In DreamWorks Animation’s winsome toon “Turbo,” a junior speed maven dreams of competing in the Indianapolis 500. There’s just one small problem: He’s a snail. Closer in spirit to Pixar’s “Ratatouille” than anything the folks at DWA have yet made, this endearing underdog story finds the publicly traded computer-animation studio taking a welcome risk and betting on a farfetched story idea, rather than a clearly spinoff-ready property (that said, Netflix has already booked the “Turbo F.A.S.T.” series for December). The result is plenty appealing, especially for younger auds, though it will be a stretch for this snail tale to snare the crowd it needs to recoup its nine-figure budget.
Sheer expense aside, “Turbo” adheres to an otherwise safe formula, combining cute cartoon characters with the standard all-American “dream big” message: If a rat can thrive in a French restaurant, then why can’t a snail become an Indy speedster? DWA tops it off with a roster of big-name voice talent, all the better for talkshow and publicity appearances. While there’s nothing wrong with casting Ryan Reynolds as Turbo per se, the actor makes an odd choice, since good looks are so much a part of his appeal.
The voices are the souls of these characters, who — for obvious reasons, including their lack of limbs — are unusually difficult for animators to anthropomorphize. Working in Turbo’s favor is the fact that he and the five Racing Snails he enlists along the way fancy themselves as tiny little cars, not people. Their individual personalities are ultimately defined by the way their mouths move, the voice actors and the distinctive behavior of their two googly eyestalks.
When we meet Turbo, he’s just your average brown-and-orange garden snail named Theo, toiling away at the tomato “plant” by day and spending his off hours glued to the TV set, re-living the highlights of his idol, French racing champ Guy Gagne (whose name literally means “to win”). Hilariously voiced by Bill Hader, Gagne looks like Vincent Cassel and sounds a lot like the effete French snob Sacha Baron Cohen played in “Talladega Nights” — an amusing yet strange rival, considering only one French driver has won the Indy 500 since 1920.
However ambitious his dreams, Turbo is downright sluggish in real life — until a freak accident in which he gets sucked into a street racer’s engine and flooded with nitrous oxide, conveniently rewriting his genetic code to deliver the speed he’s always craved. Though Turbo’s fellow mollusks have long indulged his racing delusions, responsible older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti, the best casting decision of the lot) wishes the kid would just snap out of it and focus on the drudgery of their factory-work existence.
But Turbo dreams of the big time, and though his talents aren’t earned (concerned parents wouldn’t be wrong to interpret the film as unintentionally condoning steroid use in sports), his determination seems more important than the implications of the radioactive-blue slime streak he leaves in his wake. Meanwhile, the movie makes it clear the rest of these snails don’t have much to live for, as hungry crows swoop down and scoop up one of their number at regular intervals — a startling interruption that’s always good for a laugh. For Turbo and his fragile-shelled ilk, nearly everything’s a threat, and the simplistic plot provides various dangers along the way, including a sadistic bug-crushing kid clearly modeled after “Toy Story’s” next-door terror Sid.
Co-writer/director David Soren’s story offers little that even the average 6-year-old couldn’t imagine, though the film’s considerable charm comes through via its characters and sense of humor. (As it happens, DreamWorks’ most amusing characters to date have been the singing slugs from “Flushed Away.” According to insiders, Jeffrey Katzenberg recognized their appeal and insisted the animators cram as many of the buggers into that toon as possible.) Here, the laughs come not from the silly voices but a blend of snappy editing and clever character bits, including a recurring joke about an inappropriately named sidekick who calls himself White Shadow (Michael Patrick Bell).
Given the snails’ inherent speed challenges, “Turbo” has fun jump-cutting from earnest closeups to dispiriting wide shots that reveal just how little they have actually moved. In Turbo’s case, his radical transformation rivals most superheroes: The pokey fella goes from a 17-minute yard to clocking more than 200 miles per hour on the Indy speedway — though wet-blanket Chet cautions that the effects of the nitrous oxide are sure to wear off sometime.
Making playful use of 3D along the way, the CG toon zips past the obstacle of convincing the organizers to allow a snail to compete in the Indy 500, nimbly juggling the mismatched racers’ differences in scale on the track itself. While the obvious takeaway for kids is the stock no-goal-too-impossible malarkey, the film also raises the more practical lesson that one can’t achieve success alone, fleshing out the pic’s second act with characters Turbo needs to succeed (including fellow snails voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph and Snoop Dogg).
Among the handful of humans the script introduces to mirror the conflict between Turbo and Chet, are Dos Bros Tacos proprietor and unlikely team captain Tito (Michael Pena), who struggles to convince his brother (Luis Guzman) and the other local business owners (Michelle Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins and Ken Jeong, the latter given ample latitude to steal scenes as a feisty old Chinese lady) to back his longshot scheme.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the transparent grab for urban and Latino audiences here — especially in light of “Fast & Furious 6’s” nearly $700 million worldwide haul — reflected in everything from the supporting cast to Henry Jackman’s hip-hop-themed score. At this budget, the studio will need everybody it can get to make this escargot go.