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Early in the new animated film directed by Jeff Rowe, the title characters, all teenagers, blow off their grocery-shopping errand to go watch an outdoor screening of the classic comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It seems exactly the sort of thing that fun-loving adolescents would do on a beautiful summer night, even if they are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
That rebellious, anarchic vibe permeates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the umpteenth spin on the classic characters, the screenwriters and producers of which include Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Adopting a decidedly younger spin toward its teenage heroes, the hugely entertaining and funny film seems destined to reinvigorate the franchise and attract plenty of nostalgic adults as well as young fans.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Release date: Friday, Aug. 2
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
Director: Jeff Rowe
Co-director: Kyler Spears
Screenwriters: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit
1 hour 39 minutes
Those looking for an in-depth analysis of the film’s handling of the long-running media franchise created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman — one that has seen innumerable incarnations from its comic-book origins, including animated and live-action television series and films, not to mention mega-selling toys, video games and other merchandise — will have to look elsewhere; my exposure has strictly been of the casual kind. But I can report that this CGI-animated effort is the most engaging version I’ve encountered thus far, which bodes well for those who haven’t grown up as TMNT lovers.
Three other writers besides longtime creative partners Rogen and Goldberg contributed to the screenplay, which not surprisingly turns out to be an origin story. That story is told in flashback, related by the quartet’s adoptive rat father Splinter (Jackie Chan, voicing his role with gusto) to his sons to explain why he’s kept them isolated from the human world. Suffice it to say that the mutant, martial-arts expert rodent hasn’t exactly warmed to the human population in New York City as a result of the way they’ve treated him over the years.
The story kicks in when the Turtles (Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon) meet April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri, The Bear), in this rendition an ambitious teen reporter at her high-school television station who went viral after she unfortunately had an epic vomiting session while on the air. Learning of her hopes to bring down the criminal mastermind Super Fly (Ice Cube), who’s been terrorizing the city with his evil crew of fellow mutants, they decide to help her in her ambitious mission, reasoning that if they become heroes the city’s human denizens may embrace them and they can live normal lives. Which is exactly the way that headstrong teenagers would think.
The alliance leads to epic action-movie-style confrontations with Super Fly (love the name!) and his gang, an all-star assemblage of TMNT characters and voice performers including Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), Ray Fillet (Post Malone), Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd), Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou) and Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress).
Similar in look to the Spider-Verse animated films and resembling underground comics in its deliberately rough-hewn character and background designs, the film directed by Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) and co-directed by Kyler Spears features vibrantly distinctive visuals that perfectly suit the rambunctious and frequently violent proceedings. The dialogue proves consistently amusing (not surprising considering Rogen’s participation), and the fact that the young actors voicing the TMNTs were actually teenagers when they recorded their performances infuses a welcome youthful energy to the goings-on. The celebrity performers seem to be having a blast as well; when Super Fly delivers dialogue quoting lyrics from the classic O’Jays song “Backstabbers,” it’s hard not imagine Ice Cube grinning in the recording booth.
Speaking of classic songs, the supercool soundtrack features a plethora of original and reworked ‘90s-era hip-hop numbers by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, with one action sequence exuberantly accompanied by “No Diggity.” But it also has room for a retro pop song like Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely” when it suits the occasion.