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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles return, rebooted and reinvigorated

A still image from the movie "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" shows four oversized turtle wearing masks and holding ninja weapons after bursting through double doors.
Paramount Pictures
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is a fun and visually striking animated feature directed by Jeff Rowe.

Rebooting a superhero origin story is a bit like serving up a prequel: We already have the gist of how we got here, so there'd better be a good story to tell along the way.

That's doubly true when the superheroes in question were already known as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a name that does a fair bit of narrative heavy lifting on its own. Any time spent showing how our heroes got to be mutants, ninjas, teenagers or turtles is likely to be time wasted, especially when they're on their seventh theatrically released movie, which is saying nothing of all the TV shows, toys and reams of comic books fans have experienced along the way.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, a fun and visually striking animated feature directed by Jeff Rowe (who worked on 2021's fantasticThe Mitchells vs. the Machines) and written by a committee that includes Seth Rogen, offers a full franchise reboot. Which means that too much of its early going gets dedicated to retelling the Turtles' origin story: There's a dastardly corporation that does genetic testing, a rogue scientist who steals the "ooze" that turns creatures into mutants, some misplaced ooze that slips into the sewers, and the four baby turtles who cross its path.

Soon, as the title of every TMNT project suggests, we catch up with them as teenagers Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Raphael (Brady Noon). They've been raised by a worrywart mutant rat named Splinter (Jackie Chan), whose fretful-adoptive-father vibe should feel familiar to fans of the mighty Kung Fu Panda trilogy.

Splinter raises the Turtles in a New York City sewer, teaches them self-defense and forbids them — with good reason — from interacting with the human world. But these are teenagers, and what they want more than anything is to be embraced by humankind. They dream of high school as they sneak into outdoor movie screenings and otherwise gaze wistfully at humans as they go about their lives.

Soon, the Turtles' sewer-bound existence is upended when they encounter a high-schooler named April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri from The Bear), whom they unwittingly distract as a thief steals her moped. So they give chase, wind up in a lair full of criminals, use a whole bunch of those martial-arts skills and, ultimately, out themselves to April as, well, teenage mutant ninja turtles.

They also wake up to a possible gateway to humanity's embrace: They could become superheroesand possibly even save New York City from the pesky supervillain who's been stealing parts to build a massive bioweapon. (Isn't that always the way?)

That aforementioned supervillain is Superfly (Ice Cube), a giant mutant housefly with a good point (humanity kinda sucks ... ), a bad plan ( ... so let's unleash a weapon to destroy and/or enslave them) and an army of mutant-animal sidekicks. These include TMNT staples such as Rocksteady (a rhino voiced by John Cena) and Bebop (a warthog voiced by Seth Rogen), among many others.

But when our Turtle heroes confront the various villains, they face a fork in the road: Do they join up with bad guys who offer them a sense of mutant community (as seen in a funny bit of bonding at a bowling alley) or help out humans who'd break out the pitchforks if they so much as knew that teenage mutant ninja turtles existed?

Once the world-building and scene-setting are out of the way — and it really does take longer than it should — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem fully takes flight.

April O'Neil has taken many forms over the lifespan of the franchise (including a stretch in the Michael Bay reboots where she's played by Megan Fox), but she's smartly conceived here as a plucky high-schooler and aspiring journalist who's got her own journey to worry about.

The Turtles themselves, voiced by actual teenagers, are similarly re-envisioned from their early incarnations as fratty catchphrase factories.

And it can't be overstated how much juice Ice Cube gives Superfly, as a sort of mutant-housefly variation on Killmonger in the first Black Panther movie: He makes a meal of every line, as anyone who's heard him rap might expect.

Mikey, Donnie, Leo and Raph in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem."
/ Paramount Pictures.
Paramount Pictures.
Mikey, Donnie, Leo and Raph in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem doesn't entirely hit its stride until it shifts into third-act resolution mode — an inversion of so many superhero origin stories, which can become rote as stuff gets flung into buildings — but it's consistently buoyed by its inventive and playful animation. Director Jeff Rowe has talked about a desire to make the film look like it was made by teenagers (to evoke youthful passion and intensity) and he pulls it off, making a film that's always visually in motion.

At times, it resembles a kind of hand-drawn claymation; at other points, it evokes sketch books; collectively, it shares a fair bit of creative DNA with the Spider-Verse movies. The fight scenes feel particularly kinetic, thanks in part to a top-notch score by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and needle drops that incorporate lots of '90s hip-hop (a smart touch given TMNT's place in that decade's history).

Whether or not Mutant Mayhem breaks through Barbenheimer's sturdy hammerlock on th summer 2023 box office, it's sure to win over the franchise's fans. And if you've stayed away from TMNT over the years — whether because of "Cowabunga!" or "Ninja Rap" or Michael Bay or whatever — don't be afraid to break out your swords, shout something that sounds cool and leap back into the fray.

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a host, writer and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist and guest host on All Songs Considered. Thompson also co-hosts the daily NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created with NPR's Linda Holmes in 2010. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)