|dreamworks-turbo-8 (Photo credit: Automotive Rhythms)
Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is a common garden snail who dreams of becoming a champion racer. His hero is the five-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). However, he is regarded by all his fellow snails with disdain and he is constantly worried about by his elder brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who manages health and safety in the snail garden. One day a freak accident leads Theo, who nicknames himself Turbo, to become imbued with powers that grant him the speed and abilities of a racing car. Another chance encounter leads Theo and Chet to be captured and then befriended by "Dos Bros" Taco driver, Tito (Michael Pena), who races snails with other shopkeepers at a failing strip mall. Theo finds a kindred spirit in Tito, who has spent most of his time working with his weary brother (Luis Guzman) thinking of wild ideas to generate more business. Seeing an opportunity with Theo's incredible powers, Tito and his fellow snail racers decide to
take the supercharged mollusc to race in the Indianapolis 500. Here Theo will need all the advice and support he can get from his new found racing snail friends, led by the charismatic Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as the love of his long-suffering brother as he faces Guy Gagne in the upcoming race...
While it seemed half the country were still falling over themselves to see Ron Howard's latest "important" film, "Rush", my daughter and I were set to watch the "other" racing car film, "Turbo". It seems odd to cast this picture in the same role as its titular character, playing the underdog, but that is the way it felt on that cold and wet Sunday afternoon. The latest in Dreamwork Animation's rapid stream of big budget child-friendly, family-targeted 3D feature films, "Turbo" seems to present itself as the cynical mainstream option over Howard's art project. However, I guess that is the rub with me. The critic's choice just seems to be an opportunity for boys who like movies about racing cars to pretend they are watching an "important" film and Howard's usual middle-class middlebrows to be entertained without feeling like they have watched "Days of Thunder". I am, of course, being grossly unfair, especially since I am the only genre-drawn male in the UK that hasn't seen "Rush", but my final point of this issue is that "Turbo" seems more honest in its cynicism.
So how does this film measure up? As to be expected, it is predictably formulaic, fitting both the format set by Dreamworks' most successful franchise, Shrek, and the now notoriously strict Hollywood blockbuster template. It fits the Cinderella pattern and there are plenty of references to movies with a similar theme. In fact, these references and clichés are all but screamed at the camera. Theo is both told he is the "underdog" and there is even a remix of "Eye of the Tiger" played over some of the film's climatic race sequence. The film is clearly aimed at a young audience and my five year-old was amused enough to last through to the end. There is plenty of action and the soundtrack, a la Shrek, is a mixture of classic pop songs and new material, including work from one of the voice actors, Snoop Dogg. The classic selection is obvious, even including Queen's "We are the Champions", but works to keep the film moving.
Turbo clearly parodies many other films and genres. The most obvious one, which is implied in the film's tagline, is The Fast and the Furious. A pivotal scene in the movie sees Theo get sucked into a street racing car's supercharger and hit with nitrous oxide. If the film's premise of a snail racing in the Indianapolis 500 set in in a world of anthropomorphized snails wasn't ludicrous enough, we also have a superhero style origin story that doesn't even try to make sense. However, the biggest comparison I noticed was with Disney Pixar's Ratatouille. The lead character is a lowly creature that has ambitions in the human world that are the polar opposite to the image of his species. In Ratatouille it was a rat who wanted to be a chef, in Turbo it's a snail who wants to compete in a major racing car event. They both befriend a human misfit whose success depends on the animal's success. Ratatouille is a far slicker film, but Turbo has a nice turn in the respect that the human inspiration for the lead character's ambitions is also his arch-rival.
All the supposed twists are very predictable, but you get the impression that this is intended. There might be plenty of cheesiness with its storyline, but the film achieves charm without dripping with the type of sickening sentimentality we see too much of in Disney. This is particularly evident in films featuring animals. Turbo only casts the snails as the other talking and intelligent creature besides humans. Unlike the majority of Disney's list of animated features all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, there is no harmonious animal utopia going on here with everyone happily co-existing. This works well with the film's acceptance of the fragility of life in the wild. Thankfully we are spared from a conservation message or, worse-still, some misguided and partisan ideal about animals. We see snails being regularly picked off by hungry crows and the snails stoically accepting their fate. Such scenes are delivered with enough black comedy to not upset the under-10 target audience. Crows are also killed and even submitted to the will of hero characters. And it is with these characters and the rest of the cast, that Turbo really succeeds.
The cast includes some obvious stereotypes, including the Asian nail technician, but the supporting snail cast are a colourful band of personalities with some great voice talents. Samuel L. Jackson is clearly the most distinctive member of the cast and Whiplash is obviously modelled as a caricature of Jackson's most streetwise and tough guy roles. Ryan Reynolds makes a youthful Theo who is a little reminiscent of Nemo the hero of another Disney Pixar feature, Finding Nemo. However, it was Paul Giamatti's appearance on the credits as Chet that most surprised me. The last time I saw him he was exerting some terribly ruthless acts of torture on prisoners as King John in the semi-tragic medieval action movie, Ironclad. It is these characters' one-liners, monologues and conversations that make this a watchable film for the whole family. It might not be particularly funny or original in concept, but there is plenty of fun to be had from start to finish.
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