Review: 'Turbo'

One often wonders how they come up with the ideas for family films in the animation genre, or the non-sequel ones at least. Because, when you really think about it, more imagination exists in animation than in traditional narrative filmmaking - as in when was the last time a non-animated movie attempted a protagonist taken away by balloons? Or training a pet dragon? In fairness, the constraints of physical reality are clearly the reason for this, but it's still interesting to note, especially because the premise of "Turbo", while at first blush seeming silly, ends up in fact being pretty great.

To wit, a talking snail wants to compete in the Indianapolis 500, squaring off against open-wheel racers, rocketing around the track at speeds in excess of 200mph. Clearly, this is insane. Snails are slow, small, and haven't ever competed for fame and glory. But this kernel of an idea is no more crazy than a snail talking, or a snail working a shift down at the tomato-eating plant (and then watching television at night). For "Turbo", if the entire world is based in a stable unreality, you've got to tip your cap and see what they've got to offer. In the case of this film the answer is "plenty". Because the main character Theo, later nicknamed "Turbo" (and voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is a snail that gets to live out his dreams. And that, ultimately, is what family films are all about, showing kids it's okay to believe in the unbelievable, to expand your imagination, and that dreams come true all the time.

"Turbo" is not "Cars 3". Though that's an easy comparison to make, it is also a flimsy one, as one film has talking cars while the other has a snail that wants to race against cars. If cars are the common denominator, then we might as well throw in "Fast and Furious" to the conversation, as "Turbo" has far more in common with that film in terms of the love of pure speed, nitrous, and sticking it to the man. "Turbo" really is its own movie, in terms of premise, and a very solid one at that. In fact, "Turbo" is the best animation I've seen since last year's "Wreck-It Ralph," and it smartly displays a similar level of innovation. The animation industry as a whole seems to be in great shape because Pixar is no longer the only studio putting out ambitious films, Dreamworks and Fox have joined them at the table, not to mention Disney's support of Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away") leading to some of the most interesting narratives in decades.

Particular credit must be given to Samuel L. Jackson's voicing of Whiplash and Paul Giamatti's work on the voice of Chet. The chemistry between the two is awesome, hilarious even, as Whiplash is an advocate for Turbo's dreams, while Chet is Turbo's wet-blanket brother. I laughed a couple dozen times during the 96 minutes that "Turbo" played, a rare feat for a film aimed squarely at families. While the film's final passages does devolve into some rather artificial tension, it has nevertheless built up enough momentum by that point that such a temporary application of the brakes isn't too jarringly terrible.

Perhaps the oddest thing about "Turbo" is the death toll. Much of it made me laugh, because it was handled in a slapstick manner, but when you've got snails being taken away by crows (and a fellow snail saying, "That's a shame"), or crows getting hit by busses, well, you may be setting up some uncomfortable conversations for parents. Gallows humor is funny, I just wonder about the appropriateness for a younger crowd that doesn't even grasp what the gallows are. Could it be this element was placed in solely for the adults to enjoy? Potentially, yes, and it's appreciated, though hopefully missed by everyone else. Other than that, there are very few tonal complaints to be had here. The film also manages to largely (though not completely) eschew the "villain" angle that's become so tiring in modern storytelling, instead mostly making the film about Turbo's journey (and his journey is fast and fun).

"Turbo" is the sort of film that should work extremely well for folks who are interested in it. It lives up to expectations, even often exceeding them, though it's a shame it's unlikely to find much of a cross-over audience. Though the premise, and perhaps the marketing, hasn't convinced any new people to give it a try, it's no less a movie for that snap judgment. "Turbo" is an easy recommendation, well-considered and well-executed, a treat for anyone who likes comedy or ambitious takes on make-believe worlds.

SCORE: 8.5 / 10

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and would love to race a snail.