With some DreamWorks Animation movies, you can practically see and hear the pitch meeting that they came out of, as fully realized as any of the whiz-bang 3D computer graphics that will eventually coat movie theater screens nationwide. There are a few executives there, some animators, maybe one of the marketing guys (to represent such vaunted interests as toy manufacturers and video game designers). Someone yells out, "What about a panda bear that does kung fu?" and the rest of the room agrees (and the video game guy gets very excited). Or, in the case of this week's "Turbo," there was probably a meeting after it was widely reported that Disney makes something like $4 billion a year from selling stuff related to the Pixar movie "Cars." "What about a snail… That wants to be a racer?" You can picture the rest of the room sheepishly nodding their heads, and then the guys responsible for the actual movie sweating bullets because, good lord, how do you make an animated movie about a snail that wants to be an Indy 500 racer? It turns out: you don't.
The problems with "Turbo" are apparent from its opening moments: Theo (Ryan Reynolds), a lovable garden snail suctions himself to a TV that's playing an old highlight reel of a French-Canadian racer named Guy Gane (Bill Hader), whose inspirational motto of "No dream is too big and no dreamer too small" speaks to the little snail. Theo envisions himself in the race, squeaking by tight corners and zooming through straight-aways. Of course, he's just a snail, and minutes later, when he's trying to beat his own time, it takes him about 17 minutes to get six inches. You know, because snails are really slow. We're introduced to his dead end job at "The Plant," an actual tomato plant, and his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) who tries to rid Theo of his ridiculous dreams. There are sequences upon sequences of setup, of introducing us to Theo's world that ultimately winds up being totally inconsequential. And what's worse – you can feel that none of this matters even while you watch it; it's a movie so thin that it almost evaporates before your eyes.
Anyway, one night while looking up at the stars, Theo wishes to be fast, and promptly falls off an overpass, and into a jazzed-up muscle car's fuel-injected engine. When the driver of said muscle car floods the engine with nitrous for that added boost, it ends up warping Theo's DNA. Upon exiting the car, he is able to drive really, really fast while leaving nifty trails of neon light, sort of like the motorcycles in "TRON." Through a series of events too inane to even recount, he's picked up (and befriended) by a struggling taco entrepreneur named Tito (Michael Pena), who gets the idea that Theo (now going by Turbo) can be entered into the Indy 500 and can save the struggling strip mall where the taco stand is located (run by his brother, Luis Guzman). Why the insanely specific Indy 500, you ask? Because "Cars" utilized the world of NASCAR, of course.
Part of the problem with "Turbo" is that snails, no matter how cartoony they look, aren't terribly expressive. These are creatures that don't have eyebrows, let alone hands, so most of their emotions have to be expressed in how they wiggle their sluggish bodies. DreamWorks Animation, which doesn't exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to character designs, is even more hampered by the limitations of the main characters, even when the movie introduces a posse of underground racing snails led by Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson) and including Smoove Move (Snoop Dogg), Skidmark (Ben Schwartz), Burn (Maya Rudolph) and White Shadow (Michael Bell). Most of them feature splashes of pastel colors but none of them are in the least bit expressive as characters. The human characters are just as tired and bland, although for Richard Jenkins' character the animators just decided to make a cartoon version of Richard Jenkins, which is kind of funny.
That's the other thing about "Turbo:" it's not funny. Which would be fine if it was trying to be another sort of movie, which it can't quite commit to either. The screenplay was co-written by Robert Siegel, who wrote "The Wrestler" for Darren Aronofsky and "Big Fan" for himself. Both of these movies took a niche slice of sports life and richly dramatized it, bringing humor and warmth to fairly well worn territory. With "Turbo," it feels like large swaths of what it should accomplish are simply omitted (although not for time, at 96 minutes it drags considerably). At one point Chet asks Turbo what would happen if he's out on the racetrack and his powers fail him. This is a profound moment for the movie not in any strict narrative or thematic terms but because this is the one and only time this idea is even entertained. His powers shorting out could have been a source of real conflict and drama, instead the idea is squirreled away until the last few moments of the movie, where it's trotted out as a tear-jerking deus ex machina. It feels manipulative and cheaply unearned.
None of the characters have any kind of arc – Turbo gets his powers and instantly knows how to use them, instead of having to train and get better (it's implied at least once that he doesn't know how to brake but that is quickly forgotten about). Hallmarks of the sports movie genre – the gruff but reliable coach with a mysterious past, a training montage where we watch in seconds our hero progress, a last minute choice between fortune and glory or something far more important – aren't accounted for, and instead of feeling like a refreshing break from the clichés, you're reminded of how important moments like those are in a movie like this. There are a couple of dazzling moments in "Turbo" ("Dark Knight" cinematographer Wally Pfister served as a visual consultant), like when Turbo imagines the other cars in the final race as giant tomatoes, but these are few and far between, and don't make up for the huge gulfs in storytelling. What makes "Turbo" even more disappointing is that it follows "The Croods," a truly wonderful DreamWorks Animated movie from earlier this year. "Turbo" is one of the more disappointing big studio animated features this year, a movie can't even muster the energy to be visually engaging, let alone give you anything to care about story-wise. This might have sounded great in a pitch meeting, but as a movie it's dead last. [D]