In Turbo, we are introduced to Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds): an ordinary garden snail with an uncommon desire to go fast. Theo – who prefers to be called “Turbo” – spends his nights re-watching IndyCar race footage and interviews with his personal hero, the champion car driver Guy Gagné (Bill Hader). Unfortunately, Theo’s racing fascination puts him at odds with his slow-moving peers, including his disapproving and practical-minded brother Chet (Paul Giamatti).
Theo’s failed attempt to outrace a lawn mower (in order to reach a ripe tomato first) – combined with his old TV set being accidentally broken – leaves him feeling downtrodden. He wanders away from home one night to the local highway, where a series of events result in Theo being sucked into the supercharger of an underground drag racer. Our shelled protagonist emerges with newfound incredible speed and car-like characteristics (ex. his eyes work like headlights), thanks to his DNA being infused with nitrous oxide.
On the whole, Turbo is a harmless – if also trite and thinly-drawn – underdog story, featuring an unconventional protagonist and far-fetched premise driven by cartoon logic. The film includes some well-executed racing sequences (distinguished by the digital camera’s snail POV), but the script’s flat approach to characterization and simple, yet unchallenging, life lessons inherent to the story leaves something to be desired. Turbo, in other words, isn’t a bad movie to show your kids, but there are much better options currently in theaters – and, frankly, they’ll probably enjoy the alternatives more anyway.
Turbo was produced by DreamWorks and marks the feature-length directorial debut for David Soren (a story artist on Shrek and Over the Hedge), who co-wrote the screenplay with Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After) and Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler), while Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets) provided additional story material. Sadly, despite the involvement of people like Siegel and Stoller – whose past script work has explored more poignant territory – Turbo offers nothing more thoughtful than a basic message about never abandoning your dreams (despite an occasional scene that teases something deeper, before quickly being dropped).
Problem is, Turbo and his human foil – Tito (Michael Peña), a taco seller with lofty ambitions, who assists Turbo to become a racing star – ultimately accomplish their goals thanks to a relentless belief in themselves and guidance by others, not so much personal growth or hard work. When you look closer, the film seems to offer mixed messages, in part because it skips on exploring the complex realities of dreams and goals in a way that younger audiences can understand (see Monsters University for a recent example of this). As a result, the story and main characters’ arcs feel a bit flat.
Giamatti as Chet, on the other hand, undergoes a predictable, yet partly satisfying, change of heart over the course of the film’s three-acts (on a relate note: Giamatti is a better voice actor than either Reynolds or Peña). Similarly, the antagonist of the story provides food for thought (about the sort of people attracted to fame), but sadly that’s done in a manner that feels half-hearted. The rest of the voice cast is populated by celebrities – Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Michelle Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, Ken Jeong, Richard Jenkins and Luis Guzmán – who play amusing side characters, but each one amounts to either a hit or miss one-note caricature.
On the positive side, there are some good-natured pop cultural jokes in Turbo – like how the title character becomes the source for a viral hit song – and the use of stereotypical sports movie montage songs (ex. “Eye of the Tiger”) works as a fun tongue-in-cheek homage/parody (as does the few riffs on the Fast and the Furious franchise). There’s also good-natured humor presented where it concerns the film’s portrayal of snail society (the satire’s a bit half-baked, though), and Turbo benefits from a general sense of whimsey and energetic pacing that makes the entire movie watchable… if somewhat forgettable.
The best technical aspect of the film concerns how Turbo’s perspective – and the world as seen through his eyes (as well as his snail peers) – is used to mix things up during the film’s rubber (shell?)-burning 3D racing scenes. Surprisingly, the lighting for various locations and night/day settings in Turbo are exceptionally well-realized, thanks to the contributions from Oscar-winning director of photography Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight trilogy), who is credited as a visual supervisor. In other words: if you’re going to see Turbo, you might as well go check it out in 3D.
Despite that, Turbo still feels like a step back after recent DreamWorks releases (see: the Kung Fu Panda movies, Megamind, How to Train Your Dragon), with regard to the complexity of storytelling.; though, the film does have a passable narrative, as far as the juice box crowd will be concerned. Still, unless your kids are really invested in seeing a snail zoom around on the big screen (in 3D), you’re fine waiting to save this movie as a future rental option.
In case you’re still undecided, watch the Turbo trailer below:
Turbo is 96 minutes long and Rated PG for some mild action and thematic elements. Now playing in U.S. theaters.