There’s a refreshing sense of nostalgia in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Madness” — and it doesn’t just have to do with the fact that the eternally youthful ninja turtles have been around since the 1980s, in the form of the original comic book series, as well as TV adaptations, films, toys and video games.
It’s in the very look of the movie: meticulous computer-generated animation remixed with lively doodles and scribbles, splotches of color and unclean lines — the kind of art that would come from the combination of a free period, a pack of Sharpies and a composition notebook. After all, what’s more adolescent than that?
You probably already know the back story: Four cute little turtles get transformed by radioactive ooze and are adopted and raised underground, in the sewers of New York, by a rat named Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan) who’s a master of martial arts. They’re all big fans of pizza.
Now, as teenagers, the turtles — pugnacious Raphael (Brady Noon), doofy Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), nerdy Donatello (Micah Abbey) and their ever-earnest leader, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu) — dream of having a normal life with humans. But the aboveground masses face their own threat: Another mutated creature, Superfly (Ice Cube), aims to overtake the human world, Magneto-style. The turtles team up with a student journalist named April (Ayo Edebiri) to try to save the day and hopefully be accepted into human society.
This is certainly a Ninja Turtles for the Internet Age — which, like the web itself, is fun and vast, but ultimately tiring. The dialogue is stacked with pop culture references to show that the four kung-fu-fighting old masters of the sewers definitely have YouTube and Netflix (and, one assumes, surprisingly good Wi-Fi). So they reminisce about sneaking off to an Adele concert and catch Ferris Bueller at a Brooklyn movie drive-in, and Donatello waxes poetic about anime.
The movie shows the most heart when the group gets hyped up together, going into long, digressive riffs punctuated with jokes and dance moves, channeling the wholesome playfulness that has kept the franchise so popular.
“Mutant Mayhem” pulls off its zany cartoon humor mainly in its fight scenes, where Jeff Rowe’s direction, full of frenzied angles and high-flying action, perfectly replicates the chaos. There’s a bit of body humor that, though not always as effective (with the noted exception of a vomiting scene, ironically paired with a chipper Natasha Bedingfield song), feels appropriate given its depiction of the roach-and-sewer experience that’s New York living.
To top it off, “Mutant Mayhem” is sprinkled with self-referential jokes that poke fun at its own logic, like the inconsistent science behind the magical radioactive gunk. Even its villains troll the turtle-heroes, calling the green siblings “Geico geckos” and “Shreks.”
With its far-reaching references, “Mutant Mayhem” is similar to the new wave of animated films, like “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” and the Spider-Verse films (and perhaps even going back a few years, with “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and the Lego movies), that revel in a pop culture pastiche of emojis, gifs, viral videos and chatspeak.
And the music is always on-point; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross produce a killer score in their signature wild, industrial rock mixed with a few softer piano-heavy interludes. Other sequences jump off the screen thanks to the addition of quintessentially New York hip-hop, such as DMX and Blackstreet.
The casting is a thing of beauty, with more comedic talent than I have the space to call out here. Hearing Paul Rudd, Rose Byrne, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Hannibal Buress and Post Malone (as a reluctant bad guy who just wants to sing) as various colorful — and I mean that literally and figuratively — mutants is like, say, getting a free order of breadsticks with your pizza.
In fact, the cast of side characters almost outshines the turtles themselves in the comedy department, with Chan’s endearing Splinter and Ice Cube’s 1970s Blaxploitation-style funky-fresh villain, Superfly, being the prime examples.
But in the end, there’s little complexity to the characters and no surprise to the plot. And even the messaging, about tolerance, good intentions and outsiders finding their brood, is so unimaginatively expressed that it feels cliché.
A film unintentionally stuck in its own kind of adolescence, “Mutant Mayhem” has plenty of charms but tries so hard to be cool, funny and relevant — so totally online — that it forgets to kick back with a slice, some buds and just, you know, vibe.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. In theaters.