“Where were you on the day they let a snail race in the Indy 500?” This one line, spoken by Paul Page or Chris Parnell, I can’t remember which — they both play telecasters of the Indy 500 race in the film — pretty much sums up what’s going on in the new Dreamworks Animation film Turbo. It’s a movie about a snail, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who dreams of being fast, something his brother (Paul Giamatti) has explained on numerous occasions is against what nature has intended. Yet, he finds a way and ends up in the Indianapolis 500. Because as the film teaches us, “no dream is too big, no dreamer is too small.” It also teaches us lessons about no concept being too worn out.
How Turbo, whose real name is Theo, gets to the Indy 500 is perhaps the least interesting part of the David Soren directed toon. He wants to be fast, he isn’t fast, he tries to be fast and ends up creating a giant mess for his fellow colony of snails. So he runs away and stumbles into a scene from Fast and Furious, surviving a Nitrous Oxide bath that makes him a snail with super-gastropodial speed.
Through all of this, I couldn’t stop but wonder about the natural imperative for the existence of snails. Even in a 96-minute kids movie, I found time to ponder. Why do snails exist? In the film, the snail commune appears to be harvesting and maintaining a tomato garden just outside a human home in an ambiguous area of Los Angeles. They are an overly cautious bunch, often carried off by crows (which yield’s the film’s only solid running gag, in which the snails sort of shrug and say “that’s too bad” every time one of their friends is stolen by a bird) and for the most part, they just eat the tomatoes. Having consulted with a seventh grade science book, I was refreshed to find that my instincts are right: snails are pests and live quite boring lives. Something this movie gets a little too right in its opening act. Then, of course, Turbo gets Paul Walker speed and things get interesting.
Then, of course, there is an action sequence set to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Through a series of happenstance moments, Turbo and his disapproving older brother Chet find their way to a dilapidated strip mall in Van Nuys, where they meet LA County’s most passionate snail racing enthusiasts. Unless this is a widespread thing that I don’t know about, I’m assuming the film is taking huge creative license here. Do people really race snails all over the San Fernando Valley? It doesn’t matter.
Among these enthusiasts are a pair of brothers, Tito (voiced by Michael Pena) and Angelo (voiced by Luis Guzman). They have a similar dynamic to the snails, wouldn’t ya know: Tito has big dreams and grand designs for their taco stand and truck, Angelo is the responsible, safe and often grumpy one. So of course Tito is the one who sees the potential in Turbo, setting about to make him the first snail ever to enter the Indy 500. Some fundraising shenanigans and a road trip later, we’re thrust into an animated reproduction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Turbo will compete against “fire-breathing super cars” and his idol, a French Canadian driver with the hilarious offbeat accent courtesy of Bill Hader and the animated jawline of Aaron Eckhart.
It’s important to stop for a moment and call attention to something that took me completely out of the movie. Sure, this is a movie made explicitly for a younger audience with little aspirations of drawing in an older crowd. But there’s something odd about seeing heavy product placement in a kids’ movie. From Chevy to Verizon to the iconography of the Indy 500 brand itself, this film is saturated with real world branding. Few may even notice it, but it did feel like something foreign to this world of animation. Perhaps it has something to do with Pixar’s Cars. Despite that film’s faults, it never once showed us a Ford logo. Perhaps that allows it to remain a bit more innocent. With Turbo, Dreamworks doesn’t seem so interested in maintaining the innocence of its world.
What it does get right is a great deal of the human relationships. Tito and Angelo are the emotional core of the movie, even if their story is a mirror to what’s happening between the snail brothers. Michael Pena and Luis Guzman have a playful chemistry on screen, despite having likely recorded their parts separate from each other. There’s also some humor found in the gang of snails that live in the Van Nuys strip mall, voiced by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, and Maya Rudolph. They are simple speed-gang caricatures, but they get a few moments of quality work.
And when it comes down to some speedy action, the beats are solid. Cue up “Eye of the Tiger,” let our hero discover that he never needed Paul Walker to overcome his station in life and hit the finish line with a nice dramatic crescendo. It fits the formula for just about any fish-out-of-water, rising above one’s station hero story. The problem is that as fun and colorful as the Dreamworks Animation teams have made Turbo, it doesn’t aspire to be much more than middle of the pack. It should come as no surprise that it comes from the Head of Story on Shark Tale. It’s another example of Dreamworks treading water, queueing up a line of kids toys and painting by the numbers.
So don’t worry about where you were the day they let a snail race in the Indy 500. It’s not something you’ll feel the need to remember, anyway.
The Upside: Color and action are two things Dreamworks does well.
The Downside: Keeping an age-5 or older mind engaged through the first two acts of the film is not.
On the Side: An IndyCar was parked inside the Dreamworks studio during production, which helped when it came to animating them (one of the more visually delightful elements of the film).