If you sit and think about “Turbo” for even half a second, it’s difficult not to notice what’s wrong with it, from the formulaic story to its blatant disregard for the rules of auto racing (spoken by a man who doesn’t follow auto racing; that’s how egregious the oversights were). Luckily for the film, it has several other things working in its favor, namely some inspired voice casting, gorgeous design, and smarter than average dialogue. “Turbo” rises above its familiarity and makes for a charming, if predictable, experience.
Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is a snail who, along with his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti), works in the garden outside a suburban southern California house. At night, Theo watches video tapes of race car driver Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), and dreams of being fast like him, a racer named Turbo. One night, while watching the cars on the 101 from an overpass, Theo inadvertently winds up taking part in a street race and ingesting nitrous oxide, which rewrites his DNA and gives him incredible speed. (Warning to children: drinking nitrous oxide will not give you superhuman speed. If anything, it will put you to sleep.) Soon after, Theo and Chet are captured by Tito (Michael Pena), who co-owns a taco truck in a run-down strip mall, and races snails for fun with his fellow mall employees. Once they realize that Theo is actually fast, Tito begins raising money to enter him into the Indianapolis 500, and his new crew of racing snail buddies, led by Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), provides support.
Reynolds is a very engaging and likable actor, but his voice is not unique or distinguishable enough to stand out in the world of animation. This is his second performance in an animated film this year (the first being “The Croods”), and both times he has been flattened by his castmates. In the case of “Turbo,” there are two reasons for this: the main reason is Reynolds himself, but casting Giamatti as his brother, while obviously great for the movie, does Reynolds no favors, nor does rounding out the cast with Jackson (who delivers a line “Pulp Fiction”-style that will have parents howling with laughter), Hader, Snoop Dogg, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Jenkins, and Ken Jeong, who turns in a hilariously un-PC performance as the owner of a nail salon. The female owner of a nail salon, that is. Reynolds might be a star, but when he’s surrounded by master thespians and all he has to work with is his voice, he’s a dead man walking. Sorry, Ryan.
Luckily, the movie has a ton of personality that doesn’t depend on the performance of its main character. It looks fantastic – though, like most 3D movies these days, the 3D is completely useless – and its take on the viral aspect of the modern-day news cycle is both spot-on and hysterical. “Turbo” is the kind of movie that will kill DreamWorks if they make it over and over (brilliant support casting or not), but if they make it once in a while, it could be their equivalent to Pixar’s “Cars” franchise. In baseball terms, it’s a single into the corner that the hitter stretches into a double. It’s not great, and everyone involved with the production knows it’s not great, but damn it, they’re making it as good as they can. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but we’re talking about a super-fast snail, for crying out loud. The very fact that it’s entertaining at all is worthy of praise.