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If Monsters University was the exception to a family-friendly cinematic landscape where all limitations are ignored, underdogs are vindicated and challenges overcome, Turbo exemplifies the rule. DreamWorks Animation’s latest anthropomorphic adventure follows the misadventures of an ambitious snail who aspires to compete in the Indianapolis 500, and it doesn’t let anything – least of all a sense of proportional realism – get in the way of its under-the-underdog tale. Nevertheless fairly adorable and imminently appropriate for a young audience, Turbo offers entertainment that’s ironically brisk but precisely as weighty as one might expect from a one-inch snail.
Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) plays Turbo, a self-styled speed demon in the pastoral world of rotten tomatoes and other literal garden-variety veggies that provides his community of snails with work and shelter. After a trek across town lands him in the engine of a muscle car pulsing with nitrous oxide, Turbo gains the ability to buzz around at hundreds of miles an hour, which eventually gets him and his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) booted from their little snail habitat. But his newfound speed attracts the attention of a taco purveyor named Tito (Michael Pena), and the young dreamer soon hatches a plan to have Turbo compete in the Indy 500. But when Turbo discovers he will be racing his idol, legendary driver Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), he’s forced to come to terms with his own limitations as a snail even as he tests the boundaries of his human counterparts.
Turbo tells a decidedly more conventional story than Monsters University, which had the remarkable fearlessness and honesty to tell its audience “even when you try hard, no matter how badly you want something, not all goals are attainable.” Suffice it to say the Pixar film communicated that message with more nuance and hope, but its rare candor stands out even more vividly in comparison to stuff like this, where it contends that a snail can be a viable contender in a race designed for humans. Certainly, and even without children, I can get behind the notion of dreaming big, but as anything more than cartoonish wish fulfillment, the film may indeed advance a somewhat-dangerous message.
That said, it’s for the most part meant to be cartoonish wish fulfillment, a metaphor to inspire little kids to go after their own, presumably more attainable goals. However, Turbo’s get-up-and-go is augmented, and then some, by the alchemy of basic mollusk anatomy and the magical powers of nitrous oxide (let’s hope there are no copycat experiments involving garden snails and the chemicals in some kid’s garage).
As Turbo, Reynolds delivers the right amount of earnest pluck – he’s a genuinely likeable character whose sometimes-disastrous plans are always well-intentioned and forgivable.
The supporting cast members, meanwhile, provide a welcome variety of colorful characters, although most of them are sort of forgettable, or maybe just forgotten in the story. Giamatti’s Chet is the most important in the ensemble, providing a requisite wet blanket to throw over Turbo’s plans, but the actor makes his point of view understandable, and his eventual transformation from skeptic into supporter convincing. As Tito and his brother Angelo, Pena and Luis Guzman do their best to get past what can at best be described as mild ethnic stereotyping (unless Mexicans running a taco truck is faithful cultural heritage), but Pena’s enthusiasm goes a long way to provide Turbo with a booster and mouthpiece in the human world whose own oblivious sense of optimism is equal to that of his little friend. And as the rogues gallery of fellow racing snails – albeit without Turbo’s suped-up speed – Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph and Ben Schwartz give him a few extra personalities to bounce off of.
Other than a recurring joke in which crows carry off members of Turbo and Chet’s community somewhat obviously to their deaths, there’s little here for adults in terms of examining more serious themes. But there’s also little that will bother or annoy them when the gears of its storytelling start grinding towards its inevitable conclusion. Ultimately, Turbo doesn’t possess the substance of the more ambitious and ageless Monsters University, and nor does it provide the odd, irresistibly sophomoric charms of something like Despicable Me 2. But like its plucky young hero, DreamWorks’ latest offers economy without substance, which is enough to get it to the finish line, even if you aren’t likely to remember that it for very long after the race is over.
Turbo opens today.