Friday, August 25, 2023

Gran Turismo Is PlayStation Marketing Poorly Masquerading As An Actual Movie

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

At the end of the 2006 motion picture Cars, Lightning McQueen observes that the Piston Cup trophy he’s been obsessed with for so long “is just an empty cup.” It's a moment that's meant to signify that this brash racecar has come a long way and realized what's truly important in life. This particular line of dialogue, though, could have also been referring to the new film Gran Turismo. Much like a Piston Cup trophy, Gran Turismo is also hollow and meaningless. Director Neil Blomkamp, after previously delivering original pieces of sci-fi storytelling, has now helmed a late capitalism nightmare that proudly boasts about being a commercial for massive corporations. This newest example of how subpar video game movies can be wields as much genuine compassion for the working class as a 2023 country song that debuts atop the Billboard Hot 100 charts and contains as much fun as your average trip to the dentist. 

Based on the video game series Gran Turismo and based on the true story of racer Jann Mardenborough, Gran Turismo begins with an explanation of the history of its titular video game that feels indistinguishable from a commercial. It's a very promising start. From there, Jason Hall and Zach Baylin's screenplay takes viewers into the world of Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a video game-obsessed twenty-something with seemingly unobtainable dreams of engaging in the world of racing. For this working-class guy, the closest he'll ever get is his treasured Gran Turismo video games. However, a new competition spearheaded by marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) could give Mardenborough the chance he's been waiting for. Moore's concocted a scheme to have veteran racer Jack Salter (David Harbour) train a bunch of gamers to become professional racecar drivers. Satler is skeptical about the whole concept but the conviction and know-how of Mardenborough makes him believe that maybe this plan can go somewhere.

If there's anything audiences should take away from Gran Turismo above all else, it's that hinging so much of a movies drama on whether or not "sim-racers" (video game players experienced in "simulated" races) will be accepted by the racing world is a terrible idea. No matter how many times people say the phrase "sim-racers", it never stops sounding stupid. Any potential investment in the proceedings gets thrown out with the bathwater once those two words drop out of somebody's lips. It doesn't help that the underlying stakes of that acceptance never feel tangible or interesting. The intent behind this drama is that, if "sim-racers" are accepted into "snooty" races, maybe more working-class folks will be allowed into this sporting arena. With the surface-level execution of this script, though, Gran Turismo's plot seems to hinge solely on whether or not Mardenborough will be able to prove that more PlayStation promotion can exist at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

These are the kinds of thoughts that race through one's mind as Gran Turismo rolls through a cycle of familiar plot points with all the speed of a busted jaloppy. Something else that proves hard to dismiss? The pervasively ugly color scheme and visual aesthetic of the whole movie. Gray seeps into so much of the film and the big races always tend to take place in days dominated by overcast. Once he's entered the world of professional racing, Mardenborough walks from one sparsely decorated sleek space to another, with little in the way of bright hues or distinctive details in the various sets to exude a sense of personality to the character's various backdrops. It's all so drab looking and makes the racing world Mardenborough has always dreamed of entering seem so repellant. Who wants to spend their days working to the bone in places so sterile? Any of the tactility Blomkamp brought to his earliest directorial efforts is nowhere to be found throughout Gran Turismo.

Even the big racing scenes in Gran Turismo, surely the one saving grace of this subpar blockbuster, aren't anything to write home about. Blomkamp and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret really love using footage captured by drones for these sequences, which sometimes have a fun sweeping quality to them. However, generally, lengthy scenes where fast cars go zoom aren't realized in an especially exhilarating fashion. Even visual flourishes that translate details from the Gran Turismo video game onto the actual tracks Mardenborough is racing on aren't especially imaginative. Awkward cuts between actual automobiles and CG doubles for those vehicles as well as clumsy pieces of editing further undercut the potential excitement of these sequences. The latter element of the production, handled by Colby Parker, Jr. and Austyn Daines, is especially distracting whenever the camera is just capturing people talking to one another. Why does an early speech from Satler to the prospecting gamer racers have so many awkward cuts to random objects and people? Who knows.

There's little to capture the heart or captivate the senses in Gran Turismo, not even in terms of delivering thrills that temporarily exhilarating in the moment. It's so mechanically realized from top to bottom that its inspirational sports movie narrative beats never feel human enough while any stabs at human drama feel like a robot trying to mimic what "romance" or "male bonding" looks like. The aloof nature of the whole project only becomes briefly interestingly bad when Gran Turismo kicks off its third act with a miscalculated dark turn that brings grave mortality into the world of Mardenborough. A lengthy advertisement for PlayStation suddenly trying to grapple with an actual human being's death (and reducing this person to just being an unnamed plot point) goes about as well as you'd expect. It's staggeringly mishandled, but it's also a distinctively memorable poor choice, at least. The rest of the feature, save for Djimon Hounsou putting in a terrific supporting turn, is just a tedious slog that feels six times as long as Jeanne Dielman. If you love lengthy unskippable ads on YouTube, you’re gonna get your motor running over Gran Turismo.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Blue Beetle is rock-solid superhero fare leaning into low-key pleasures

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

There's been lots of internet chatter over how the new DC Comics feature Blue Beetle will impact future DC blockbusters. What I find more fascinating is how Blue Beetle relates to the last three DC motion pictures, Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and The Flash. Each of these blockbusters was bloated messes that traded out any trace of humanity or fun for scale and a deluge of CG baddies. All three features wanted to have the scope of a David Lean epic and the wit of a James Gunn comic book adaptation, but none of them had the creativity necessary to live up to their aspirations. After so much excess, the low-key nature of Blue Beetle is as welcoming as a drop of water in the desert. A movie willing to just focus on just a handful of characters and being an enjoyable standalone excursion is a prime way to wash out the nasty taste of The Flash from one's mouth.

Blue Beetle begins with Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) returning from college to his hometown of Palmera City. Reuniting with family like younger sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar), and grandma Nana (Adriana Barraza), Reyes discovers that his loved ones are going through tough times. Their house is being foreclosed on and money is scarce. Desperate to help, Jaime Reyes tries to score a job at Kord Industries through the aid of Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine). However, instead of scoring a cushy job, Reyes gets a scarab that attaches itself to his body. This mystical entity gives Jaime Reyes a superpowered exoskeleton known as the Blue Beetle. Now an ordinary twenty-something is dealing with all kinds of incredible abilities while also contending with the villainous Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) and her bodyguard Conrad Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), both of whom want the scarab for nefarious purposes.

Originally intended as an HBO Max exclusive title
 (its release strategy was changed months before filming began), Blue Beetle's origins as a thriftier superhero tale are noticeable on-screen but not at all in a bad way. On the contrary, having less than half the budget of Black Adam at their disposal has inspired writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer and director Ángel Manuel Soto to make sure the character beats of Blue Beetle truly click. After all, there is no CG skybeam in the third act to distract audiences from unengaging on-screen personalities. Luckily, Jaime Reyes and his family turn out to be an enjoyable collection of characters to spend two hours with, especially Dunnet-Alcocer wisely pumps the brakes on the story occasionally to depict low-key interactions between these loved ones.

For instance, a moment where Jaime Reyes and Alberto sit in front of their house, talking about the future while looking at plants the latter character put into the ground years earlier proves mighty touching. Meanwhile, the action-heavy third act nicely avoids the problem many superhero movies struggle with. Titles like The Wolverine tend to deliver finales that feel divorced from the character-centric sequences that preceded them. Suddenly, all the pathos is jettisoned so that the protagonist can duke it out with a CG monster. Wisely, Blue Beetle keeps the family of Jamie Reyes front and center for the entire narrative, including the climax. Never losing sight of this superhero's relationship with his loved ones gives Blue Beetle a sense of narrative consistency even when superpowered beings are punching each other. 

Those brawls between Reyes and Carapax (the latter of whom initially has a suit of armor that makes him look like one of the Jaegers from Pacific Rim) are more perfunctory than the character beats of Blue Beetle. The decision to shoot the biggest action sequences at night robs these set pieces of a chance to engage in bright colors reminiscent of vintage comic books while the choreography and sound mixing in these Reyes/Carapax showdowns often feel too derivative of similar skirmishes in superhero fare like Iron Man. Anytime these fights lean into the silliness of Reyes conjuring up any weapon from his Blue Beetle suit (like axes, swords, blasters, etc.), the action scenes certainly get taken up a notch in excitement. Meanwhile, the initial tension between Reyes and Khaji-Da (Becky G), the entity inside the scarab, informs some of the most enjoyable action beats as these characters struggle to reconcile their opposing views on how to take out bad guys. Speaking of the suit, it looks great on-screen. The decision to realize it as a practical on-set outfit rather than something added in through CGI later pays off nicely, those blue hues just pop right off the screen.

Speaking of pleasant surprises, composer Bobby Krilic (a prolific musician and songwriter whose only prior film scores were limited to Triple 9 and the last two Ari Aster features) delivers a fantastic score for Blue Beetle that reinforces the distinctive personality of the overall feature. In an inspired move, Krilic has opted for an electronic sound in the score. This quality immediately differentiates the sonic landscape of Blue Beetle from other superhero movies, which often feature scores trying too hard to emulate the compositions of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Save for occasionally distracting uses of that Inception "bwaaammm" noise, Krilic's score here is an idiosyncratic creation that could be enjoyed even divorced from the context of Blue Beetle. These tracks lend propulsive energy that proves fitting for a movie that's generally and enjoyably on the move, save for a second act that gets too bogged down in Blue Beetle lore and antics involving supporting character Rudy Reyes (George Lopez).

Sometimes, it's best to keep things low-key. Blue Beetle is a great example of this. Even just confining one's gaze to the realm of superhero movies, Angel Manuel Soto's feature isn't an all-time classic. It's too statically filmed and a tad too eager to embrace familiar superhero film hallmarks (like an action scene set to an 80s rock song, in this case, a Mötley Crüe ditty) to be the next The Batman or Spider-Man 2. However, that doesn't discount the fact that this is still a mighty enjoyable slice of blockbuster filmmaking that finds its best moments leaning into earnest humanity and comic book tomfoolery. What a welcome reprieve that is after The Flash and Black Adam beat viewers over the head with endless spectacle in place of any soul. Oh, it also must be said that it was delightful to sit in a packed house of moviegoers and witness people getting excited at references to pop culture properties like El Chapulín Colorado or watching Blue Beetle's equivalent to cheer-worthy superhero movie lines like "I'm always angry" getting delivered in Spanish. Those details reflect how Blue Beetle doesn't reinvent the wheel but provides enough unique flourishes to register as a fun time. Certainly, it's way better than Shazam! Fury of the Gods...

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Lisa Laman's Summer 2023 Arthouse Cinema Catch-Up

A scene from Before, Now & Then

For this week's review, Lisa Laman will be breaking the mold...a little bit. With major new wide releases being scarce in the middle of August 2023,  this review will instead provide mini-reviews of a handful of new indie movies that have dropped in the past few weeks. Though the reviews are more concise than usual, perhaps this will put some films on people's radar that they weren't previously aware of. Make sure to support independent theaters and artists!

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.


Afire chronicles Leon (Thomas Schubert), who is sharing a cabin with best pal Felix (Langston Uibel) and unexpected guest Nadja (Paula Beer). Surrounding these characters is a forest that's catching fire, but that seems like an afterthought considering how overwhelmingly irritable Leon is to everyone around him. Helmed by Christian Petzold, the filmmaker behind Phoenix and Transit, Afire manages several deft feats in terms of storytelling, including making Leon a reasonably compelling protagonist despite his relentless rudeness. Also impressive? The way the project weaves an absorbing world out of just a handful of people in the German countryside. The intimate scope of the proceedings works wonders in making the tension between the lead characters feel extremely palpable while the ever-increasing wildfires function as a great subtle ticking clock. There's lots to admire in Afire in terms of its narrative intricacies, but it's also just a gripping character-based drama while you're watching it unfold. 

Tori and Lokita

In the tradition of French movies about tortured youths from the likes of Robert Bresson and François Truffaut, Tori and Lokita captures the miserable lives of two kids, Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Mbundu Joely). Immigrants from Africa, the pair are on their own somewhere in Belgium, trying to make money by working alongside some shady characters. All the while, all they want to do is help their mom back home and stick together. It's incredibly impressive how well Schils and Joely both handle the weighty material of the screenplay by directors Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. A pair of great lead performances and some sharp directing, though, can't infuse Tori and Lokita with enough of a discernible personality to differentiate it from other similar dramas about adolescent characters navigating the horrors of the world. A film so conceptually harrowing shouldn't also register as so often too familiar for its own good.

Before, Now & Then

By the time Before, Now & Then begins, major historical events have already faded into the past. A series of uprisings and events in Indonesia in the middle of the 20th century have already transpired, with Before, Now & Then following Nana (Happy Salma) as she navigates her existence in the wake of all that drastic change. Now in a new marriage, Nana is tormented by memories of her first partner, who was brutally killed, while finding salvation in a friendship with Ino (Lara Basuki), a lady her newest lover is carrying on an affair with. The Ino and Nana dynamic in Before, Now & Then is one of the greatest strengths of this project. Not only is it a conceptually interesting pairing that subverts viewer expectations over how Nana would respond to meeting a mistress, but the two actors have such compelling chemistry with one another. Quiet scenes of them talking about their respective internal woes and existential queries are incredibly fascinating. Writer/director Kamila Andini is wise to focus so heavily on this duo and she shows equally strong chops in how she visually depicts the past bleeding into Nana's modern life. 


The very first scene of the latest Ira Sachs movie, Passages, begins with Tomas (Franz Rogowski) working as a director and being extremely picky over how one performer should depict walking into a club. It's a terrific distillation of how controlling Tomas is, a trait that oozes over into his personal life with his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) and new lover Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The ensuing twisty-turny depiction of Tomas bouncing between two loves proves a most transfixing portrait of just how messy relationships can be, especially when a member of those dynamics is as toxic as Tomas. Sachs demonstrates a subtly keen visual eye for how to capture all that romantic turmoil and his decision to opt for lengthy single-takes when filming graphic sex scenes (including an extremely memorable one between Martin and Tomas) shows remarkable control. Even more so than the gripping script and camerawork, though, the true star of Passages has to be Ben Whishaw, who once again demonstrates his mastery of quiet but impactful characters with his work as Martin. The guy's haunted eyes and quietest line deliveries spark with more personality than most forceful monologues delivered by "method actors".


Shortcomings protagonist Ben (Justin H. Min) is insufferable. That's the point of Randall Park's directorial debut (adapted from Adrian Tomine's graphic novel of the same name, with Tomin also writing the screenplay adaptation), which doesn't hold back in depicting Ben being short-tempered and cynical to everyone he encounters, including his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki). The film's commitment to just how deeply unpleasant Ben is, Justin H. Min's engaging lead performance, and the fact that many of his personality traits seem designed to critique the sort of Letterboxd/Film Twitter heads who might her-worship Ben ends up making this character (at least for me) more interesting than repellant. However, Tomine and Park end up doing their job a little too well, as Ben's toxic traits are so well-defined that, by the time the third act arrives, one yearns for a darker conclusion rather than a rushed tidy wrap-up. Don't give us happily ever after, offer up something more challenging and morally ambiguous! Still, Shortcomings, even with an underwhelming finale, proves to be just the kind of breezy, well-acted indie that goes down easy in the summertime. Best of all, it's a great showcase for the talents of Joy Ride breakout star Sherry Cola, whose so much fun here in Shortcomings as Ben's best pal Alice.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Oppenheimer is a harrowing achievement from Christopher Nolan

In an early scene of Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) expresses skepticism for J. Robert Oppenheimer's (Cillian Murphy) ambitions for how just how widely-praised his plans for creating an atomic bomb could be. "You really think they'll give you a Nobel Prize for inventing a bomb?" Groves inquires. Oppenheimer then unleashes a wry smile and remarks "Alfred Nobel invented the stick of dynamite."

It's an amusing bit of dialogue illuminating the heavily opposing personalities of these two characters. However, it's also a moment that illustrates the dark undercurrent of Oppenheimer. This is a movie about how we, as humans love to destroy. We champion scientific invention or concepts like "Manifest Destiny" in the name of destroying others. The more blood that gets spilled on the ground, the greater the roaring cheers from the crowd. Even the Nobel Prize is derived from a man who gave humanity the tools to blow any object it sets its eyes on. Oppenheimer is a film about the creation of atomic bombs, but it is not a celebration of those tools. Writer/director Christopher Nolan's latest epic is a cautionary tale about the grisly legacies we leave behind and the horrific ways one human being can become "the most important man who ever lived."

Oppenheimer tells its story in a non-linear fashion, with the tale darting back and forth between various periods of Oppenheimer's life. The primary focus is on both the creation of the atomic bombs themselves and the 1954 Oppenheimer security hearings, though we also see even earlier events like Oppenheimer's time at school and his initial romantic interactions with Katherine Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). There's a comprehensiveness to Nolan's storytelling approach here, but Oppenheimer does not get bogged down in trying to cram too much into one movie. On the contrary, there's a verve to the proceedings, an electric energy initially built on the "ticking clock" of needing to build an atomic bomb before the Germans do. Gradually (and, in some ways, right from the start), though, the propulsive tension of Oppenheimer emanates from more complicated places. Events like the surrendering of Germany in World War II or the malicious behavior of American politicians toward domestic Communists were to tilt the origin of Oppenheimer's eerie atmosphere inward. In trying to stop monsters, J. Robert Oppenheimer gradually begins to realize he's participating in something monstrous.

Among the many virtues of Oppenheimer's non-linear storytelling is how many of these morally complicated elements are there from the get-go. Rather than being treated as a total "surprise" in the third act, the darker underbelly of American society is apparent from the get-go in elements like the struggles of California college scientists to unionize or the aggressive behavior of interrogator Roger Robb (Jason Clarke). Meanwhile, Oppenheimer's tendency to defer to consensus ("many scientists are saying...") rather than taking a concrete stand in the face of hard questions is also clear as a bell in these flashback sequences. This avoidance of specific political labels or intense confrontations is a peculiar trait in his everyday social interactions, but it eventually becomes a grave shortcoming when Oppenheimer has to grapple with the consequences of his atomic bombs. Within Oppenheimer, the past and present are fascinatingly intertwined. Darting between various points in time allows the viewer to appreciate how the tiniest bits of throwaway human behavior can end up having such profound consequences long-term.

Thematically, Oppenheimer grapples with plenty of weighty ideas, while the presentation of the titular physician's life (complete with impressionistic cutaways depicting particles and atoms reacting to one another) presents those concepts in an appropriately distinctive manner. As grand as the film's intellectual ambitions, though, are its visuals. The grave momentousness of the creation of atomic weaponry is matched in scale by staggering imagery captured by Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema. I was especially taken by the subtly evocative color palette of the feature, with the monochromatic segments making such an impact because they're divorced from the discernible yet grounded colors (like the brown sandy deserts of Los Alamos, New Mexico) that dominate other parts of Oppenheimer. The innately woeful tone of those hearings sequences is exacerbated by draining out all the color present in scenes where Oppenheimer believes he's making fruitful history. Meanwhile, the 70mm IMAX version of Oppenheimer especially allows one to appreciate the endless intricacies behind this project's camerawork. You haven't seen Cillian Murphy until you've seen him five stories tall!

Nolan has made tons of movies that are expansive in scope before. It's his reputation at this point, the last man standing who dares to use $100+ million budgets on original concepts with spectacle to spare. What's fascinating about Oppenheimer, though, is how its visuals, much like the overall atmosphere of the production, feel at once consistent with Nolan's prior creative efforts and excitingly detached from them. This filmmaker has worked with IMAX cameras and massive ensemble casts before, but rarely has he juggled so many starkly different visual qualities (like shifting from black-and-white to color) or dabbled in so much heightened imagery. The latter quality is especially potent in late scenes depicting the horrors of nuclear warfare intruding on the mind of Oppenheimer. He imagines himself stepping into corpses or running across sobbing families while he attempts to give a supposedly "triumphant" speech. It's a harrowing sequence technically divorced from reality (it's set in Oppenheimer's mind) yet reinforcing the inescapable horrors of this man's actions.

Meanwhile, the way sound just cuts off completely in the most intense moments of Oppenheimer (a way of emphasizing the haunting atmosphere of the feature) is also a bold new measure in Nolan's filmmaking techniques used to incredibly interesting effect. Even the director's embrace of explicit on-screen sexuality is intriguingly realized, with eroticism drained out of these depictions of physical intimacy to capture how often Oppenheimer seems divorced from other human beings. You've never seen a Christopher Nolan movie quite like Oppenheimer, even as it clutches his best qualities as a director and takes them to new heights. It's a remarkable project brought to life through daring filmmaking and a terrific ensemble cast, the latter detail anchored by an unforgettable turn from Cillian Murphy. You won't be able to take your eyes off his rendering of this physician who forever changed the world...but not necessarily for the better.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem Has Fun To Spare

There's always a mad rush to translate comic book and TV cartoon characters into live-action movies. It's not like adaptations of these properties using flesh-and-blood people are cursed, far from it. However, there's a stigma towards animation as a medium in this belief that a "proper" theatrical movie translating beloved pop culture icons can only be a street that leads from animation or drawings to the "real world". Why not just translate them into a new art style when bringing these figures into the world of animated cinema? After all, many characters belong in animation for a very good reason! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a great example of this, providing so much energy and life to the titular superheroes by keeping them in the world of animation, Reality would be too much of an anchor for these young heroes, as seen by the 2014 and 2016 Ninja Turtles movies. They need the limitless possibilities of animation to thrive.

Mutant Mayhem begins with those beloved turtles Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) living underground with their adopted rat dad Splinter (Jackie Chan) in fear of humans. After all, they're different from "normal" society and Splinter is convinced humans will only want to kill and milk the Turtles. However, being rambunctious teenagers, the turtles are eager to disobey their father and interact with the larger world. Thanks to new human pal April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri), the quartet gets a crazy idea: they can stop the dastardly New York criminal Superfly (Ice Cube) and garner the love of humanity that way. Once people see the turtles are heroes, not monsters, they'll have to accept these teenagers! This problem gets a touch complicated, though, when Superfly is revealed to be a mutant animal like the turtles. Where will the loyalties of these critters eventually lie?

I feel sorry for the directors of some of this year's biggest live-action blockbusters like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Flash, or Fast X. It must be so frustrating to spend the GDP of the Marshall Islands on a movie and then the action sequences just come out looking like garbage. Worse, the action scenes in costly titles like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny are being put to shame by the action-heavy set pieces in modern animated features ostensibly aimed at children. The likes of The Bad Guys, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and now Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem are doing circles around these PG-13 tentpoles. Unbound by the burden of "realistic" CG or choppy editing, Mutant Mayhem delivers all the wacky chaos you'd want out of a Ninja Turtles movie.

When these reptiles get to fighting, Mutant Mayhem director Jeff Rowe proves adept at keeping things zippy and energetic but not devolving into incoherent chaos. A lengthy sequence where the siblings confront a bevy of mob bosses around New York City, much of it captured in a single take, is especially impressive. These characters engage in fight scenes that take advantage of the stylized opportunities of animation, yet also find time to inject tangible touches of reality into the proceedings (like Splinter reaching for any nearby objects on the floor to use in a skirmish) that keeps things dramatically involving. Speaking of fun set pieces, a big appropriately goofy finale takes the ridiculousness of this franchise's "mutant ooze" element to dizzying new heights. Impressively, the scope of Mutant Mayhem gets expanded greatly here without sacrificing the emotionally involving elements. Best of all, it's just a flat-out ridiculous way to end a movie and that feels right for these characters. We're a long way from the self-consciousness of the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which felt it needed to ground everything about these characters in gritty reality. Anything about turtles who use ninja skills to fight bad guys should have the silliness dialed all the way up, like Mutant Mayhem's best fight scenes.

If there is any critical shortcoming in a screenplay attributed to Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, and Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit, it's that Mutant Mayhem can find itself relying too heavily on didactic expository dialogue. An opening scene with Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) flat-out turning to the camera to discuss the incoming feature's core themes of "family" establishes a precedent for the rest of the film to dip its toes into overly obvious lines.  Lots of elements in this Ninja Turtles movie exude confidence out of the wazoo. This kind of dialogue does not and feels outright at odds with the visual-oriented impulses of the productions. While the images of Mutant Mayhem are often so vivid, its characters still feel the need to hammer home fairly obvious character beats, backstory details, or thematic parallels.

There are also certain background characters in Mutant Mayhem, namely this film's incarnation of Bebop & Rocksteady, that totally could've just been played by professional voice actors rather than recognizable comedians/actors. Thankfully, most of the cast does great work with the roles they've been assigned, particularly all four of the leads playing the turtles. Even in voice-over form, they have great chemistry with one another and clearly communicate discernible personalities for each reptile. Ayo Edibiri also makes for an incredibly entertaining iteration of April O'Neil while Ice Cube emerges as the voice-over MVP with his bravura work as Superfly. Cube is just bursting with personality as this unabashedly wicked baddie and he lends lots of energy to this particular character. 

All of those vocals are filtered through an animation style that emphasizes a raggedy, scraggly quality to the world of the Ninja Turtles. Obvious scribble lines are plastered on everything from puffs of smoke to the moon, towering skyscrapers in New York City are crooked rather than straight, while the world evokes a more hand-drawn animation aesthetic than the perfectionism of typical CGI. Granted, it does take a while to get used to the fact that most of the human beings (April O'Neil excepted) are ugly as sin, but once you adjust to that quality, the animation style of Mutant Mayhem is truly impressive. Rather than being derivative of other modern CG features rooted in older animation styles like The Mitchells vs. The Machines or the Spider-Verse titles (the former of which was co-directed by Rowe), Mutant Mayhem uses those projects as launchpads for a wholly new aesthetic.

It's now been well over three decades since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first made their way to the big screen in 1990. The characters have been a staple of both pop culture and multiplexes ever since, but they've never felt as alive and vibrant as they do within Mutant Mayhem. Even after seeing them in so many other features before, the best parts of this new computer-animated title make it feel like viewers are meeting the Turtles for the very first time. Rarely has their adolescent angst felt so real or their world been so visually compelling. Also, no other Turtles movie has previously featured the chillaxed Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd) before! Though it has some cracks in its shell, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a lot of fun and a great encapsulation of why certain animated characters should remain in animation.