Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Snail's Pace: TURBO

Turbo, the latest family film from Dreamworks Animation, is stale and forgettable, but brightly colored and moves along at a brisk pace. I wish those colors and that speed told a fresher story or at least were put to use for something even halfway memorable. I better write this fast before the whole thing zooms out of my mind faster than a speeding snail. That might not sound all that fast, but Turbo clocks a snail’s pace at over 200 miles per hour. How’s that possible? The NASCAR fan snail at the film’s center (Ryan Reynolds) falls onto the highway and gets knocked into a tank of nitrus in a hotrod’s engine. A neat little sequence zooms all the way into the little guy’s atoms and shows them turning neon and zipping around faster and faster. Now he’s a super snail. Too bad he couldn’t be in a super movie.

In family film tradition, the speedy snail who names himself Turbo is alienated from his herd-mentality group of normal snails. They don’t understand his ambitions and therefore ostracize him, casting the fast-paced freak out of their snail habitat in a suburban garden. The poor fellow ends up with his still-slow brother (Paul Giamatti) at a failing strip mall in the middle of Van Nuys. There they are captured by Tito, a genial, bumbling snail racer (Michael Peña). I realize all that sounds a little strained and silly, but wait until you hear that the snail racer co-owns a Mexican restaurant with his brother (Luis Guzmán), so there’s double brotherly strife here. Turbo and Tito have big dreams that their brothers just don’t understand. Will the story bring all of these brothers closer together? Will dreams be realized, no matter how often they’re in doubt? What do you think?

The plot of the film involves Tito discovering Turbo’s speed and deciding to enter him in the Indianapolis 500. How, you might ask, does one enter a snail in a car race? Pay the entrance fee, of course. Tito raises the money from the strip mall’s other entrepreneurs (Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, and Michelle Rodriguez). They all seem to think that the exposure will reinvigorate their little corner of the local economy. Makes sense, I guess. If you’re going to be sponsoring a snail in a big car race, why wouldn’t you put the name of your business on the shell? Someone in Van Nuys might see that sign on that snail and think to go to your strip mall next time they want a taco. You never know, I guess.

There’s plenty of silly business along the plot’s sidelines involving the plain old slowpoke snails Tito brings along for some reason. They are a diverse collection of sluggish primary colors with the voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, and Ben Schwartz. They’re the kind of cartoon characters that always seem to be smirking at you. I’m not sure exactly what these characters want, what their emotional journeys are, or even who they are, really. They don’t even get the typical one-trait sidekick development. By the movie’s end, they’re Turbo’s pit crew. Makes sense, I guess. There’s also a narcissistic French racing star (Bill Hader) who might not be so happy about racing a snail. Makes sense, I guess. You put in all that work to get to the top and some stupid snail is going to just zip by you like that? This is a movie built out of so many improbable plot elements that one simply has to stop questioning and go with it. The answer to any “Why?” would be “Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.”

But it’s a jumble of elements you’ve seen before, too safely crafted to either satisfy or fail, utterly predictable every step of the way. This movie about a snail racing racecars around a racetrack can’t even manage to be a little odd or unexpected. Director David Soren, who co-wrote the script with Darren Lemke and Robert D. Siegel, pulled stock character arcs, booming pop songs, and silly sight gags together and assembled them in an appealing package that danced in front of my eyes without every once engaging me on any level. It was simply there. I’d call Turbo the most forgettable animated film of the summer, but I’m sure I’ve already forgotten the most forgettable animated film of the summer.

The one truly notable aspect of Turbo is not necessarily the visually pleasant animation. We’re at the point where smoothly rendered computer-generated visual detail can be so blandly proficient that it’s only worth calling out for being truly terrible or particularly stunning. It’s fine here, that’s all, although I was charmed time and again by the neon blue streak of light Turbo trailed behind him at top speed. No, the only aspect worth noting is the film’s casual diversity. It’s appealing and admirable to have a cast of characters (the humans, at least) who are different in age, gender, body type and background without making a big deal about it. I mean, I’d prefer if they were in a movie that actually created characters out of them that were more than cogs in the all-too familiar plot mechanics, but it’s a start.

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