Full Disclosure: The writer was a movie critic for the Huntington News, the campus newspaper of Northeastern University, during the early years of his college life.
"Turbo," Dreamworks' latest offering that centers around a garden snail's dream of victory at the Indianapolis 500, isn't a champion.
As pointed out already by folks far better at film criticism than myself, the David Soren-directed picture is nowhere near groundbreaking. It carries a stock message at its core ('believe in yourself,' 'don't let anything stop your dreams', etc.) and borrows quite liberally from other sources such as rival studio Pixar's "Cars" and "Ratatouille," as well as "The Fast and the Furious" franchise. You'll see those elements coming.
But while Turbo's world can be quite derivative at times, it can also be pleasingly realistic – or as realistic as it can get with snails zipping along at 230 miles per hour. In the lead up to 'Turbo,' Soren noted that he wanted to keep the story that takes place around the 'motoring mollusk' grounded in authenticity, and he and his Dreamworks team manage to pull it off with style. It proves to be the engine this movie needs to get on the podium.
The story begins in the tomato bushes of a home in the Los Angeles suburbs, where the racing-obsessed Theo (Ryan Reynolds), his cautious older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti), and the rest of their fellow snails work separating and munching on the lush vegetables. Chet is quite content with this existance, but Theo wants something more.
After a near-death experience with a lawn mower, a saddened Theo winds up on an L.A. freeway and gets knocked onto the hood of a Chevy Camaro that's set to do battle in a drag race. Seconds into the race, Theo gets sucked into the engine, which promptly fills up – and fills him up – with nitrous oxide.
Upon being spat out of the Camaro's exhaust, Theo heads home and discovers his newfound super speed in a driveway duel with a boy that likes to crush snails with his big wheel. The new powers come in handy again when he has to chase a flock of crows that's taken poor Chet along for, seemingly, his last ride.
Both snails survive the ordeal, but are quickly captured and placed in a snail-racing ring by the friendly Tito (Michael Pena), who works alongside his more realistic older brother Angelo (Luis Guzman) at Dos Bros Tacos.
The taco stand anchors the run-down Starlight Plaza strip mall, which features a body shop run by Paz (Michelle Rodriguez, from, you guessed it, 'The Fast and the Furious'), a hobby shop run by Bobby (Richard Jenkins), and a nail salon run by Kim Ly (Ken Jeong) — and all of them have seen better days. Also in the mix are a group of gearhead snails, led by Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), who wow Theo and shock Chet with their full-throttle antics.
But when the Starlight Plaza crew gets a glimpse of Theo's speed, they decide to go along with Tito's craziest business idea yet: Entering him in the Indy 500 to put their strip mall on the map. That sets the group – save the thoroughly annoyed Angelo – on a journey to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and on a collision course with five-time Indy champ Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), a driver that hides a vicious, "win at all costs" mentality behind his jovial public persona.
Here comes the part that will make IndyCar fans eat this movie up. There may be a snail in the '500', but other than that, the depiction of the world's greatest race is a straight one and 'Turbo' is all the better for it. The sequences are phenomenal and the Brickyard has never looked better. Give a shout-out to Dario Franchitti, the real-life, three-time Indy 500 winner, who worked as a technical consultant and gave Soren and Co. invaluable knowledge on the details of racing.
Also standing out are brilliant point-of-view shots that depict Turbo going around and under cars in a bid to get to the front, as well as of the marbles – tiny bits of rubber that fall off the tires and look like specks to us on NBC Sports Network's IndyCar broadcasts, but become life-threatening hazards for our hero. The attention to detail is striking and is a true strength of the film.
By this point, you can probably figure out how 'Turbo' is going to end. But its ability to engage the audience with enough whiz-bang (for the kids) and charm (for the adults) is what enables you to pardon the predictability. The characters are worth getting to know, the visuals are lovingly created, and the voice acting is entertaining, particularly Giamatti's stick-in-the-mud Chet and Hader's hammy Gagne.
As I noted above, Turbo's world isn't the most inventive. But it's one I think I'd like to visit again.
I'll give it a solid B on the report card – although I'm sure at least some IndyCar fans will give it an A+. They can be easily forgiven for that.