Every once in a while, there's an animated film that has a totally bizarre premise, which should not work at all. And yet, the result is actually kind of great. Gnomeo and Juliet was one such movie, and so is Turbo, the story of a snail that wants to be a race car. Turbo could be the summer's most pleasant surprise.
It's not a towering artistic achievement, but Turbo is surprisingly watchable and fun. In particular, Paul Giamatti pretty much carries the film as the voice of Chet, the brother of the racecar snail, and Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson are kind of awesome as two other racing snails. You might actually come out of Turbo pumping your fist a little bit.
So Turbo is basically your standard "underdog" (undersnail?) sports movie, with a huge dollop of "don't give up on your dreams, and you can make them come true" on top. Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) is an ordinary garden snail, who has a "job" harvesting tomatoes at a tomato plant with his brother Chet. But Turbo is obsessed with car racing, watching it on a discarded television every spare minute — and the other snails are constantly telling him to stop dreaming and learn to be a regular snail.
Instead, Turbo sneaks away to watch the cars on the highway, and winds up getting drawn into a street race, where he falls into a car engine and gets supercharged with nitrous oxide. Somehow, this gives Turbo superpowers, including superspeed and "headlights." Soon he's pursuing his dream of racing in the Indy 5000, with Chet as an unwilling companion along for the ride.
Don't even bother trying to wrap your head around this premise — there's nothing to try and understand. It's a tiny snail racing against racecars. But this movie does a pretty good job of getting you past the absurdity and into the "wheee snail racing" zone.
And there's a sweet message buried inside the nonsensical premise of Turbo, which I can get behind — it's all about being who you are inside, not who you're supposed to be. Turbo the snail sees himself as a racecar, even when he's just a slow struggling garden snail on a tomato plant. This belief almost gets him killed, but he never gives up on it. And later, after Turbo actually gains "race car" superpowers, the other snails won't accept him or believe in him, but he proves that he has what it takes.
Also, the film is pretty solidly anchored by the relationship between Turbo and his brother Chet, and Giamatti does a lot to make both the themes and the emotional underpinnings of the film work. Chet gets swept up in Turbo's crazy adventure, but doesn't approve of Turbo's race-car dreams and thinks (not unreasonably) that Turbo is going to get smushed if he tries to race on a track with a few dozen giant cars. Anyone who's seen kids' movies before will know that Chet probably doesn't end the film still disapproving of his brother's fast lifestyle, but it's still really effectively done and there are a few really sweet moments between the brothers.
The "underdog" theme also has a wee bit of a socioeconomic component, too — after Turbo becomes a racesnail, he and Chet wind up at a taco stand in a run-down strip mall, where all the businesses are slowly falling apart. The taco stand is run by two brothers, Angelo and Tito — and Tito is always having crazy ideas for promoting their business. Including snail racing, weirdly enough. Tito is a lovable dreamer, like Turbo — but he's also broke and kind of doomed. The Mexican brothers, along with the mostly African American-voiced snails that live with them, represent a kind of struggling working class population whose dreams of success are as impossible, and as noble, as Turbo's desire to win the Indy 5000.
And this film also shows how far computer-animated movies have come — the art style is crude and the characters look much the same as other recent Dreamworks animated films. But the visuals are really lovely — the streaks of light when Turbo or the actual cars in the film move, the speed lines, the bright colors and dynamic imagery are all super striking. This is the coolest looking Speed Racer film we're likely to get, after the failure of the Wachowskis' movie a few years ago.
In any case, this film is like a primer in how to take a trope, like the "sports movie," and invest it with enough freshness to make it pop. It's a feel-good movie that makes you feel like anything is possible. Even a snail racing against racecars. In a summer of animated sequels and prequels, Turbo is a new, completely batshit concept. If you need to get your kids out of the house for a few hours, this is a great thing to keep their little brains occupied with.