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The Matter-of-Fact Multiculturalism of ‘Turbo’

The Matter-of-Fact Multiculturalism of 'Turbo'

The reviews for Turbo, DreamWorks’ animated tale of a snail with a dream to race in the Indy 500, are in, and for the most part, well, “lukewarm” would be overselling them. As City Weeklys Scott Renshaw put it on Twitter, “Turbo strives for nothing, says nothing, accomplishes nothing. It’s not ‘bad.’ It simply is.”

I won’t make any grand claims for Turbo as a deathless work of art, but there’s an aspect of the movie that particularly caught my eye, and a few other critics’ as well. Unlike many most animated movies, David Soren’s is recognizably set in the real world, specifically the working-class, ethnically diverse outskirts of Los Angeles (Van Nuys, to be precise). The main mollusk, Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti) start out in a more upscale part of town, living off home-grown tomatoes in a well-kept suburban garden. But when Theo gets sucked into a drag racer’s engine intake and coated with nitrous oxide, he emerges with the ability to move at lightning speed — a superpower that, in his tight-knit, conformist community, makes him an outcast.

Theo and Chet relocate to a dingy shopping plaza on an overlooked street corner; tour buses use the parking lot to cut around red lights, but would never dream of stopping. There, he falls under the care of Tito (Michael Peña), an enthusiastic but not especially grounded dreamer who runs Dos Bros Tacos with his elder brother, Angelo (Luis Guzman). Tito likes to race snails on the side, which is where Theo meets fellow snails voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz and Mike Bello. The strip mall’s other business owners include a hobbyist (Richard Jenkins), a butch-looking mechanic (Michelle Rodriguez) and an elderly manicurist (an elderly woman voiced by Ken Jeong).

Even a cursory glance at the cast list reveals what’s noteworthy about Turbo: Notwithstanding its bland heroes, the movie’s cast is largely nonwhite, as are the characters they play (although in the case of the snails, it takes a little imagination). Turbo isn’t the first animated film that’s true of, and DreamWorks in particular has made a point of diversity in voice casting. But it’s always felt less like an act of progressive politics and more like an attempt to cover the studio’s demographic bets, with characters like Chris Rock’s crack-a-lackin’ Madagascar zebra pushed so far into signifying their race that the performances take on a tinge of minstrelsy. In Turbo, the mixture of races and ethnicities literally comes with the territory, and if Tito sometimes verges on caricature, it’s no moreso than the snooty French race car champ Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). Jackson and Snoop are doing schtick, but it’s their schtick.

Perhaps Turbo simply benefits from the fact that, in 2013, there are enough nonwhite stars with sufficient box-office draw to stock a voice cast, or that the movie’s obvious inspiration, the Fast and the Furious series, has proven that a diverse cast can pave the way to global success. But there’s something about the movie’s matter-of-fact multiculturalism that feels mildly revolutionary, even if it only reflects the battles that others have won.

More reviews:

Rafer Guzman, Newsday:

Turbo deserves credit for its multiracial characters (it’s set in ethnically diverse Van Nuys, Calif.), for occasionally sharp direction by David Soren and for casting Ken Jeong as the voice of Kim-Ly, a cranky woman. The climactic race sequence can be a little queasy-making, given the squishy possibilities, but it’s also a fairly rousing closer to the film. It’s hard not to root this little gastropod over the finish line.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com:

The voice casting and some of the humor leave Turbo open to charges of insensitivity. These buddy snails are coded “ethnic,” and contrasted with Turbo and Chet’s more stereotypical whitebread attitudes. (Whiplash even mocks the newcomers for being backyard snails, more pampered and meek than street snails.)… This would be pretty offensive if the film didn’t have such a comfortably urban sensibility. It’s a “White people dance like this, black people dance like that” sort of attitude, presupposing that backyard snails need to loosen up and expand their horizons.

Kiva Reardon, The Loop:

Director David Soren makes a nimble and deft first-time feature that’s gleefully ludicrous, while steeped in enough realism to ground it in touching sentiment. This is largely thanks to the fact that Turbo wears its shtick on its sleeve, reveling in silly fun and rarely pandering with easy gimmicks. 

R. Kurt Osenlund, Slant Magazine:

That Turbo sells speed, in all its forms, as an unimpeachable virtue is just as problematic as its peddling of the you-are-special/you-can-do-anything message, which, in this era of malcontent millennials who value little because they think they deserve so much, doesn’t quite have the rosy ring it used to. However, as a film about social issues, and simply being yourself, it’s commendably progressive, going so far as serving as a kind of coming-out story.

David Fear, Time Out New York:

All Turbo does is give Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson and Snoop Dogg the easiest paychecks they’ll ever make, and its corporate overlords the chance to sell a few toys. The only unique element it brings to the table is putting a Hispanic character front and center — a diversity effort diminished by the fact that he’s a taco-truck driver who skirts perilously close to cringeworthy caricature.

Nick Schager, Village Voice:

David Soren’s story peddles rote messages about believing in yourself and seizing the day, all while adhering to convention at every hairpin turn, be it a cast of comedic-relief sidekicks (voiced by, among others, Samuel L. Jackson and Snoop Dogg) or an arrogant villain in Turbo’s idol-cum-rival Guy Gagne (Bill Hader).

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

But this is America! Anything is possible, including that millions of parents and children might flock to this adequate morsel of committee-produced entertainment. They don’t call it DreamWorks for nothing. But it is interesting to note that a movie strenuously preaching the virtue of being different should be so fundamentally — so deliberately, so timidly — just like everything else of its kind

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club:

In almost every sense, Turbo feels recycled. Even when not pillaging the Pixar canon, the film’s screenwriters are leaning on shopworn morals: follow dreams, fight fears, believe in little guys, and stand by family. 

Drew Mc Weeny, HitFix:

I doubt anyone’s going to be offended by Turbo, but when you refuse to risk anything, it makes it hard to get excited by what you’re watching. 

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight:

Turbo is, for better or worse, just there. It exists, but does not stand out.

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