Mutant Mayhem: This new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film is top notch. Who could have seen it coming?

Previous Turtles incarnations had a twentysomething swagger. Jeff Rowe’s subterranean avengers are continually battling with believable insecurities

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
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Director: Jeff Rowe
Cert: PG
Starring: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown jnr, Hannibal Buress, Rose Byrne, Nicolas Cantu, John Cena, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Ayo Edebiri
Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins

Months before Barbie demonstrated the right way to manage “intellectual property”, Jeff Rowe, director of the latest attack on an indestructible amphibian franchise, referenced another of Greta Gerwig’s films. “We wanted it to be like Stand By Me and Lady Bird,” Jeff Rowe told Empire magazine. “But, you know, with Ninja Turtles.” Readers could be forgiven for choking on their pizza. Given the series’ history on the big screen, the comparison to Lady Bird felt, at the time, no less fanciful than would a comparison to The Seventh Seal. (The Michael Bay take from a decade ago was so traumatising that I have purged every memory of it from a still-traumatised brain.)

Rowe, whose The Mitchells vs the Machines deserved to win the 2021 animated-feature Oscar, was plainly speaking with a corner of tongue in his cheek. But he was not just yanking chains. Casting teenagers in voice roles for the first time in the Turtles’ on-screen career, the film does connect with the adolescent angst that powered Lady Bird and Stand By Me. Whereas previous incarnations had a twentysomething swagger, these subterranean avengers are continually battling with believable insecurities.

It’s a small thing, but it helps set Mutant Mayhem some distance apart from the pack that preceded it. Cowritten by Seth Rogen, who is of an age to have grown up with the TV cartoon, the film is conspicuously respectful to the comic book that launched the empire in 1984. The success of the Spider-Verse films, with their hectic, dreamlike animation, looks to have empowered the film-makers to move outside the drab conventions of kidult entertainment. The visuals have the scratchy, messy quality you get from comics when they aren’t trying to look like movies. It is easy to convince oneself the blurs are blotches that got there by accident – though they obviously didn’t.

That sense of film-makers treating something inherently silly with proper seriousness is reflected right down the credits. The excellent voice talent includes Rose Byrne (Australian alligator), Ice Cube (giant deranged insect), Paul Rudd (mutated manta ray) and Rogen himself (untrustworthy warthog). Ayo Edebiri, so likable in The Bear on Disney+, layers on the charm as the sympathetic journalist April O’Neil. An unmistakable Jackie Chan adds weight to Splinter, the Turtles’ adoptive rat dad. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Academy Award winners for The Social Network, are here to drench the soundtrack in urban drone.


With the rest of the package so classy, it feels churlish to complain that the plot follows the usual beats of such things. A breathless opening section lets us know that, some years before the main narrative begins, a strain of mutagen in the New York sewers altered the development of Splinter and the young turtles. The now-giant rat found the young fellows in a pile of green ooze and raised them to fear and distrust the human world.

Here in the present day, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo occasionally sneak out to watch movies – their fellow Paramount Pictures release Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a favourite – but are, for the most part, fairly obedient martial-arts reptiles. All changes when a malign fellow mutant called Superfly (Ice Cube as an actual super fly) threatens to take violent revenge on mankind. It’s essentially the X-Men conflict with Superfly as Magneto and Splinter as Professor X. Only cheekier. And not so self-important. With fewer reference to 1960s racial politics.

That plot serves as a respectable structure on which to hang an escalating series of good-natured gags. The screenplay indulges in nuggets of snark – a quip about Chris Pine as top Chris, for instance – but never allows that smart-aleckry to overpower the key objective. This remains a top-notch effort that implicitly pleads for invention and sincerity in family entertainment. Who could have seen it coming?

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist