Although the animal doesn’t figure in the Chinese zodiac,
2013 may well go down in animation history as the Year of the Snail. There’s
already been Mub the slug and Grub the snail in the ill-fated Epic, and the snail-like monster
determined to get to class on time in Monsters
University. Now the title character and his fellow-snails are hitting the
big screen in DreamWorks’ Turbo.
Unlike his worrywart, safety-obsessed brother Chet (voice by
Paul Giamatti) and the other snails in a suburban San Fernando Valley vegetable
garden, Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is obsessed with speed. He watches tapes of the
Indianapolis 500 on the old TV in the garage, times himself as he races along a
yardstick (17 minutes) and takes risks playing cat and mouse with a power
lawnmower and a nasty little boy’s shell-crushing tricycle. His efforts at
daring-do upsets the snail leadership and Chet, so he slithers away to
brood—and falls into an amateur drag race held on the concrete lining of the LA
river. He gets sucked into the engine of one of the cars and shot with nitrous
oxide, which transforms him into a gastropod that’s faster than a speeding
His speed—and his determination to use it—make him even more
of an outcast among snails, but win the attention of Tito (Michael Pena), who’s
been searching for a gimmick to put his brother Angelo’s (Luis Gúzman) Dos Bros
taco stand on the map. His current attention-getter is snail racing, which introduces
Turbo to a posse that includes Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), Smooth Move (Snoop
Dogg), Burn (Maya Rudolph) and Skidmark (Ben Schwartz).
When Tito discovers that Turbo can zip along at more than
200 mph, he’s convinced he’s found the PR stunt he’s been searching for: He’ll
enter Turbo in the Indy 500. He gets the ill-assorted misfits who own the other
businesses in the crummy Starlight Plaza strip mall in Van Nuys to back him.
Angelo and Chet are convinced their brothers are nuts. But Tito is convinced
they’re on the road to success, and Turbo is ecstatic at the prospect of racing
against his hero, star racing driver Guy Gange (Bill Hader).
Inevitably, it comes down to duel between Turbo and Gagne in
the final lap of the race. To no one’s surprise, Turbo wins by a shell, after
he gets a talking to about following his dream and never giving up from Chet,
who’s been converted to a fan.
Turbo plays like a
mash-up of Ratatouille, Cars and Breaking Away. It isn’t a bad film, but it feels very, very
familiar, even on the first viewing. Like Remy in Ratatouille, Turbo has a dream, one ordinary humans and his family
scoff at. (Giamatti even sounds like Emile, Remy’s unimaginative brother.) Like
Remy, Turbo finds the one human who believes in that dream. And like Remy,
Turbo manages to overcome the skepticism and hostility of a powerful and celebrated
foe to win the accolades he deserves. The racing sequences with a POV camera
speeding down the track, the behind-the scenes shots at the arena, the cheering
crowds, the speeding autos, inevitably bring Cars to mind.
Happily, director David Soren and his crew avoid one of the
worst cliches: Gagne doesn’t cheat or kidnap Turbo when he realizes the snail
is fast enough to be a threat. There are no forlorn shots of Turbo stuck in a
jar minutes before race time or being threatened with garlic butter. But how
many animated films in recent years have told the audience that “no dream is
too big,” that “good enough isn’t good enough,” and that the hero “never gives
If the story is already too by the numbers for its own good,
the blatant product placement weighs it down further. Not just any race, but
the Indianapolis 500—with what must be authentic recreations of the stadium;
the racing cars have Firestone tires, and so forth. Has there been an animated
feature with so many obvious tie-ins since Space
Although snails are not appealing animals, the DreamWorks
artists succeed in making them cute with Ping-Pong ball eyes, bright colors and
eye stalks that serve as substitute hands. Their bodies have a texture that
suggests marshmallow crème, and the artists clearly have fun squashing and
stretching it into expressions and gestures. The human characters move in much less
interesting ways, with little weight and individuality.
Turbo isn’t a bad
film, but it doesn’t break any new ground, and the studio that delighted
audiences with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon is clearly
capable of better, more imaginative work.