Film Review – Turbo
That’s how I would describe DreamWorks‘s latest animated effort, Turbo. For the last few years, the studio that relied heavily on big name stars and blatant pop culture references has slowly been gaining ground on its much more popular rival, Pixar. With titles like How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and the severely underrated Rise of the Guardians (2012), DreamWorks has significantly stepped their game up in the animation world. This film comes as a bit of an enigma. The first theatrical release by director David Soren, this is a fun little tale of underdogs overcoming the odds to achieve their dreams. That’s all fine and dandy, but on the flip side, it feels too similar to other projects. Set in the midst of Indy Car racing, comparisons to Pixar’s Cars series will be abundant. And placing a small creature into a human environment has echoes of Ratatouille (2007) all over it.
Okay, fine, originality is not the strongest element working here. But does that mean it’s an awful family movie? Of course not. Actually, it’s quite an entertaining romp. The premise is as ridiculous as you can get, with a little snail named Theo (Ryan Reynolds) having big aspirations to become a racecar driver. Much to the chagrin of his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti), Theo often fantasizes about winning big races like his idol, the French driver Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). Instead of focusing on harvesting the tomatoes in the garden he and his colony live in, Theo (or “Turbo” as he likes to be called) sneaks away to train himself to move faster, or watch videos of Gagne hoisting another victory trophy.
So how in the heck will Theo ever achieve his aspirations? Chet may act as an opposing viewpoint to Theo, but his reasoning is all too clear: snails are not fast creatures (wow, I never thought I would write a sentence like that). How does Theo do it? By a conveniently written plot contrivance, that’s how! In a state of depression, Theo accidentally falls into the engine of a muscle car, dousing himself in nitrous oxide, and amazingly gaining the ability to move at lightening speed. I’m not a car expert in any way, but something tells me nitrous oxide doesn’t supply magical powers. In fact, if a real snail were to be plunged into an engine full of NOS, chances are it would never be seen again.
Whatever. Theo has now become Turbo, and can outrace not just other snails, but vehicles, as well. His hopes for glory have now taken an enormous step forward, except he doesn’t have a stage to showcase his newly acquired skills. And this is where we’re introduced to the main human character, Tito (Michael Peña). Tito is a plucky and optimistic guy, who runs a Mexican-American food stand as well as a food truck with his brother Angelo (Luis Guzman). They’ve recently fallen into some hard financial times, but when Tito discovers the world’s fastest snail, he becomes convinced their opportunity for success has arrived. Angelo (just like Chet) thinks his brother is crazy, and would rather put his efforts into fixing their oven than toward an animal as small as his finger. But Tito (just like Turbo) is undeterred, and with the help of friends, gathers enough money to enter the little guy into the racing event of all racing events: The Indy 500.
That’s a lot to take in. One might as well take believability and throw it out the window, as this calls for a major disregard of reality. But how the film succeeds is in the earnest and authentic nature of its characters. The story is as familiar as can be, but Soren (along with co-writers Darren Lemke and Robert D. Siegel) populates it with unique individuals. It works best in the diversity of the cast. This may be the first time in a major animated film where there’s such an array of various ethnicities featured. Characters come from French, Spanish, African, and Asian decent, and none of them are played as an offensive stereotype. Names like Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michelle Rodriguez, and Ken Jeong fill out the supporting roles, and they all have an opportunity to make an impression with their wacky and eccentric performances. The voice work and character portrayals are enough to warrant a recommendation.
I haven’t described the big race, because for as well made as it is, the climactic scene is one of a dozen we’ve seen before. And that’s where Turbo comes up a little short. There isn’t enough ambition to lift this unto a higher plateau. The filmmakers may not have aimed that high, but they should have. Clearly the technical side is there, as environments are rendered almost photo-realistically. It’s an entirely passable family entertainment, but I’d like to see DreamWorks really strive to be something unique and different. They should follow their own main character here and not settle on just being competent. The reward is worth the risk.
Final Grade: B-