PLOT Four sewer-dwelling turtles must save New York City from a monster run amok.
CAST Voices of Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Maya Rudolph
RATED PG (some peril and gross humor)
WHERE Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Wildly original animation makes the latest Turtles installment weirdly compelling.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” might be the ugliest-looking animated movie you’ve ever seen. That’s meant as a compliment. After years of ho-hum installments, this long-running franchise has finally produced something truly original — though its bizarre, often nightmarish vision won’t be to all tastes.
The gnarly aesthetic is a shock after decades of that smooth, rounded, three-dimensional style popularized by Pixar. Take our four heroes, aptly described by the film’s title: Their muddy-green faces appear to be made of something like Plasticine, decorated with pastel squiggles. The rat who raised them in the sewers of New York City, Splinter (Jackie Chan), has raggedy fur and spindly teeth. The human high schooler April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) — whom one of the turtles falls in love with — has squat little legs and roughly drawn lips (a far cry from Megan Fox, who has played her twice). And these grody-looking creatures are the good guys.
The turtles do have their appeal, partly because they’re all played by actual teenagers: Nicolas Cantu as Leonardo, Brady Noon as Raphael, Micah Abbey as Donatello and Shamon Brown, Jr., as Michelangelo. It isn’t easy to keep their personalities straight, but the actors establish an authentic rapport, joshing and ribbing each other the way kids their age do. Poignantly, the turtles yearn to live aboveground (they love pizza, sneakers and video games), but they know that humans would only recoil from them in horror. Maybe director Jeff Rowe (whose 2021 animated feature “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” earned an Oscar nod) is making a point with his unsightly visuals: In a world where everyone looks hideous, who’s the monster? (Kyler Spears is credited as co-director.)
The voice actors can be sublime, beginning with an endearing Chan as Splinter (whose big fight scene involves some very Chan-like acrobatics and prop work). Maya Rudolph plays the shadowy Cynthia Utrom, who hovers on the story’s edges. Ice Cube, in his first animated voice role, is downright chilling as Superfly, a massive, muscular insect with a bottomless hatred for humanity. (If it’s possible to play a part too well, Ice Cube does it.) Members of Superfly’s grotesque gang are played by Rose Byrne, Post Malone, John Cena and producer-writer Seth Rogen (who along with his longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg deserves credit for putting this whole weird project together).
With its nighttime settings, lurid color palette and slightly apocalyptic vibe, “Mutant Mayhem” feels more like a piece of punk-pulp cinema from the 1980s — say “Repo Man” or “The Toxic Avenger” — than the Nickelodeon production it actually is. That’s a surprise, and for some viewers maybe even a delightful one.