Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 15, 2013)
Usually family-oriented movies become a license to print money, but it appears that studios pushed their luck too far in 2013. Over Memorial Day weekend, Epic launched the summer animation season without much of a bang, as the big-budget adventure topped out at a tepid $105 million in the US.
Matters improved a few weeks later with Monsters University - a pretty decent hit – and the good times continued to roll with the even more successful Despicable Me 2.
Apparently three animated flicks over one month turned out to be too much for the marketplace to sustain, as the third movie – mid-July’s Turbo - failed to find much of an audience. It pulled in $82 million in the US, which kept it from “flop” status but did leave it as the least successful of the summer’s animated efforts. (Unless we count the live-action/animation hybrid Smurfs 2, which did even worse than Turbo.)
I’d like to say it’s a neglected gem, but instead, Turbo becomes pretty forgettable fare. Ordinary garden snail Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) obsesses over the desire to go fast – and refers to himself as “Turbo” as part of his fantasy. His levelheaded brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) constantly attempts to bring Turbo back down to earth, but the speed-obsessed critter’s dreams remain.
Turbo’s ambitions get a literal boost when he falls into a souped-up street racer’s engine and swallows a big gulp of nitrous oxide. This turns his fantasies into reality as Turbo can now race at hundreds of miles per hour.
After a mishap in the garden where they work, Turbo and Chet get fired – and find themselves trapped by taco vendor Tito (Michael Peña). Why does Tito capture the snails? Because he and his cohorts at a failing LA strip mall race the mollusks after hours. Turbo meets fellow snail Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson) and the other racers before he blows them off the course with his insane speed.
This launches a dream into motion. Inspired by his idol Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), Turbo wants to race in the Indy 500, and despite the reality check provided by his brother/business partner Angelo (Luis Guzmán), Tito works to make this happen. We follow their attempts to do the impossible.
Over the last 12 years, I think I’ve occasionally referred to my then-girlfriend’s reaction to 2001’s Shrek. After we saw the flick, she commented that it bothered her Donkey didn’t bleed when he got wounded. I said “you accept the existence of a talking, waffle-making donkey but can’t swallow a lack of gore?”
Although I gently mocked my then-GF, I kind of understood her point. We can all suspend plenty of disbelief at the movies, but we also have our limits. Some fantastic notions work and others don’t.
Chalk up much of Turbo in the “doesn’t work” category. For fantasies to succeed, they need to create a sense of verisimilitude and logic that work within their own little universes, but Turbo doesn’t achieve this. There’s just something off about the movie from the start. How does the snail run a VCR? Why does the garage owner leave these racing tapes available? Why don’t humans ever seem to harvest their garden’s tomatoes – or try to eliminate the snails that overrun them?
Call this nit picking if you’d like – and you’d probably be right – but these odd leaps of logic make it more difficult for me to suspend disbelief. When the tale throws us off from Minute One, it becomes tougher to let go and dig into its events.
I suspect the absence of internal logic bother me less if I found the movie more entertaining. When I saw Turbo theatrically, I actually looked forward to it. Based on the trailers, I thought it would be witty and clever.
Alas, as often becomes the case, the ads contained the majority of the movie’s funny lines. Not that it lacks anything else to entertain, but the fun pops up less often than I’d hoped and expected.
Which leaves us with a fairly slow, fairly predictable tale. Scratch that - Turbo delivers a completely predictable tale, as it follows shopworn “believe in yourself/follow your dream” elements that seemed tired back when Walt Disney roamed the earth.
Not that I really object to a well-worn theme in a movie like this. I understand that they don’t make animated flicks such as Turbo with the middle-aged male audience in mind; while studios clearly hope to snag adult dollars, the kiddies remain their target, and those youngsters won’t know that they’re watching a story that’s been done to death.
Although I can live with a predictable narrative, I find myself less pleased with the lackluster execution found in Turbo. The movie fails to bring much life to the screen, as all the characters and situations feel bland and rehashed. Even with the smattering of funny moments heard in the trailers, there’s not much quality comedy across the film’s 96 minutes.
That leaves Turbo as a watchable but bland adventure. It comes with a good cast, but they do little to elevate the material. Jackson probably fares best, as he engages in some knowing self-parody, and the others seem fine, but none of them delight. While I can’t call the cast a liability, I can’t refer to them as a strength, either.
In truth, Turbo never does anything overtly wrong – it just never does much to rise above a level of mediocrity. The movie delivers mild entertainment and that’s about it.