There’s no mistaking Turbo for anything other than a fairy tale fantasy aimed squarely at the young, but there’s something incredibly winsome about it that other films these days miss entirely. It’s genuine and free of any sense of irony. It comes with a fundamental understanding about how such a story should be told, almost as if the film was being told to a young child by a relative telling a bedtime story and making it up on the spot. It’s an outlandish premise that never dwells on the details like many other films of its kind would these days, but it still moves from beginning to end with a considerable amount of grace.
Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is a garden snail that’s grown bored of his day to day life working the fields and pushing around overripe tomatoes. At night he watches old VHS tapes of Indy Car races, idolizing the charismatic camera hog and master driver Guy Gagné (Bill Hader). He daydreams about being a racer, which often gets him into trouble with his safety minded and realistic older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti).
From the start, there’s something special about how Turbo and director/co-writer David Soren manages to create his life lessons and frame them within interesting character dynamics. The film doesn’t jump into the narrative about Theo living out his dreams right away, and it bothers to strengthen character and relationships rather that overplotting a film that’s essentially going to end up being about things that could never remotely happen anywhere. The give and take between Reynolds and Giamatti is sharp and pointed because while they always disagree and sometimes fall out and don’t want to be around each other, there isn’t any hatred between them at any point that feels untrue. Even when Turbo’s shenanigans get the two of them fired from their jobs and Chet calls his brother out, they really function like a majority of brother would in that situation. There’s never anything to suggest that they won’t continue being great friends despite their disagreements.
One night while out on a slither to clear his head, Theo gets sucked into the fuel injection system of a street racing sports car and his DNA fuses with that of a car, leading him to get superpowers like high-beam eyes, a radio, a car alarm, and, of course, the ability to go really, really fast. After Theo and Chet get canned, a mishap with some crows whisks them away to Van Nuys, California where they are dropped into the lives of another pair of bickering brothers trying to run a fledgling taco stand in a lousy strip mall. Tito (Michael Peña) is the eternal dreamer looking for easy ways to the duo to hit it big, including racing snails in an auto body shop with some of the other downtrodden strip mall business owners (Richard Jenkins, Michelle Rodriguez, Ken Jeong). Much like the relationship between Theo and Chet, Tito finds his counterpoint in the serious and jaded Angelo (Luis Guzmán).
Again, the brotherly dynamics of the film are genuinely sweet and touching, offering a counterpoint to the silliness around them. There’s something almost classical about the approach. Visually the film itself is great, but they’re simply used to create a sense of wonder rather than draw attention to how clever the script is. Instead, the focus is placed on actual relationships and making the jokes as funny as possible. And with the exception of a hilarious section that equally skewers and pointedly understands just how the power of the internet works, most of the jokes are the hardest kind to write: they are clean and appropriate for any age without sacrificing wit. It’s a skill that sometimes Pixar can’t even seem to get just right, especially as of late.
When Tito and Theo meet, they get the pie in the sky idea to enter the newly christened Turbo into the Indianapolis 500, and the film becomes the standard narrative telling the audience to believe in themselves and they can achieve anything. It’s really the only point where the film’s visuals get the chance to take centre stage. With assists from cinematographer Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s go-to guy) and 3-time Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti as technical consultants, the racing element to the film is thrilling enough to make up for the whole left-field nature of it as a plot element. The attention to detail makes it easy to forget that Turbo is still about a snail showing up in an auto race.
Much like an actual race, the screenplay for Turbo is always taking left turns quite sharply, but never unbelievably. It seems to be making things up as it goes along (again, this is a film about a racing snail), but it never forgets the continuity it has been building along the way. It’s the characters that carry the continuity and it’s up to the voice cast to come in and make sure it stays that way.
Reynolds is a perfectly likable lead, and Giamatti is even better as the loving foil. Richard Jenkins doesn’t get much to do, but in a really strange kind of in-joke he’s playing almost a variation on his character from The Visitor. Hader gets to do the lion’s share of hammy acting, further underlining why he will be missed on Saturday Night Live from here on out. But the real scene stealer is Samuel L. Jackson as another racing snail named Whiplash and the leader of a group of misfit snail racers. Jackson plays up his bad ass persona quite nicely and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs out of it.
Kids will probably get more out of Turbo than adults will, and that’s just fine since it’s the kind of kids entertainment that they deserve. As a racing film it’s exponentially better than Pixar’s Cars movies, which relied too heavily on puns and sight gags rather than creating characters or story. But if you darned hipsters need any reasons to see it on your own it does have Richard Jenkins, a mash-up of Tupac and Survivor, and a YouTube Poop as a plot point, and those should be three reasons to see it right there. It’s also just really entertaining.