The most tried-and-true formula in the history of storytelling is the tale of the underdog. In the proud tradition of David, The Miracle on Ice, and Susan Boyle comes Turbo, the snail who dreamed a dream of being a race car driver. Turbo doesn’t have to face an adversary like a giant or the Russians or outward appearances– his adversary is reality, the fact that a snail literally can’t be a race car driver.
However, since the concept of a snail going really really fast seems marketable enough, the plot mandates Turbo be sucked into the engine of a street race car, which floods him with nitrous oxide and gives him magically all of the traits of an actual car, from headlights to the ability to play songs from his mouth like a radio. He meets a crew of ethnically diverse snails who belong to ethnically diverse humans in a small Van Nuys strip mall, and as you would expect, Turbo is given the opportunity to race against cars in the Indy 500. I would have no problem accepting all of these occurrences as totally normal if the film’s characters and messages weren’t so troublingly shallow. Turbo boasts one of the most one-note protagonist in animated film history, some troubling racial elements, and a paint-by-numbers execution that makes this film about the dream to go fast feel painfully slow.
Theo (Ryan Reynolds) lives in a garage, where he has endless tapes of past Indy 500s that he watches every day. Let’s assume that snails can speak English, understand how VCRs work, have constant access to them, have the ability to switch out tapes and control the VCR at will, and that no one has ever noticed this; animated films generally live on assumptions, which I’m game to make, but Turbo undoubtedly stretches this willingness thin. His brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) wants Theo to focus on a being a snail: work in a garden, move slowly, and accept his life as a snail. However, Theo refuses to believe this, the plucky dreamer. After a tomato-related incident– the first and last time I’m likely to ever use that phrase– Theo makes his way out one night to Los Angeles’ 101 Highway. It takes him 17 minutes to get across a table, but the power of montage gets him out of the neighborhood to an overpass, where the aforementioned nitrous oxide incident occurs.
The problem with the film on the conceptual level is… Chet is right. Theo can’t ever race. This film isn’t about dreaming big: it’s about dreaming impossible. With determination, heart, and a bit of luck, an underdog can get the girl’s attention, defeat the athletically superior, or change a country. However, unless a snail’s DNA is drastically altered, it will never be fast.
This is like a movie in which a man born without a lower torso dreams of running a marathon on his own two feet, or in which a 5’10 film critic dreams of playing center in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers. No matter how badly I wish I could swim to the bottom of the ocean without any equipment, and no matter how many times people chant for me to do it, I WILL die. Turbo is the equivalent of Don Quixote, if Don Quixote had been sucked into a nitrous-oxide filled windmill that magically turned him into the knight of his imagination. Only here, the film goes far out of its way time and time again to ensure that reality never puts its dastardly foot in the door.
Equally troubling is the film’s total disinterest in allowing its ethnically diverse cast of humans to dream big. Tito (Michael Pena) and his brother Angelo (Luis Guzman) run, predictably, a taco stand in Van Nuys. When Tito coincidentally catches the fastest snail in the world for the rinky-dink snail races he hosts with his strip mall neighbors, he realizes he is sitting upon a potential goldmine, a tourist attraction for the ages. Theo alerts Tito that his goal is to race in the Indy 500, which will bring money, fame, and opportunity. What does Tito want with that fortune? To buy a new oven for Angelo to more efficiently make tacos. Paz (Michelle Rodriguez), the Latina body shop owner, wants to have employees who help her in her body shop. Kim Ly, an Asian woman (voiced by Ken Jeong, because why give an Asian woman the role when we could have Jeong screeching the lines?), wants nothing more than to paint more nails at her nail salon. If you haven’t caught the trend, the message is clear: if you’re a snail with a white voice, you can be whatever you want to be! If you’re a real-life non-white human, the best you can be is a successful version of whatever your ethnic stereotype occupation happens to be!
When you add to the mix the snails with black voices who constantly spout goofy ridiculous slang, you get a film that gets the benefit of being ethnically diverse on paper without having to work hard to create actual characters for those ethnicities. Not that the film works hard to create any story arc for its protagonist either: Theo wants to go fast, then he gets fast, then he goes to the Indy 500, then (spoiler alert) he wins. There’s absolutely no conflict, except for that provided by reality.
Ratatouille deals with reality– rats can’t cook!– in a number of surprising and witty ways and gives our heroes plenty of conflict, from the jealous master chef to the critic to the health inspector. In Turbo, nearly every human being accepts with an astonishing lack of shock how fast this snail can go. I think Tito’s actual response to seeing Theo the snail go 200 miles per hour is, “Whoa! You’re fast, little amigo!” There’s a vain attempt to make one race car driver the villain in the last few minutes, but it’s too late. We’ve slogged through over eighty minutes of an underdog story without pace or conflict.
If only they’d made Chet the protagonist. Giamatti’s voice work is superior to everyone else in the cast, his character has the biggest arc (the scaredy cat who learns to throw caution to the wind), and Chet is more grounded in reality than any other character, human or otherwise. There’s an underdog for you: a fat slow character, thrown into a world full of fast excitable lunatics and screeching Asian women voiced by men. How will he survive? (Important sidenote: the children in the audience with me loved nothing more than Ken Jeong’s old lady character. Every line, and I mean every line, was met with screams of delight. This didn’t improve my experience.)
By the time the Snoop Dogg snail exclaims, “We’re going to the I to the N to the Dizzle to the Yizzle, baby!” I thought about going to the E to the X to the Izzle to the Tizzle, baby.