There are some good gags and clever innovations in the animated “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” but there is one brilliant idea: casting Ice Cube as the voice of the movie’s mutant insect supervillain Super Fly.
It might have once been hard to foresee the value of having the emcee who rapped of “dropping bombs on your moms” as the MVP of a PG-rated kids movie. But we’re now up to the seventh “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film, not counting all the series and videogames. That’s a lot of movies for a bit of IP that’s clung more firmly to lunch boxes than it has to pop culture. For the turtles, it was getting to be time to either, as Ice Cube would say, “chickity-check yo’ self” or try something new.
“Mutant Mayhem,” which opens in theaters Wednesday, can’t entirely get over the feeling of trodding over well-covered turtle ground. But if we must go once more into the ooze, the film by director Jeff Rowe (co-director of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” ) and co-written by co-producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is probably the best of a not-so-stellar franchise. It’s certainly the one most invested with that “teenage” part of the turtles’ name. Plus, it’s got Ice Cube as a fly who quotes from the O’Jays.
The animation is vividly textured, the beat is persistently hip-hop (Lauryn Hill, De La Soul, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and others pack the electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and the New York of the film is impressively detailed. But the most important twist to this “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” iteration may be diving into the teenage-ness of its 15-year-old turtles.
If “Barbie” was balanced between Greta Gerwig’s childhood memories and her adult feminism, “Mutant Mayhem” gives itself over more fully to the mindset of adolescence. That’s in the gross-out humor and the comic book-like feel of the animation. But these are also recognizable teenagers who watch movies (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), pine for concert tickets and make goofy phone videos of themselves slicing watermelons.
What Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu) and Raphael (Brady Noon) really want is to fit in and go to high school like other teens. They have been relegated to the sewer ever since Splinter, a rat voiced by Jackie Chan, happened upon them after they were exposed as hatchlings to the same ooze that spawned Super Fly — who himself was the product of experiments by scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito, fated to dubious laboratories).
Splinter has much the same opinion of the majority of the rats in “Ratatouille”: Humans can’t be trusted. (Splinter’s particular fear is that they will “milk” him.”) So the turtles have grown up underground, a little like the homeschooled family of “The Wolfpack,” while yearning for the wider world.
They find a hint of it with a high-school journalist named April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), who wants to document, and thus prove to humankind, their decency. At the same, the turtles meet the charismatic Super Fly (voiced with bombastic aplomb by Ice Cube) and his band of mutants. At first, they’re fast-friends — “cousins,” Super Fly says — but the turtles then start hearing of Super Fly’s plans to turn all animals into mutants and eradicate the world of humans.
“Peoples, they got to go,” chimes one mutant.
Some of the thunder of “Mutant Mayhem” has been stolen by “Into the Spider-Verse” and this year’s “Across the Spider-Verse” — films that likewise upend the typical look of studio animation and do it with a pulsing soundtrack; but they did it more eclectically.
Yet this “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” while a half shell of those films, has its own low-key charms. It’s goofier, grosser and mostly fun. The four turtles are never more than a hard-to-differentiate bale of overlapping dialogue of doubt and anxiety. But that first word in their name finally feels genuine. Seven films in, it’s only right that Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael should get a renaissance.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for sequences of violence and action, language and impolite material. Running time: 99 minutes. Three stars out of four.