Turbo might as well have been called Generic Animated Movie, as this effort from DreamWorks is one of the most aggressively predictable and formulaic in recent memory. With the protagonists of the story being a group of snails, this is a weird picture, but thankfully it’s implemented with slick visuals and plenty of energy that’s almost enough to distract you from its paint-by-numbers construction. Indeed, it goes without saying that the kids will likely adore it due to how light and colourful it is, but it won’t prove to be a depressing experience for the older demographic, as it comes together in an entertaining enough fashion. It’s not Pixar, but it is better than both of the Cars movies.
An ambitious garden snail, Theo (Ryan Reynolds) dutifully continues his daily work routine inside a tomato patch, with his older sibling Chet (Paul Giamatti) keeping his brother in line. Theo wants to do something bigger, though, dreaming that he’ll one day race alongside his personal hero, Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). Leaving the comfort of the garden one night, Theo is sucked into the nitrous oxide reserve of a street racing car, bestowing the snail with lightning speed. After saving Chet from a crow attack, the pair are picked up by Tito (Michael Peña), who works at a struggling taco stand and collects snails. Theo urges Tito to sign him up for the Indianapolis 500, with fellow store owners helping him raise the entry money. Rechristening himself as Turbo, Theo heads to the races with the company of Chet and several other snails, including Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson) and Burn (Maya Rudolph). Before long, all eyes are on Theo, and Guy begins to feel threatened by his tiny competition.
Credited to three writers, the screenplay introduces an interesting conceit not unlike something we would expect to see from a Pixar project, but the plot’s broad strokes are completely by-the-book. Of course Theo wants to be the fastest snail in history and gets to prove the naysayers wrong with his newfound abilities, of course Theo’s racing idol turns out to be a cartoon antagonist, of course there are colourful characters along the way. The narrative is eerily similar to Pixar’s Ratatouille, but Turbo lacks the heart, thoughtfulness and depth of that remarkable endeavour. It even sources ideas from Toy Story (there’s a kid who likes to squash snails, but the tables are eventually turned on him). Indeed, Turbo is a Frankenstein creation through-and-through. Admittedly, it may seem difficult to avoid all the clichés, but Pixar seem to circumvent a lot of the big ones with their more successful movies almost effortlessly. Furthermore, the central message of Turbo is a bit muddled. After all, nitrous oxide is illegal in professional racing, yet nobody seems to care that Theo is competing despite being full of the chemical…
Turbo is probably at its best during the opening act. Before we get to all the racing, director David Soren concentrates on the everyday workings of the snail community, who spend their days picking and sorting tomatoes. Crow abductions are a regular occurrence, too, and the snails literally cannot do anything about it, so they just quickly lament the loss of their comrade before moving on. The real saving grace of Turbo is its gee-whiz eye candy. Even by the perpetually-heightening standards of contemporary CGI animation, the visual experience here is breathtaking. Rendered in 3-D, there’s plenty to enjoy here, and it’s the splashes of colour and snappy pacing that keep the feature watchable from start to end. However, the climactic race does drag on for too long. There are suspenseful beats, but the conclusion is pretty predictable, making the long-winded disposition a little disappointing. Turbo could’ve easily lost five minutes of racing action to make for a better, tighter feature.
Surprisingly, Ryan Reynolds actually stretches his range to some extent in voicing Theo. He often plays smart aleck characters, but Theo is a different breed, and he manages to give some heart and personality to the titular mollusc. But it’s Paul Giamatti who stands out the most, placing forth a spirited vocal performance as Chet. His comedic timing and delivery is spot-on, making him the most memorable character in the picture. With that said, though, there are some colourful turns by a number of other actors, most notably Samuel L. Jackson who oozes cool as Whiplash. Peña is also good, giving Tito a nice degree of welcome humanity.
Turbo is riddled with flaws, but it’s not a bad movie – just an easy and simple one, devoid of much in the way of suspense. There are obstacles for Theo throughout the story, to be sure, but we know that he’ll pull through and race, and everything will be conventionally happy at the end. A more daring treatment of the premise would be welcome, but Turbo is amiable and pleasant enough.