Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Raphael (Brady Noon), and Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) are back on the big screen in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” This fully animated feature is yet another caper involving pizza, fighting, and the titular “toitles” (as they are called by more than one nemesis).
If you’re familiar with this franchise, which began as a comic by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman before hitting the big screen in 1990, you may find some enjoyment in this fully animated reboot. But striking visuals aside, “Mutant Mayhem” doesn’t cover any new ground, and the franchise’s most famous foe, Shredder, is used solely as a means to set up a sequel.
As in prior installments, “Mutant Mayhem” gives us the origin story of the four heroes who are named after painters (the movie assumes its audience won’t know who those painters are, so this detail goes unmentioned). How they became mutants, grew to love pizza, and were adopted by a giant rat named Splinter (Jackie Chan) is rehashed for a new generation of viewers.
Master Splinter hates humans; we learn why during an odd flashback sequence set in Times Square. To protect his family, he teaches his wards kung fu using a montage of YouTube videos and Hong Kong actioners. If you think that co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are shameless enough to put a clip of one of Chan’s films in that montage, you may be right.
“Mutant Mayhem” begins before the turtles metamorphose. Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) is a loner scientist experimenting with ways to turn animals into mutants. His lab is invaded by minions of Cynthia Utrom (Maya Rudolph), who wants the chemical formula and the creature it has created. Stockman is killed, but his experiment — a giant fly — escapes.
Meanwhile, Stockman’s chemical formula, a neon-green substance called “the Ooze,” comes in contact with a rat and four baby turtles in the sewers of New York City. Yes, that’s the same Ooze as in the title of the 1991 sequel “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.” That movie contained a horrendous Vanilla Ice rap song called “Ninja Rap.” If you predicted this film will find a way to sneak that song into the narrative as an in-joke, you may be psychic.
Of course, the giant mutant fly is named “Superfly,” and, no, Paramount didn’t pony up any dough to the Curtis Mayfield estate so that title song could appear. Instead, Superfly is voiced by Ice Cube, who brings an effectively snarky, intimidating arrogance even when he’s forced to say lines like “I’m a Supa Dupa Fly.”
Practically every other line in this movie contains some kind of pop culture reference, and some are so outdated I wondered who exactly is the target audience for this movie. One of the guys mentions talk show gossip queen Wendy Williams, and the Paramount IP on display includes clips from the movie about Chicago’s biggest teen sociopath, Ferris Bueller.
Even the needle drops are head-scratchers; action scenes are inexplicably scored to choices like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” and the ne plus ultra of robbery rap songs, M.O.P’s “Ante Up.” It’s as if the filmmakers are so busy trying to show you how cool they are that they forgot to write a compelling story.
In this iteration, the turtles’s human friend, TV newscaster April O’Neil, is a high school student and aspiring journalist. “The Bear”‘s Ayo Edebiri brings some youthful charm to the character, whose Meet Cute with Leo and his crew occurs after one of them throws a ninja star into her bike helmet.
Like every journalist in NYC in the film, April is trying to figure out who is robbing nuclear and chemical materials and why. Unlike those pros, April is terrified to be in front of the camera. In fact, her high school nickname is “Puke Girl” because her one experience as the student network’s anchor resulted in her tossing her cookies on live TV.
And yes, you get to see her embarrassing moment in all its glory. Repeatedly. It’s the funniest scene in the movie.
“Mutany Mayhem” has an all-star cast in supporting roles, including Rogen as bad guy Bebop and John Cena as his partner in crime, Rocksteady. The celebrities are all having a good time, and it’s occasionally a pleasure to listen to them. The problem is that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been reduced to dull shadows of their former selves. The personalities described in their theme song are almost nonexistent here.
No amount of well-drawn carnage can redeem that major issue. The “Cowabunga” dudes have become “Cowa-boring.”
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM
Directed by Jeff Rowe, Kyler Spears. Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Rowe, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit. Starring Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Brady Noon, Shamon Brown Jr., Ayo Edebiri, Maya Rudolph, Ice Cube, Rogen, John Cena. 99 min. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. PG (a shred of violence, a splinter of profanity)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.