It only struck me recently that now that I have a five-year-old I could take him to pretty much any kid’s movie under the slightest pretense. This is exhilarating — I hadn’t read up too much on what “Turbo” was about besides the fact it featured…ya know, a snail. And that’s pretty much what I got.
Here’s what you need to know: “Turbo” is actually about brotherly relationships. Snail Theo (Ryan Reynolds) dreams of becoming a race car driver like his hero Guy Gagne (Bill Hader); his workaday brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) disapproves. They have good jobs in a human family’s tomato garden, but it regularly involves being carried off (AKA eaten) by realistically-rendered crows. My son was unfazed by this, so mission accomplished.
When a freak accident transforms Theo from a hopeful snail to speed demon Turbo with a pimped-out shell, things take a surprising turn. Instead of following the typical superhero plot by trying to hide his special nature from adults (read: humans), Turbo immediately embraces his new superpowers and becomes the literal and figurative vehicle that propels another plot: two human brothers trying to make it big.
Dreamer Tito (Michael Pena) believes Turbo can enter the Indy 500 and bring fortune and fame to the Starlight Plaza while his more practical brother Angelo (Luis Guzman) harangues him for not making tacos. Rounding out the human population is a parade of ethnic stereotypes: tough autobody shop owner Paz (Michelle Rodriguez), hobby store owner Bobby (Richard Jenkins), and most offensive of all, nail salon owner Kim Ly (Ken Jeong, pretending to be a little old fat woman). But never mind that, this is a movie with urban heart — and we know that because it has Snoop Dogg as snail Smoove Move.
The Starlight gang decides to escalate to switch from snail racing to the real thing. Yes kids, this is a real thing. And so the humans pool their money and go on a road trip to get Turbo entered into the Indy 500, accompanied by kooky supporting snails: Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), Burn (Maya Rudolph), Skidmark (Ben Schwartz) and White Shadow (Mike Bell). These snails are a crazy catalyst to push the plot along when things get boring.
Surprisingly enough, it works. Between the point-of-view car racing, the insane snail antics, and the occasional harangue by an older brother who knows better (snail or otherwise), “Turbo” speeds along at a good clip. It’s also the first movie that kept the boy’s attention through the entire film.
There’s quite a bit of naive optimism in “Turbo” that goes unspoken. Nobody ever shows up to dissect Turbo even though he’s plastered all over television. And although technically Tito is out to exploit Turbo for cash, it feels more like two hopeless romantics helping each other achieve their dreams. “Turbo’s” conclusion is a surprisingly close race that plays for keeps — which is saying a lot for a film about a superpowered snail in the Indy 500.
Hobby fans will be amused by Bobby’s comment that the Indy 500 is “bigger than Hobbycon!” Or bigger than Gen Con, which takes place in Indianapolis too. And kids…well don’t take my word for it. My son said it was his favorite movie. He’s looking forward to the upcoming television series spinoff.
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