The Fast and the Furious with snails. That’s how writer-director David Soren pitched Turbo, the latest release from DreamWorks Animation. And yes, the film is just that implausibly simple: gastropod Theo (Ryan Reynolds) yearns to move as fast as the cars driven by his Indy-racing heroes like Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). But Theo’s inherent slowness—along with the admonishments of his realistic older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti)—dampens his dreams of racing glory, until a freak accident infuses Theo’s body with nitrous oxide, allowing him to speed along at two hundred miles per hour. The newly-rechristened “Turbo” inadvertently hooks up with human and fellow dreamer Tito (Michael Peña) and is introduced to an entire crew of clever racing snails (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg/Lion, and Maya Rudolph, among others) who encourage his dreams. When Tito decides to use Turbo’s new-found talents to draw business to his taco truck, the snail finally gets his long-awaited chance to race in the Indy 500.
Watching Turbo is an exercise in picking out which of its many predecessors influenced each of the overly familiar animated tropes that populate the film. Indeed, the screenplay (written by Soren, Robert Siegel, and Darren Lemke) is the very definition of “formulaic,” reading like a primer for the past two decades of animated film. Take one plucky underdog of a hero, add in a disapproving relative/friend/acquaintance who pooh-poohs his dreams, throw in a preliminary test of his mettle that proves our hero’s limitations, sprinkle a dash of “deus ex machina” to give him the edge he needs to succeed, hook him up with a weird and diverse support crew, toss in a villain drawn with broadly evil strokes, and bring it all to a boiling climax that begets the predictable happy ending.
Sound familiar? It’s the nutshell plot of Cars (2006). And Ratatouille (2007). In fact, the entire theme of the movie, summed up in Gagne’s (disingenuous) credo, “No dream is too big, no dreamer too small,” is an echo of the central “anyone can cook” conceit of Brad Bird’s rat-tale (which itself is a spiritual retread of the Dr. Seuss-penned slogan of 2008’s Horton Hears a Who!: “A person’s a person, no matter how small”). And it’s not just these films, though their hallmarks are undoubtedly the most recognizable within the movie: there are elements of others, like Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998), that are painfully obvious even to casual animation fans. In the end, it seems, there’s little evidence of originality to be found in Turbo.
It’s disappointing, really, because the marketing blitz for this film—complete with ever-present television ads and trailers—made Turbo appear to have the potential to be another winner for DreamWorks, in the vein of the hilarious Shrek (2001), the heartfelt Kung Fu Panda (2008), or the endlessly inventive How to Train Your Dragon (2010). But though Turbo has moments of enjoyable humor (the Auto-Tuned “That snail is fast!” song and its implications about social media and the viral nature of videos is a particularly nice touch), the movie as a whole remains a tired, pale imitation of the Pixar stable.
That’s not to say that there is nothing at all to recommend the film. The laughs may be relatively few, but for what it is, Turbo is a pleasant enough endeavor. The animation itself is a candy-coated spectacle of bright colors and glowing effects (though I will note here that the 3-D seems to add little to the overall presentation of the film). The final racing scenes at Indy are fast-paced and beautifully animated. The characterization of the snails is well-conceived, with big, expressive eyes and a body design that curtails the more disgusting aspects of snailhood (let’s just say, the sliminess is kept to a minimum, for which this viewer is grateful). The voice cast is generally solid—especially Hader as the villainous Gagne (seriously, the man makes almost everything better) and Giamatti as Turbo’s too-cautious brother— though Reynolds’ merely competent performance is ill-suited to be the vocal centerpiece of the film.
Ultimately, however, the movie’s visual and vocal strengths cannot make up for the stale plot. While young children may end up engrossed in Turbo’s colorful journey from zero to hero, adults will find little here to keep their attention. And if you’re anything like me, you may very well spend the second half of the film craving tacos and planning an after-movie dinner. (Hey, those animated tacos looked pretty damn tasty in 3-D.)