After watching Turbo, it’s safe to assume the first question kids will ask on the way back to the parking lot won’t be whether garden snails can actually move that fast, but rather, “Daddy, what’s a Verizon?”
Indeed, there’s quite a shameless amount of product placement – Verizon and AAA insurance being the worst offenders; the latter even held a ticket-giveaway promotion – for a children’s movie, but maybe it’s because financiers likely weren’t knocking down DreamWorks’ door to fund a movie about a racing snail who dreams of participating in the Indianapolis 500. It also had the misfortune of being the third big-budgeted computer-animated picture released in a span of only five months, after Monsters University and The Croods.
Snails aren’t exactly the most marketable characters for young audiences. They’re not Nemo or Sully. They elicit more groans of “Eww!” than “Aww!” In the movie, of course, they’re cute and illustrated in a psychedelic cornucopia of bright colors and personalities, but like Ratatouille and its rodent protagonists, it still won’t make you want to cuddle up to the real thing. The snails’ marble-like eyes are perched on thin antenna-like proboscis, and it’s bizarre to see them being used in lieu of arms for hugging or grabbing onto things.
There’s no question that Turbo is a visual delight. The snails live in a vivid green patch of garden space, where they work by “harvesting” tomatoes, which is also their preferred delicacy. Turbo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) watches past Indy 500s on a VCR and equally ancient cathode-ray TV. He even has a “5” decal stuck onto his shell, along with a tiny checkered flag made from a torn piece of a crossword puzzle.
I’ve just realized that I haven’t made much mention of the plot, but that’s because there really isn’t much of one. Instead, Turbo recites the misunderstood-outcast playbook step-by-step: our hero doesn’t want the ordinary life that’s expected of him and his dream of racing in the 500 is of course pooh-poohed by his mates, including big brother Chet (Paul Giamatti). He’s separated from his suburban home following an uninspired chase scene with a kid bully who rides a Big Wheel – they still make those things? – and winds up superpowered in, naturally, a freak accident: sucked into an engine and doused with nitrous oxide during a drag race under an L.A. freeway that’s straight out of Grease mixed with The Fast and the Furious.
He finally ends up in a neglected Van Nuys strip mall, where he’s found by an amiable taco stand worker named Tito (Michael Peña) who’s also misunderstood by his older brother (Luis Guzman) because he would rather focus less on the business and indulge more in his hobby of…racing snails. No joke. His more streetwise mollusks are voiced by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, and Samuel L. Jackson, and they don’t care for his presence at first but of course he blows them all away in their first race against each other. This whole setup couldn’t be any more convenient than if Tito also assisted in raising the entry-fee money so that Turbo can make the trip to Indianapolis. (Oh, wait, he also does that, too.)
Director David Soren’s version of the famed Gasoline Alley is reduced to a world in which no one cares one iota that a juiced snail is part of the field, and the racing itself is too painfully reminiscent of the climax to the 2005 mess Herbie Fully Loaded, including the cliché driving-over-the-catch-fence routine to gain the lead. Will Turbo lose his powers at the most crucial moment? Will he then have to rely on nothing but guts and determination to beat his French racing idol turned rival (Bill Hader)? Turbo moves as quickly as its namesake at a kid-friendly hour and a half, but the imagination involved crawls at, well, a snail’s pace. Hey, if this movie is willing to fuel itself on clichés, then I can end this review with one.