In Dreamworks’ animated Turbo, a snail realizes his desire to go fast. It’s an idea that understandably appeals to a child’s need to feel empowered, to be stronger and faster and better than he or she may feel. That concept is also the extent of the imagination and care that went into this weakly imagined and realized film.
Viewers are introduced to the snail Theo (Ryan Reynolds) as he watches and interacts with videos of his hero, open-wheel driver Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). From the outset, lazy screenwriting begets questions like: How is a snail able to insert a VHS tape and why is such dated technology used to record a driver currently on the racing circuit? And how is it that no one in the house can hear that the garage TV is on?
When he’s not indulging in his fantasies, Theo joins his fellow snails – including his brother Chet – in tending to a tomato garden. It’s not the life he wants for himself, but the best Chet (Paul Giamatti) can do is offer a philosophy that says, “This is the hand you’ve been dealt, so you might as well make the best of it.”
After a sojourn from the garden, Theo gets sucked into a car engine during a drag race and bathed in a chemical mixture. The sequence is like something out of a Marvel superhero movie, complete with a cellular-level view of Theo’s transformation. When he emerges, Theo discovers he has a number of powers: using his eyes as headlights, picking up radio stations, and speeding as fast as high-performance race cars.
Even after Theo gets his powers, Chet can only see bad things ahead and begs his brother to return to the garden. But opportunity revs its engine when they are discovered by Tito, one of a sibling pair who sling tacos at their own restaurant. When Tito (Michael Pena) realizes Theo’s powers, he also sees way beyond eking out a living. Older brother Angelo (Luis Guzman) is, like Chet, the more practical of the sibling pair, and wants Tito to just focus on his job. This, in a snail shell, is the crux of the story’s tension: Theo and Tito’s need to dream big vs. Chet and Angelo’s cynical acceptance of one’s lot in life.
Against the wishes of their brothers, Tito takes Theo and his financial backers on a cross-country road trip to race in the Indianapolis 500, where both hope to make their fame and fortune. (Amusingly, participating in the Indy 500 is as easy as walking up to the entry window and dropping 10 grand.)
As it meanders toward a predictable finish line, Turbo avoids some interesting areas – including the value of the slower pace of life enjoyed by the other snails, and their lack of curiosity as to how Theo suddenly gained his powers. And while the snails talk to one another, none of the humans can hear them, a screenwriting decision that seems designed to simplify the interactions, but also one that leaves unexplored some comedic possibilities. Also disappointing are the casually stereotypical if not outright racist characterizations: Gagne is a smarmy Frenchman, and Ken Jeong (from the Hangover films) voices a diminutive old Asian woman characterized as a short-tempered lunatic.
There’s enough cute stuff here to entertain kids, who I suspect will enjoy this much more than their parents. My son, who is 8, called it “epic.” I get that. Turbo conveys that vicarious sense of achievement because Theo’s dream comes true and he wins the big race. The filmmakers would have us believe he crosses the finish line first through pluck. But the truth is that he wins because of his superpowers. Had he lost and learned about himself in the process – that could have made Turbo something to remember.