The four actors playing the titular turtles are all in their teens, and their incredible chemistry and youthful energy is the backbone of Mutant Mayhem.
The animation industry in the CGI-era is split into two distinct eras: pre- and post-Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. That film and its runaway success opened the door to more stylized visions of what was possible with modern animation techniques. However, many of the films that have followed in the wake of Spiderverse are pale imitations of the real thing. Mutant Mayhem is certainly inspired by Spiderverse but does more than enough to distinguish itself. Its rough art direction evokes rough sketches in a child’s notebook brought to life in painstakingly realized detail. The movement and camerawork in the action sequences is fluid and very creative, taking inspiration from modern action conventions pioneered by John Wick and The Raid.
So much about this film oozes care and appreciation. The character design, soundtrack, score and grounded approach would all be a breath of fresh air to comedy action films, let alone one that is also animated. Not only is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem my favorite animated film of the year, it might just be my favorite film of 2023 thus far. Mutant Mayhem is available to rent or buy digitally and is currently showing in theaters. – 4.5/5 stars