Monsters University and Despicable Me 2, there's something special about Turbo, the second and final DreamWorks Animation project of the year (following The Croods, which is starting to look like an elder statesman). It is mediocre; unabashedly so. But it's more than just that; it is aggressive, poisonous in its mediocrity, not just denuded of imagination and creativity but openly contemptuous of the idea of such things. It's so mediocre, so proud of how much it dislikes itself, that it's downright mean. I think what pushes it over the edge is the casting of Hollywood's current favorite Asian, Ken Jeong, as a tiny, sassy old Chinese woman, it apparently being the case that the only thing that Jeong could possibly do to become more goddamnably irritating than he has been was to double-down on sexism to help flavor his minstrelsy.
The film is not, as you would certainly be led to believe by the concept, DreamWorks's outright carbon copy of Pixar's Cars. Indeed, the rival studio has taken a much classier route here: Turbo is an outright carbon copy of Ratatouille. A small animal wants to do something that small animals oughtn't be able to do, he is encouraged because of the slogan of a famous French-accented practitioner of that same art, his relatives mock him and want him to come back to reality (Turbo condenses the crabby father and dim brother into one figure, the crabby brother), he ends up joining forces with a somewhat dream-addled human who speaks to him using a cutesy nickname and a vaguely simpering tone of voice. All that's missing are the consummate artistry, a pulverising emotional climax, and likable characters.
Anyway, the film follows Theo (Ryan Reynolds), a garden snail living in a tomato patch in a Los Angeles neighborhood, whose overriding desire is to drive a racecar, like his hero, French-Canadian Indy 500 champion Guy Gagné (Bill Hader), who always sagely notes, "no dream is too big, and no dreamer is too small". Theo's brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) is the cold voice of reason, but when Theo goes wandering on a particular despondent night, he ends up falling into the engine block of a car in a street race, and is saturated in nitrous as a result, which turns him into a mutant with all the abilities of a car: headlights, car alarm, radio, and the ability to buzz around at 200 miles per hour. When he inevitably fucks up and gets himself and Chet thrown out of the snail community, they end up falling in with a group of non-mutant racing snails who are kept by the impossibly bored shopowners in an impossibly low-rent Van Nuys strip mall. One of these, starry-eyed taqueria employee Tito (Michael Peña), immediately sees how this magnificently fast snail can be a great attraction to draw clients to the mall, begins to plan a great scheme to win acclaim and fame for him and his friends. Before you can say, "God, are you sure this is only 96 minutes long?", Theo - now calling himself Turbo - has managed to secure a spot in the Indy 500, on the grounds that the rules don't say a snail can't race.
Paint-by-numbers, yeah, but that's not the problem here. In fact, I admire the grace notes by which Turbo attempts to not be so ridden with clichés; the unconventional choice of location, undoubtedly motivated by the street racing scene in Los Angeles, already gives the film enough of a unique set of characters (when was the last time that most of the prominent characters in a wide-release animated movie were voiced by non-white actors? Ever?) that it stands out on that front, even if it's not entirely to the film's credit: no polyglot Van Nuys mixed-race neighborhood, no Kim Ly, the cringely rancid Jeong character. But also no Michelle Rodriguez riffing on her The Fast and the Furious character, and if I have to have the former, I am glad it's tempered by the latter.
No, the problem is more dire than being creatively uninspired: it's uninspiring, with no characters who are easy to like, either in design (other than making them all fluffy cartoon colors, no real attempt is made to make the snails not look like snails, and they're just not appealing animals), or in characterisation and performance. Reynolds has such a smarmy voice; good for his character in The Croods, dreadful for his earnest dreamer here. And with so many side characters to keep track of - besides Turbo, Chet, and Tito, there are five other slugs and four other humans who count as "major" even before we get to the lazy choice to put Guy Gagné in the film in the flesh, whereupon he turns out to be a loathsome villain (frankly, I think that if nothing were changed about the film other than making him a decent man, a driven competitor and fair sport, Turbo would be so much radically better than it is as to be unrecognisable) - nobody has any chance to break out. All the time the movie has to spare on characterisation is "oh, this one is Samuel L. Jackson, so he's sardonic", or "this short, oddly Harvey Fierstein-looking fellow is Luis Guzmán, so you know he's easily flustered and cowardly", and while that's the studio's all-time favorite trick, it's rarely worked less effectively than it does in Turbo, which ends up populated by notions of characters rather than characters themselves, and the dismal interplay between Reynolds and Giamatti does not remotely cut it as far as giving us anybody to root for.
It's too bad that the thing sucks so hard as a character-driven narrative, because it's actually fairly handsome looking; there's a shot of Turbo/Theo looking mournfully over US-101 and all the cars blurring past that's as beautiful as anything in any animated film this year, and the neon details on the snails (don't ask) are entirely pleasing to the eye. The whole thing is as technically accomplished as anything DreamWorks has ever made (the humans are every bit as solid as How to Train Your Dragon, the studio's current standard-bearer in that direction), and if technique were the sole reason we went to watch cartoons, I'd have little to say against it. But we also go for heart and brains, and Turbo has absolutely none of either. It's as soulless as anything in this barbaric year for animated pictures, and then some.
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