Factoring in the substantial suspension of disbelief needed to accept that a cartoon snail can move at 230 mph, Turbo is still a ridiculous movie. Mysteriously bent on making said premise a difficult one, writer/director David Soren and co-writers Darren Lemke and Robert D. Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler, for Pete’s sake…Pete Docter’s sake, that is) load it with more narrative obstacles than the typical animated feature. Instead of going with a wholly alternate world like the Cars films or having well-defined human-animal rules, Turbo has mollusks and mankind intermingle to oddly unsuccessful ends. In this world, the two species coexist in an environment that’s constantly shifting, building bridges and tearing them down in random order until it’s unclear precisely how this universe works.
Talking animals and other anthropomorphized objects are the foundation of animated films, but the purpose of such imaginative endeavors is defeated if viewers are constantly hung up by the story’s logic, a flaw at which Turbo excels. Its snails harvest tomatoes in a suburban Los Angeles firmly inhabited by humans, and though the entire first act occurs in that garden setting, the purpose of such actions remains unclear. Intermingling of the two worlds are limited to a teapot whistle signaling the work day’s start and finish and the adjoining household’s child, a notorious shell-crusher who rides around on a Big Wheel. Absent the boundaries and expectations necessary for this milieu to feel even fictionally legitimate, the premise handicaps itself from the start and only gets messier from there.
One major problem is the inherent limitation of snails as charming protagonists, an issue Epic made painfully clear earlier this year. If the combined top comedic talents of Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd in that film couldn’t make mollusks interesting, no amount of star power here (among them the unique vocals of Samuel L. Jackson and Snoop Dogg) is going to change that. Even when the eponymous snail (Ryan Reynolds) with ambitions of being a race car driver huffs some nitrous oxide and gains incredible speed, the the film simply becomes stranger and only slightly more exciting. In line with the earlier confusion, not only does the NOS make our hero live up to his self-assigned name, for whatever reason he also begins exhibiting signs of a car, complete with lights, a radio, and a security system, none of which are utilized beyond throwaway details. Instead, Turbo simply speeds around in a neon blue line, like a cousin of the short-lived NHL glow puck, and waits for the convenient set of circumstances that will let him achieve his dreams.
Such an opportunity arises in a mind-numbingly easy chain of events that lands Turbo and his naysaying big brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) in the hands of Tito (Michael Peña), a taco truck worker who just happens to race snails and who conveniently has an older brother of his own (Luis Guzmán) to crush his dreams. Among these mollusk aficionados, it would seem that some level of defined interaction would be established, thereby clearing up the preceding cloudiness and granting the film some traction. While there’s plenty of interspecies harmony in this snail mecca, it’s nonetheless achieved without verbal communication and only the occasional elaborate pantomime, keeping the line between the worlds blurry.
Complete with a simultaneous “you’re a crazy dreamer” speech from each elder sibling, the silliness rolls on as Tito easily convinces his business neighbors in their rundown Van Nuys strip mall to pay Turbo’s way to the Indianapolis 500. Apparently, all hopeful drivers need do to enter the nation’s most revered race is plop down a $20,000 entry fee and post a qualifying speed. (When the investors include Ken Jeong as a stereotypical elderly Vietnamese woman, all ill-conceived dreams are possible.) From there, things get wackier as the world gets wind of the Little Mollusk Who Could and develops a bad case of Turbo Fever. Reducing the beloved event and the sport at large to a scatterbrained farce (at least Paul Page is calling the race), a steady string of bizarre elements play out, peaking with a confounding mashup of “Eye of the Tiger” and 2Pac’s “Holler If You Hear Me” as Turbo makes a puzzling trip through the field.
And if unsupportive brothers weren’t antagonistic enough, Turbo has elite driver Guy Gangé (Bill Hader) go from slightly smarmy inspirational idol to the planet’s most evil, homicidal maniac in a laughable instant, part of an overall borderline offensive moralizing campaign that undoes any remaining vestige of good cheer. The cruelty exhibited in these unnecessary end scenes are, however, merely further indication that those behind this supposed children’s film are under equipped to handle the story before them. A rare giant misfire for Dreamworks studios, it’s a work destined to baffle viewers of all ages, a standard to which no film, animated or otherwise, should aspire.
Rated PG for some mild action and thematic elements.
Turbo is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.