If Pixar’s Brave — with its Scots accents, medieval/fantasy setting and rebellious youth vs. authoritarian parent conflict — felt somewhat like a DreamWorks animated film, DreamWorks’ Turbo feels in some ways remarkably like a Pixar film. Specifically, it’s a lot like Ratatouille crossed with Cars, though you may also be reminded of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and even Finding Nemo.
As in Ratatouille, the hero is a soulful critter — a garden snail rather than a country rat — living on the margins of human habitation in a large community of fellow critters, but longing for something the others can’t comprehend: something he sees on television. His hero, a human celebrity, assures him over the airwaves that no dream is too big, no dreamer too small. (Lurking in the house is a vicious young tyke who looks and acts like he could be the younger brother of Sid from Toy Story — and who gets a similar comeuppance.)
For some reason, Theo (Ryan Reynolds), or “Turbo” as he prefers to be called, idolizes a legendary race-car driver and has a quixotic need for speed that his practical brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) doesn’t understand, though Chet does his best to cover for Theo and keep him out of trouble. Following the Ratatouille template, Theo (and Chet) are separated from their community and wind up in an urban setting where an imaginative human who works in food service recognizes Theo as something special — something that can help the business.
Childlike Tito (Michael Peña) works for his brother Angelo (Luis Guzmán) at Dos Bros Tacos, located in an economically depressed strip mall with other small-business owners so desperate for customers, the mall might as well be called Radiator Springs. Inspired by Turbo, Tito decides to take a preposterous risk: Dos Bros Tacos will sponsor the snail in the Indy 500, where Turbo will take on his racing hero, the flamboyant Guy Gagné (Bill Hader), with the aid of a pit crew of colorfully tricked-out racing snails evoking the circus bugs from A Bug’s Life. (Hat tip on that last connection: R. Kurt Osenlund of Slant.)
What about Finding Nemo? Turbo’s closing gag is a stab at the dark humor of Nemo’s epilogue, with the dentist’s tank fish all “escaping” to the ocean before realizing that they’re still trapped in plastic bags.
It’s not just plot points. Turbo’s first act has an envelope-pushing visual invention and playfulness evocative of Pixar. When Turbo watches Gagné on television, the film frames the snail against the screen in such a way as to put him right in the action. When Theo sets out to race a landscaper’s lawn mower to a juicy windfall tomato, the filmmakers whimsically fill the screen with dizzy TV sports graphics and racing imagery. This is how animation should be done.
The filmmakers even tease the audience with the promise of Turbo’s coming super-speed (you knew that was coming, right?) by toying with potential origin-story options that don’t pan out. (The actual freak accident that gives Turbo his automotive superpowers involves an encounter with illegal urban street racers — a scene that, for what it’s worth, is brief, but offers no moral perspective on the activity. On the contrary, Turbo is initially thrilled just to be riding the hood of one of these racers.)
At some point, alas, it becomes apparent that Turbo’s more daring elements are all surface, and the story is locked into a well-worn path to an all-too-obvious destination. Writing about Monsters University, I noted that, like many other Pixar films, it pours cold water on the familiar family-film platitude that you can achieve anything you put your mind to if you just want it enough. Turbo embraces the platitude.
It doesn’t help that Turbo is a rather bland hero, without the charisma of Remy from Ratatouille or even Lightning McQueen. One of the film’s conceits is that Turbo’s tryout run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is captured on a smartphone video that goes viral. “That snail is fast!” exclaims the phone’s owner on the video, and that line becomes Turbo’s catchphrase, even becoming an AutoTunes track. Too bad there isn’t a lot more you can say about Turbo than “That snail is fast.” He is, but that’s not character development. It may be easier to sell kids the thrill of speed than the joy of cooking, but I’m not sure it’s as good for them.
It occurs to me that, in most Pixar films, protagonists are at some point confronted with some deficiency in their attitudes or judgment, some misguided priority or poor choice that has done them or others harm. The real conflict, it turns out, is never quite what the protagonist thinks it is.
Woody must recognize that his jealousy of Andy’s affection for Buzz has led to disaster. Marlin must learn that protecting Nemo at all costs can’t be his highest goal. Mr. Incredible must repent of swashbuckling behind his wife’s back. Remy brings his whole rat colony to ruin in the first act by his careless enthusiasm for Gusteau’s TV show. Merida nearly loses her mother through her callous attempts to manipulate her through magic.
Lightning McQueen and young Sully in Monsters University both learn the hard way that there are more important things than winning — and, in fact, neither actually wins the big contest at the end of their films. That’s a bold choice that I can’t think any other animation studio has matched; certainly Turbo doesn’t have that kind of daring, although the finale to the big race does involve a twist of a more modest, but still reasonably satisfying, sort.
Giamatti makes Theo more personable, though he’s too much of a wet blanket until too late in the game. The best character is Peña’s Tito. (One of the funniest bits is Angelo’s withering recitation of Tito’s previous offbeat ideas for promoting Dos Bros Tacos.)
Turbo’s idol Gagné, entertainingly voiced as a French Canadian by Hader, initially seems an amusingly vain but amiable figure before eventually revealing a nastier and then ultimately villainous side. I kind of hate it that my 10-year-old daughter Anna predicted early on that he would turn out to be a bad guy, and was right. Why does this story need a bad guy?
Turbo is colorful, zippy and basically harmless. I’m sure the family audiences that have kept Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 at the top of the box-office charts for the last four weeks will enjoy Turbo too. But I like Sully, Mike and Gru in a way that no one in Turbo grabs me.
For some reason, the film’s “something for everyone” approach strikes me as vaguely off-putting. It starts out in suburbia before migrating to the hood for some hip-hop flava (Samuel L. Jackson fronts the distinctly urban-inflected voices of the racing snails, who call Turbo and Chet “garden snails”). Then it’s out to the Heartland into INDYCAR territory. And there’s a French-Canadian INDYCAR champion? How many of those have there been?
Following Despicable Me 2, with its villainous El Macho and big Cinco de Mayo celebration, Turbo is the second straight animated film with a conspicuous Latin presence. Hispanic audiences in the U.S. and Spanish-speaking countries abroad are obviously a significant part of Hollywood’s target audience — and I’ve generally welcomed minority or ethnic cultural presences in family films, from Spy Kids to Rio. So why does it feel calculated in these two films? I’m not sure.
The whole Indy 500 thing seems like settling. Here is a snail whom fate and a freak accident have given super-speed. Did anyone making this movie stop to ask, “What are the possibilities with this premise? What can we do with a snail with super-speed?” Was winning a race really the most interesting payoff? Might that actually be dreaming too small, not too big?
Why not open up the story to larger concerns? Challenge Turbo to do something selfless with his powers? Power and responsibility, that sort of thing? I’m just thinking out loud.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Mild racing action and race-related havoc; a couple of mild double-entendres. Fine family viewing.