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 bullet.
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 up”?
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 Jam?
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.