Are we living in a Golden Age of animation? Guillermo del Toro’s stop motion masterpiece, Pinocchio, Dreamworks’ Puss In Boots: The Last Wish and the miniature charms of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On all pointed in that direction. British audiences may have had to wait until this year for the latter two, but it’s made 2023 even better, especially with the arrival of the astonishing Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, even though there’s no sign of the studio most associated with animation among those gems. It continues to be noticeably absent as this year’s latest big animation comes from Paramount – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Mutant Mayhem. Although, given the names of the heroes in a half shell, perhaps we should be talking about a renaissance?
Launched into the world at the start of the 90s, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Rafael have never really gone away. True, they haven’t matched the turtlemania of their early years, but with live action films, animated series, toys and theme park rides they’re still a favourite 30 years down the line. With all that history, it’s even more surprising that Mutant Mayhem feels so fresh. And much of that is down to the animation, with director Jeff Rowe dipping into the Lord and Miller manual, mixing up the styles seamlessly and giving pride of place to scribbled, hand-drawn imperfection. It’s a visual feast, colourful, packed with teenage energy and with more than a touch of spectacle, all of which comes together to make that rarest of movies – one that’s aimed at the family and genuinely appeals to all ages.
In what is essentially an origin story, we’re shown how green ooze contaminated the sewers and affected four baby turtles who were being looked after by the rat, Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan). He schools them in martial arts and, as teenagers, they constantly hanker after the lives of humans – going to high school, watching movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in particular), parties etc – but their surrogate dad constantly tries to persuade them of the dangers of life above ground, especially the possibility of being kidnapped by humans who may try to “milk” them. It’s a recurring theme, as is the fact that they don’t have nipples. Danger comes in the malevolent shape of mutant villain Superfly (voiced by Ice Cube, in a more than passable Samuel L Jackson impersonation) and the four take him on, with help from student journalist April O’Neil (the voice of Ayo Edebiri).
Seth Rogen’s name on the credits – writer, producer and actor – gives a clear idea of what to expect: fast paced humour with lots of knowing laughs, all drawing on his experience in teenage comedy. And having four young, mainly unknown, actors as the turtles means the pressure is off when it comes to the banter and bickering – and there’s plenty of that. The film makes great use of its voice cast: aside from Rogen, Ice Cube and Chan, there’s John Cena, Giancarlo Esposito and Rose Byrne, with a wonderfully goofy turn from Paul Rudd as Mondo, a stoned mutant gecko.
True, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Across The Spider-Verse, but the excellent animation, combined with well-chosen voices and some devilish pop-culture gags – the best is directed at Messrs Pine, Pratt and Evans – makes this latest turtle adventure one heck of an enjoyable ride. Pass the pizza.
Animation, Action, Comedy | UK cinemas, 31 July 2023 | Paramount Studios | Cert: PG | Dir: Jeff Rowe | The voices of Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Ayo Edebiri, Rose Byrne, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Paul Rudd, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Maya Rudolph, Giancarlo Esposito.