The latest film from Dreamworks Animation might come the closest to the attention to detail that Pixar is typically identified with, but with the added bonus of embracing the concept of taking creatures that most would consider unappealing and making them funny and charming to a wide audience. The creatures in question are snails, and the film is TURBO, from first-time feature director David Soren, whose previous works include a couple of MADAGASCAR shorts/television specials. Of course, some might not consider the practice of injecting said snails into the world of Indy car racing a huge risk.
The film follows a group of garden-variety snails (literally--they live in a vegetable garden) that includes the Theo (voiced quite nicely by Ryan Reynolds), a snail who loves watching Indy car racing and dreams of himself in the drivers seat on day, and his more practical brother Chet (Paul Giamatti), who simply wants the two to perform their snaily duties and not get in trouble doing it. These duties seem to consist of grabbing up rotten fruit from the vines and either eating it or depositing it in a place where the snails can compost it. A freak accident involving lightning supercharges and tricks out Theo's shell, but more importantly, it gives him the ability to live his dream of being super fast. What are the odds?!
Partly by design and partly by accident, Theo finds himself miles away from his garden home and lands up being discovered by a pair of taco truck owners, Tito and Angelo (Michael Peña and Luis Guzman), who just happen to race snails (usually the slower variety), but when Theo shows them what he's got, Tito sees his new friend (who renames himself Turbo) as his taco business' ticket to fame and success. Again by complete coincidence, Turbo meets a group of like-minded, wanna-be racing snails--including ones voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Snoop Dogg and Michelle Rodriguez--who are impressed (but not too impressed) with his high-speed abilities and take the time to train him to be a smarter racer and not just a fast one.
And through a series of contrivances and rule technicalities that could only happen or be legal in the world of a kid-friendly offering like Turbo, the young snail ends up racing in the Indianapolis 500 (much to my chagrin, Turbo does not drive a car; he just uses his super-charged shell to propel him at more or less the exact speed as his fellow racers). When you add voice actors like Bill Hader (as driver Guy Gagne, Turbo's primary human competition), Richard Jenkins and Ken Jeong, the one thing you can't say about TURBO is that it lacks a talented cast, all of whom have the right level of energy and skill to keep things moving and engaging.
While some may dismiss TURBO as simply a movie for kids, I think there are some really interesting lessons and themes happening that parents and other adults will appreciate. I love the way the two sets of brothers (the snails and the humans) are divided into one who is a dreamer and another who is more practical, and the way the dreamers help each other realize their ambitions is a great story of cooperation and friendship. Peña and Guzman are particularly funny, even if their being cast as taco salesmen treads dangerous close to stereotyping. The actors playing the snail racing group are really enjoyable too, and I was especially surprised how great Rodriguez was at voice work. People like Hader, Schwartz or Jeong seem like they'd be naturals at this kind of work, but Rodriguez is expressive and impressive as well.
As for the animation itself, there are times during the racing sequences when the photorealism of the track and cars is mind-blowing. Of course, I thought the same thing about CARS seven years ago, but just because you've seen something once doesn't mean it can't floor you a second time. The nature of the race is so outlandish that you'll either find it too ridiculous, or you'll give yourself over to the goofy circumstances and just enjoy the hell out of the race and subsequent accidents.
The scenes I found the most contrived and forced were the ones with Theo and Chet bickering. Theo behaves like a ADD-riddled child, simply doing what he wants and blowing off his important role in his community. Meanwhile, Chet is so buttoned down and controlling, why wouldn't Theo rebel? Their squabbling gets old fast, and it's really only in the first 15-20 minutes of the film. I cheered when Theo bolted for freedom and set out on his own, whether he meant to or not.
Still, TURBO is a real easy film to settle into. It's essentially a superhero origin story mashed up with a racing-enthusiast's wet dream. It breaks just enough new ground to keep you interested, but it certainly takes advantage of some tried-and-true formulaic elements as well, both in terms of its story and animated technical achievements. It helps that about half of the film is taking place at a couple hundred miles per hour, so it actually feels like things are going somewhere. But like a real Indy car race, TURBO never quite lets you forget that it's covering familiar ground each time around. I liked it enough to recommend, but I doubt I'll be revisiting it any time soon.