Directed by David Soren
Written by David Soren and Darren Lemke and Robert Siegel
One of the most exciting, complex, and fully realized animated films of the last 20 years is Ratatouille, Pixar’s creative champion to date. The film presents its audience with a patently insane concept—a rat who wants to cook, and become a master of haute cuisine in Paris—and manages to ground every action, every reaction, and every consequence in reality. Not just the reality of the movie, but the reality of the world; when the kitchen staff at Gusteau’s is shown that the gawky young man who took their restaurant by storm is actually controlled, like a marionette, by this sharp, intelligent rat, all but one quit, because what other action would be appropriate? Ratatouille is a film made in the spirit of Walt Disney, one that not only makes the impossible possible, but makes it plausible. Ratatouille is such an excellent masterstroke of filmmaking that any future animated movies asking to be compared to the 2007 film are setting themselves up for trouble.
Enter Turbo, the newest full-length animated feature from DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox. Like Ratatouille, Turbo offers up a ridiculous idea: a snail who wants to be fast, so fast that he could one day race in the Indianapolis 500. The goal is more difficult to attain, but the basic notion of an anthropomorphized non-human character daring to be the opposite of how the world perceives him is strikingly familiar. And like most of DreamWorks Animation’s other films, Turbo is, through and through, very familiar, a middle-of-the-road effort that is content to be present, but not memorable. There are a slew of recognizable celebrities playing the lead and supporting characters, various pop-culture references to tide over the adults in the crowd, and a predictable storyline that tries very hard, in the climax, to squeeze every last drop of tension to amplify the expected, triumphant finale. Turbo is, for better or worse, just there. It exists, but does not stand out.
Ryan Reynolds voices Theo, a mollusk who prefers to be called Turbo because of his seemingly delusional dreams of being as speedily gifted as his idol, the French-Canadian racer Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). Gagne sets Turbo on his dream in the opening scene, emphasizing that “no dream is too big, and no dreamer too small.” (Shades there of Remy the rat and Chef Gusteau in Ratatouille, of course.) Theo lives a painfully humdrum life with his brother (Paul Giamatti) and many other snails, but his life changes when he’s inadvertently given the gift of speed via an unplanned detour into the nitrous-oxide compartment of a street-racing car engine. Now that Theo is as fast as he always wanted, he gets involved with other fast-minded snails and a goofy young man (Michael Pena) who believes that Theo, now Turbo for real, can hold his own in one of America’s most famous and enduring racing events.
Co-written and directed by David Soren, Turbo seems perfectly happy existing in the abstract, rarely stopping to build its world with any physical detail outside of how many blades of grass are present in a front lawn in suburban Los Angeles. The film’s human presence is lacking in the first 30 minutes, and those who do eventually see Turbo in action (outside of his portly human manager) take only a bit of convincing to realize the value of a snail who can race at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour. As novelty, Turbo being a roadside attraction makes sense, but once the story turns so he can try and legitimately achieve his dream of racing against human competitors at the Indy 500, Turbo leaves behind any semblance of reality. As the film it’s most greatly indebted to proves, you can tell an inherently outlandish story in such a way that makes it feel real, in live action or animation. Turbo doesn’t achieve those heights.
As with most DreamWorks Animation films, there’s a lot going on, especially in the first hour, of Turbo, with an overload of characters who barely get a minute’s worth of dialogue to make an impact. Outside of Reynolds, Giamatti, Pena, and Hader, there’s Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, and Luis Guzman as the humans who end up helping Turbo out; and Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Schwartz, Maya Rudolph and Snoop Dogg as those speed-obsessed snails. So many of these performers are solid and funny in live-action roles, and many of them actually do have good voices for animation, especially Jackson and Jenkins. They’re merely window dressing, however, for the mostly obstacle-free journey Turbo takes to get a sweet taste of victory and glory. And the character traits they have are mostly those we associate with the live performers: Jackson is a tough, imposing trash-talker; Snoop Dogg throws out tons of loopy, nonsensical worldplay; Jeong is obnoxious and shrill, and so on.
But that’s what has come to be commonplace with the movies from DreamWorks Animation. Turbo is no different, and perhaps that’s what’s most enervating about the film. It’s not terrible, nor is it a high watermark in any respect. (The animation itself is mostly fine, though the clouds are inexplicably dark in a number of outdoor scenes, as if a storm is just over the horizon even though none ever arrives.) Turbo is exactly what it looks like, a film devoid of any surprise. There’s a notion that Pixar is always a few steps ahead of DreamWorks Animation, qualitatively, even throughout the last few years. It would be nice, however, after so many years for DreamWorks to truly take us by surprise and deliver something original, as opposed to another rehash of something daring. Turbo, sadly, means we have to wait a little bit longer.
– Josh Spiegel