'Turbo': Speedy fun for the family
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
You WILL believe a snail can compete in the Indy 500.
Or will you? OK, probably not. The premise of the new DreamWorks animated opus, "Turbo," does indeed challenge credulity even by the standards of a kid-targeted animated movie. The digital parables of our day's children's entertainment are all about transcending limitations, and one of these, "Ratatouille," in which a rat becomes a four-star chef, is a bona fide classic, but come on. A snail. Competing in the Indy 500. Seriously.
To the credit of "Turbo," the movie seems to understand its own near-abject ridiculousness, and revels in it, without getting overly nudge-nudge wink-wink about it. The workaday snails among whom Theo, aka Turbo, and his somewhat more realistic and schlubby brother, Chet, toil in some form of tomato farming. They have not just their own ecosystem, but a full-blown society, against which Theo rebels by venerating auto racing and its drivers. He watches old video tapes of such races on a TV in the garage of the house the snail crew squats in. Theo/Turbo is particularly taken with French racing ace Guy Gagné, whose own feel-good motto ends with the admonition that "no dreamer is too small." One night, after a bad day at the tomato whatever it is, Theo crawls out to the highway, ends up in a car engine, and gets a dose of super-fuel that gives him a speedy superpower. Soon enough he finds himself the star of a snail-racing attraction at a down-and-out strip-mall taco place run by two OTHER brothers, one of whom's a dreamer and the other ... well, you get the idea. And, yes, I did say "snail-racing attraction."
There's a point later in the movie in which one worldly snail, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, tells Theo/Turbo, "You clearly have the skills to pay the bills. If snails had to pay bills." The script by Darren Lemke, Robert Siegel and director David Soren regularly dispenses such knowing gags even as it tries to engage the viewer into investing in the chance of a race-track victory for Turbo. There are also some amusing relative time gags, a fun human misapprehension of the relationship between Turbo and Chet (the snails can understand each other's English, but humans can't even hear it, apparently), and pretty brisk pacing lest a viewer be given an opportunity to really parse what the movie is asking him or her to buy. This contemplation might cause the whole construct to come down like a house of cards in said viewer's consciousness.
It's all pretty inoffensive and cute, though, and the voice actors, who range from a likable Ryan Reynolds in the title role to the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti as Chet and a more under-wraps than usual Bill Hader as French eventual non-ally Gagné, all do work that's credible or better. The song score has some bad news for older parents: The standard DreamWorks quasi-boomer-friendly pop-song soundtrack is replaced here by hip-hop. I myself was slightly taken aback to hear the "I never eat the pig because a pig is a cop" line from House of Pain's "Jump Around" during one speedy montage. It's a righteous jam, but come now, DreamWorks; think of the children and their inchoate attitudes toward law enforcement and other authority figures. Probably I'm the only one who caught it, though, so don't worry.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.