If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then John Lasseter should be blushing right about now. Dreamworks’ Turbo, about a mollusk with an inconvenient need for speed, crams several of Pixar’s greatest hits into a shiny new shell. First there’s the film’s microscopic milieu, a backyard kingdom not unlike the evergreen world of A Bug’s Life. Here, while the rest of his species harvests tomatoes at the “plant” and avoids the deadly tricycle of an enfant terrible—essentially a younger variation on Toy Story’s Sid—plucky garden snail Theo (Ryan Reynolds) yearns for life in the fast lane. His impossible dream comes true when he’s submerged in a tank of nitrous oxide, which for some reason grants him Flash-like swiftness. Soon he’s hobnobbing with a motley crew of racing escargot (think the fish-tank misfits of Finding Nemo), and—in the movie’s biggest narrative debt, owed to Ratatouille—helping out a down-on-his-luck taco salesman (Michael Peña) who calls him “Little Amigo.” Their destination is the Indy 500, where Theo (now rechristened Turbo) can win the patronage of Cars fans. Also, Dash in The Incredibles was fast.
In almost every sense, Turbo feels recycled. Even when not pillaging the Pixar canon, the film’s screenwriters are leaning on shopworn morals: follow dreams, fight fears, believe in little guys, and stand by family. (The plot interweaves two tales of brotherly conflict, running Turbo’s tumultuous relationship with stick-in-the-mud sibling Paul Giamatti in parallel to Peña’s battles with older bro Luis Guzmán.) Yet for all its chronic familiarity, the movie has its minor pleasures, many of them visual. Though at this point it’s basically a given that a new studio-animated movie will look good, Turbo often looks downright exceptional. Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer, the great Wally Pfister, served as artistic consultant; his influence can be seen in the film’s fluid, dynamic action sequences, which seem governed by actual physical laws, not the rubber-band reality of many cartoons. Less logical is the film’s world, which makes about as much sense as the one in the Cars franchise. Why, for example, does Turbo’s exposure to nitro also give him headlights for eyes, a car alarm, and an internal radio? Where on planet Earth is snail-racing a common pastime? Is there really “nothing in the rules that says a snail can’t race” in the Indy 500? Is Ken Jeong now contractually obligated to play every stereotypical Asian character in Hollywood cinema, even the women? Questions abound!