Like many animated films about a hero that’s an oxymoron, Turbo tells the story of a snail who dreams of being a racecar driver. But unlike other films of the same ilk – Ratatouille (2007) which is about a rat who dreams of being a chef, for example – Turbo doesn’t quite make the cut. Whereas Pixar always fills their movies with heart, imbuing their animated characters with the pathos of the most inspiring human beings, Dreamworks Animation too often trades story for big name actors and sells their soul for cheap laughs. That’s not to say they don’t make generally entertaining features, occasionally fantastic ones (How to Train Your Dragon), just that more often than not their films provide a few laughs and no more. Sadly, Turbo is one of these.
Perhaps the best way to examine Turbo is through a careful comparison to Brad Bird’s wonderful Ratatouille. Both tell the stories of characters whose dreams run contrary to their very nature: Ratatouille is about Remy, a rat, who dreams of being a chef, while Turbo is about Theo (aka Turbo), a snail who dreams of being a racecar driver. And both are full of characters that try to sway the heroes from their paths, constantly reminding them that it is not within their nature to do what they are trying to do. Eventually, both Remy and Theo are given the chance to achieve their dreams. The key difference, though, is that Remy makes his luck while Turbo is given his. Remy works hard to become good at cooking, constantly sneaking into kitchens to practice his art, while Turbo is gifted his powers in a superhero-origins-esque accident. Certainly, Turbo struggles up until this point, but this subtle difference is enormously impactful. While Ratatouille is full of tension (can Remy do it?) Turbo simply has to flip a switch to achieve his dreams. It feels like a cheat.
More important than this, Ratatouille is about a love for something: of cooking, of food, of art, of creating. It taps into a universal human need to “not simply exist,” as Remy puts it, “But to add something to the world.” Turbo, try as it might, never achieves this level of soulfulness. Turbo simply wants to go fast because he wants to. Surely there must be reasons he would dream of this -- a way to convey the beauty in speed this character desires and the anguish he feels at being born into a body that limits him by nature. This should be the heart of the film! Instead, the film consists of Tito, a restaurant owner, attempting to get Turbo into the Indie 500 to help gain exposure for his taco stand. See the difference?
Yet, to dwell to long on this would ignore Turbo’s strengths. Though not a fantastic film, Turbo isn’t a bad one and there is some fun and some good laughs to be had here. Ryan Reynolds does well as Turbo’s voice and the cast of snails entertains as well – Samuel L Jackson and Paul Giamatti being the standouts. But, when all is said and done, a few funny voices and some snappy dialogue is about all the film has to offer. It’s like junk food: tasty though it is, too much will rot your teeth.