Some years ago, Pixar’s delightful, visually dazzling The Incredibles made a brief bit of noise with a message that seemed to go against the hackneyed, politically correct tone of so much modern kids’ entertainment. As a movie about a family of superheroes struggling with an uncomprehending society jealous of their powers, it suggested that our culture of telling every kid that they could be whatever they wanted if only they wanted it hard enough was kind of corrosive. “If everybody’s special,” the movie said, “then no one is.” Shakespeare’s Coriolanus couldn’t have said better himself. Somewhere, Pinocchio and the Little Engine That Could quaked with fear.
Now along comes Fox and Dreamworks’ Turbo to set the kiddie record straight. It’s an unrepentant dream-big-and-great-things-will-happen cartoon about an ordinary garden snail named Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who desperately wants to race in the Indianapolis 500, even though he’s not a car. It’s not just a dream, it’s an imperative. Theo can’t stand, and is no good at, the drudgery of working at “the plant” (an actual tomato plant) every day. “Everybody’s got that one thing that makes them happy. And for me, it’s terrifying, terrifying, blazing speed,” he says, much to the consternation of his fearful, go-along-to-get-along brother Chet (Paul Giammati).
Guess who gets his wish? To be fair, Theo has to do a bit more than just dream big. After a traumatic incident with a tomato and a lawnmower, he abandons his little snail community and is accidentally sucked into a race-car engine. There, he gets jacked up with all sorts of chemicals and electricity and a good dose of movie mystery magic and emerges, Hulk-like, with special powers. Now he glows blue when he revs up his engine/shell. He has a car alarm. He receives radio transmissions. And he zooms past everyone, snails and people alike, with lightning speed. If this were the seventies, everybody would think this movie was an allegory for cocaine.
Once he gets his superpowers, Theo/Turbo winds up in the care of young Hispanic taco store worker Tito (Michael Peña), another big dreamer whose relationship with his brother (Luis Guzman) mirrors that of our hero’s. The taco store is in a forgotten little cluster of shops that includes a nail salon, an auto body shop, and a hobby store. The employees and owners of these stores form a little community, as do a small gaggle of vaguely ethnic snails (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, and others) clearly inspired by the Fast & Furious movies. They first taunt and then effectively adopt Turbo. When Turbo and Tito make a bid to enter the Indy 500, they win support from the snail’s own hero, the espresso-drinking racing champion Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), who seems to have more than a little in common with Sacha Baron Cohen’s driver villain Jean Girard from the Will Ferrell flick Talladega Nights. In general, the vocal performances in this film feel a little less anonymous than they usually do in such fare. It helps immeasurably, as it allows the likes of Jackson, Snoop Dogg, and Guzman to lend some of their natural charisma to the film.
Turbo won’t set the world of animation on fire, but it’s a fun movie. It features plenty of clever visual gags: When frustrated, the snails beat their extended eyes like fists against walls; when Theo watches a race on TV, he stands in front of the image, looking just slightly off, as the cars zoom along, which creates a deliciously meta effect when viewed in 3-D. There are some nice dark touches along the way: A crow carries off a snail every day, like clockwork; meanwhile, discarded salt packets on the street pose mortal dangers to our mollusk heroes. (The one-liners are solid, too. At one point, a snail using a discarded Chinese food carton as a disguise deems the experience “like wearing a hat made of feet” — a description so perfect I’m eagerly trying to find ways to use it in everyday conversation.) And the climactic race, as you might expect, is grand and funny and surprising in all the right ways; kids who like cars may even like this better than Cars, or at least Cars 2. In the end, Turbo is an unambitious movie about a very ambitious character, but it has an infectious sense of fun. Don’t expect too much from it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Just don’t tell Mr. Incredible.