Thursday, April 10, 2014
If I hadn't already reached a low point in my moaning about the mediocrity of most animated movies, Turbo would have brought me there at lightning speed.
Twenty thirteen was the year that each animated movie I saw was trying to be more mediocre than the one before it -- most notably with the likes of Epic, Planes and The Croods, but even to some extent with Fozen, the year's animated breakout hit. So it should come as no surprise that Turbo, another 2013 animated film churned out by Dreamworks (joining The Croods), would end up being the poster boy for animated mediocrity.
The writers of Turbo seem to have been peering over shoulders at Disney/Pixar, since Turbo is like a mashup of Cars and Planes -- even though Planes had not yet been released. It's got Cars' racing milieu and Planes' already plenty unoriginal notion of the massive underdog competing in a race for which he is ironically unqualified. That ironic underdog is Theo the snail (voice of Ryan Reynolds), who spends his days harvesting tomatoes in a San Fernando Valley garden, and his nights watching old VHS tapes of Indy Car racing great Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), who tells him that "No dream is too big, and no dreamer is too small." See, Theo wants to race in the Indianapolis 500. That's right, snails are known for being so slow that their speed is best discussed metaphorically, yet this particular snail has dreams of traveling upwards of 200 miles per hour.
This should just remain a ridiculous dream, of course, but fate creates the conditions where it could become a reality. Through a Rube Goldbergian set of circumstances, Theo finds himself suction-cupped to the body of a car about to burst from the starting line of a drag race. During this race, Theo tumbles into the car's supercharger, in what becomes his "origins of a superhero" moment. The nitrous oxide fuses with his DNA, and suddenly, Theo can shine lights from his eyes, beep like a reversing semi, and most importantly, travel at lightning speeds, leaving a trail of shimmering light wherever he goes. This is all much to the chagrin of his worrywart brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who sees only disaster in the future of the newly rechristened "Turbo." Seeing a much different future for the mollusk, taco vendor Tito Lopez (Michael Pena) discovers the little speedster and imagines that Turbo will bring fame and customers to his fledgling restaurant. Before long, though, he's got his sights set even bigger, on the country's most famous race. A collection of Tito's neighbors and a bevy of Tito's streetwise snails will do everything they can to see Turbo race alongside, and against, his idol, Guy Gagne.
Dreamworks has often been strong on the visuals and weak on the story, and Turbo is no exception. The one thing you'd need to get right in a hero's journey story like this is to give the hero a real purpose with a solid spine. Theo/Turbo has got the purpose alright, but his character has none of the psychological underpinnings that make the audience want him to succeed. The only thing we really know about this snail is that he longs to be exceptional and has a thing for racing. He isn't trying to impress some distant father or save his garden from being turned into a parking lot -- the closest he's got is to quiet the whining of his dyspeptic brother. He's just a snail who wants to go fast, and frankly, that's not enough. Reynolds makes Turbo self-centered and driven, but not much beyond that. If you want to really root for him, good luck.
Much of the rest of the vocal cast feels either obvious or out of place. Starting with the out of place: It's not that Giamatti has never worked for a paycheck before, just that a nagging snail feels particularly beneath him, even if he does give the performance his all. The same is true for Samuel L. Jackson as the leader of Turbo's coterie of new snail racing friends. Another one slumming is Luis Guzman as Tito's brother, who fulfills the same function toward Tito as Chet fulfills toward Theo/Turbo. (And as I write this out, I'm starting to recognize that Turbo may be Dreamworks' male sibling version of the sisterly bonds at the center of Frozen -- even though that movie had not yet come out either.) Among the obvious: Snoop Dogg as one of the streetwise snails. Dreamworks is nothing if not conscious of how to expand its demographic appeal, though I should note that having the human protagonist be a pudgy Mexican feels legitimately progressive.
The photorealism of the race cars and other non-snail aspects of the environment does indeed confirm Dreamworks' position at the forefront of animated technology. There are times when you might pause and wonder if the snails have been inserted into an actual live-action film. It's just a shame that Dreamworks still under-budgets in one crucial area: its screenwriting. Until Dreamworks can find someone capable of telling a truly sublime story, no amount of technological advancements will help it win any race.