When you choose a snail as your movie's hero, there's not much question that you're doing a story about an underdog.
And you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger dreamer than Theo (Ryan Reynolds), a common garden snail who watches videos of Indianapolis 500 races and hungers to be a racing star like his hero, five-time Indy champ Guy Gagne (Bill Hader).
What seems like an unattainable goal earns him ridicule from the other snails. But when he's sucked into the engine of a street racer and injected with nitrous oxide (think Peter Parker and his radioactive spider), Theo is reborn as Turbo, the super-charged racing snail. He even has some amusing car aspects, such as a built-in radio and headlight eyes.
After the accident, Turbo and his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), are quickly plucked out of their garden home and plopped down in a decayed part of town, where they're caught by Tito (Michael Pena), half-owner of Dos Bros Tacos and, conveniently, an enthusiast of snail racing.
Turbo is pitted against a group of five cocky snails owned by some shopkeepers who have taken to snail racing to kill time at their dying strip mall. The snails, who have taken on names like Burn (Maya Rudolph) and Smoove Move (Snoop Lion/Dogg),
are lead by Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson).
Tito realizes that a snail with super speed could be a tourist attraction to revive the dying businesses, a ploy which matches well with Turbo's desire to race in the Indy 500. The entire group, except for Tito's skeptical brother Angelo (Luis Guzman), hits the road to make auto racing history.
The snails are cute and amusing, with Chet and Whiplash getting most of the clever lines. And the shopkeepers — Bobby (Richard Jenkins), who runs Valley Hobby; Paz (Michelle Rodriguez), the auto mechanic; and Kim-Ly (Ken Jeong), who owns a nail salon — are a fun hodgepodge of financial backers and pit crew.
But "Turbo" lacks a few key elements to elevate it above standard animated fare.
For starters, where's the bad guy? It's true that Gagne turns out to be much less of a hero than Turbo thought he was, but
he isn't much of a villain. He isn't even much of a dirty trickster on the track. He certainly pales in comparison to Chick Hicks, Lightning McQueen's nemesis in "Cars."
And for a movie that's all about achieving an impossible dream, where are the obstacles? Once he attains super-speed,
very little stands in the way of Turbo and
his desire to race in the Indy 500. Angelo doesn't get on board, but Tito just ignores him. And no serious effort is made to keep Turbo out of the race once his super-speed becomes public.
DreamWorks movies are no strangers to underdogs: a panda who wants to be a martial arts master ("Kung Fu Panda"), a flock of chickens who want to escape the farm ("Chicken Run"), an ogre who wants
to woo a princess ("Shrek"). Those are all much better than "Turbo," because the good guys have some serious setbacks on their way to those goals. "Turbo" is fairly simplistic, given what we've come to expect from animated features.
Young children will enjoy "Turbo," and the movie manages to entertain throughout its 96-minute running time. But "Turbo" doesn't finish at the top of DreamWorks' animated efforts.