Well, race fans… What to say about Turbo. Not a favorite. Too many characters and subplots. There are comparisons one could draw between this movie and Pixar’s Cars (2006) and the less obviously related Ratatouille (2007), and Disney’s Planes (2013)… but none of those comparisons favor Dreamworks.
Among the Dreamworks disasters, I liked Rise of the Guardians better than Turbo; I vaguely think Sinbad and El Dorado were okay; I haven’t seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman or Penguins of Madagascar.
Turbo’s premise, which is proclaimed insane throughout the movie itself, is that a garden snail from somewhere in California accidentally gains superpowered speed (and miscellaneous other irrelevant attributes of being a car), finds a human sponsor, and goes to compete in the Indianapolis 500 against his childhood idol, a famous French driver. Throw in Samuel L. Jackson, a Latino, grown-up version of the charmingly oblivious fat boy in Up, more antagonists than you can shake a stick at, and a clip from the hit song “Eye of the Tiger” and you’ve got a mess of a movie.
I thought the filmmakers had passed up the world’s most obvious chance ever to make the old “look at that S car go” joke until I noticed that Turbo’s race number is ‘5’, which looks an awful lot like the letter ‘S’. Kudos, guys! I was expecting the joke and you still got me.
Keep reading for more on what didn’t work and why, including SPOILERS. (Ha ha, get it? Spoilers!)
My Summary of Turbo
The movie takes really a long while to get off the ground. We see Theo pretending to compete in a race while watching VHS recordings of old car races, we see him timing himself in a one-snail race late at night, and we see him being made fun of at work in the garden when he pretends to race against a tomato. That’s three pretend races. The beginning of Speed Racer when Speed imagines he’s racing while he’s at school is way better, for about a million reasons.
What are the snails even doing in the garden with the tomatoes, and why? Theo’s brother, Chet, says, “We’ve gotta pick ’em, we gotta sort ’em, we gotta eat ’em,” but that doesn’t really explain it. First of all, they don’t pick them. They wait for them to fall. They do seem to be sorting them. They do seem to be eating the ones that are not overripe. Wouldn’t snails be okay with rotten ones? Do snails even eat tomatoes? (Fact: Snails have teeth. Some are herbivores and some are carnivores.) Who are they working for? Are the snails helping the humans or stealing from them? Why does the tea kettle whistle at the beginning and end of the work day? Do Theo and Chet have living parents? (No, all heroes are orphans.) How old are they? (They have jobs and they get fired, so presumably they’re adults.)
Theo accidentally destroys his TV because he’s drinking a rather toxic drink endorsed by his idol, a French race car driver. I sort of wonder why the humans don’t seem to notice the busted TV. I guess it’s just an old TV in the garage so nobody cares. However, the humans also don’t seem to notice the snails sorting and eating the tomatoes, and you’d think they’d care about that, at least.
Still, there are human dangers. One is the kid with the Bigwheels trike who likes to smash creepy-crawlies. Another is the gardener, who has a lawnmower, who apparently runs over Theo and the prize tomato he tries to retrieve when, for the fourth time, he childishly pretends to be racing.
Since twice we have just seen the snails respond apathetically when crows snatch one of their snail colleagues, it’s not clear why Theo’s possible death by trike or lawnmower is such a big deal, especially when a direct hit with the lawnmower doesn’t actually do anything to him.
Theo gets himself and his brother fired, but somehow it feels like they’re firing Theo for being stubbornly weird, not for wrecking the tomato plants and destroying the biggest tomato. Theo’s brother is fed up with him and blames him for the loss of his job. (Where else might snails get a job? Where do the other snails live when they’re not at work? What do they eat when there are no tomatoes? If the worldbuilding had been better, I wouldn’t keep asking all these questions.)
Disconsolate, Theo runs away from home and accidentally falls onto the hood of a car that’s about to race down a culvert. Suddenly we’re in the world of Fast and Furious. You half expect the start flag the young woman holds aloft to be some kind of female undergarment, but of course it isn’t.
Theo falls into the car’s engine, and instead of being killed he undergoes some kind of nitrous oxide–induced transformation of his internal organs, which look like a cross between a neural network in the brain and a network of the heart and blood vessels. (Fact: Snails have hearts with two chambers. They don’t have brains, but terrestrial snails have several ganglia in one central location.)
The mysterious, consistently unquestioned transformation is the inciting incident we’ve been waiting for all this time. (We thought maybe Theo would get powers by wishing on a falling star, but that star turned out to be a jet. Take that, Pinocchio! This is a Dreamworks movie.)
When Theo emerges from his ordeal, he obviously has superpowers. However, without realizing he has changed, he adroitly avoids a crow. I would have thought that was a perfect opportunity for him to notice, but instead, he slowly makes his way home again. (How does he know where to go and how long does it take him? Why does he even need to go home at that point?)
Theo starts calling himself ‘Turbo’, wows the other snails and literally runs circles around trike boy, but instead of being happy for him, the other snails appalled and call him a freak, including Chet, who, absorbed in scolding Theo, gets snatched by a crow while the other snails perform their standard, fearful “tuck and roll” maneuver. Theo zips along the ground following the crow and rescues his brother, but now they’re in a bad part of town and Chet is scared of everything and wants to go home.
Come to think of it, Theo gets scolded by Chet kind of like Remy, the gourmand rat in Ratatouille, gets scolded by his family, except that the wistfulness and boring, status-quo expectations are better depicted in the Pixar cartoon.
So then the two snails are kidnapped and you think they’re going to be killed or eaten, but really they’ve been taken for a snail race. Theo meets a whole new set of snail characters and human characters. Too many of them, in fact.
There are the Dos Bros taco brothers, one of whom (Tito) keeps having crazy ideas to promote the business. Snail racing is just the latest one. Then there’s the pragmatic brother whose purpose in life is to create delicious Mexican food. Then there are the mostly irrelevant strip-mall people. One is a female mechanic who reminds me of the soldier in Wreck-it-Ralph; one is a short but fierce old lady who runs a nail salon, who reminds me of, I dunno, Edna Mode in The Incredibles, maybe; one is a tired old man who runs a toy model shop. They all need more business, which makes them seem similar to the shop owners in the forgotten town that Lightning McQueen blunders into.
A billboard promoting snail racing and tacos does nothing to drive business, however. Fortunately but rather too coincidentally, a big truck advertising Theo’s idol and the Indianapolis 500 stops nearby. Theo draws Tito’s attention to it. This is the beginning of Act II.
Tito has to figure out how to get Theo into the race. Tito’s brother won’t put up the entry fee, and (understandably) nobody actually believes a snail can race against cars. The racing snails, however, snare a tour bus and help Tito and his brother make a bit of extra money. Then, the strip-mall people apparently steal Tito’s brother’s money (!) and run off with Tito, Theo, and the racing snails in the taco truck to enter Theo in the race.
Once at the track, Tito faces an official who (understandably) won’t let the snail in the race. I mean, this movie, this whole idea, is just crazy, right? Theo demonstrates his powers, however, and steals the limelight from the French driver who’s also at the track at the time. Theo becomes an internet sensation (“That snail is fast!”), and a more important official is forced to consider allowing the snail in. He calls a press conference to announce that he is NOT allowing the snail to race, but the French driver gives his encouragement to the underdog, reiterating his signature message that “No dream is too big, no dreamer too small”. The official reverses his decision and allows Theo to compete. Everything is awesome. This is the midpoint.
However, Tito’s brother is still angry that his money is gone. More importantly, Chet still doesn’t believe in Theo and tells him his powers could suddenly disappear, though there’s no particular reason to suppose so. He also refuses to watch the upcoming race because he’s convinced (understandably) that his brother is going to be killed by a car. Worst of all, when Theo goes exploring, he encounters the French driver, who openly admits that he only supported Theo because it would bring him additional publicity. He is planning to win the next day’s race, even if he has to crush the snail to do it.
The trope of the secretly evil childhood idol is called Broken Pedestal, and there’s another example of it in another really weird 2013 cartoon movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. I think it was a bad choice for this movie, because although the French driver was pretty narcissistic at the press conference in the way he told the cameras to focus on him, he is the carrier of the inspiring message that motivated the hero all along. Making the “be all that you can be” character evil seems like a great way to undercut your whole movie, if you ask me. The “hey, we tricked you—either that or we couldn’t be bothered to write a well-thought-out story” feeling is a bit like the one you get when you find out who the bad guy is in Frozen. Yuck.
Anyway, the next day, Theo feels awful and the snail’s climactic finale starts off badly. Nobody believes in him, and the French driver is trying to kill him. His racing snail friends give him a pep talk which helps, but then he gets injured badly. He has a hole in his shell (which heals itself by the end of the movie, a feat which is possible but unlikely under the circumstances) and can hardly see straight, and his superpowered speed is cutting in and out. He resolves to continue the race to beat the French driver, though, whom he envisions as a tomato, or something. On the last lap, Theo causes him to crash, then loses the last of his superpowered speed. He cowers on the track, the finish line so near and yet so far, and feels miserable. The hero has hit rock bottom.
However, his brother is watching and now for some reason doesn’t want him to give up after all. Inspired by Theo’s example, Chet breaks out of his drinking-glass prison, flies through the air avoiding crows and salt and whatnot to reach the track and remind his brother that he was born for speed. The racing snails subdue some crows and ride them to visit Theo, too. They convince him he can still win. He emerges from his battered shell and limps his way to the finish line as the French driver tries to drag the wreckage of his car there first. Theo wins by doing a snail’s traditional tuck-and-roll move.
In conclusion: Theo’s fame brings business back to the taco bros and the whole the strip-mall. In a shot lifted from Toy Story, Trike boy is menaced by a whole garden of snails and scarred for life. Chet gets a girlfriend. (Fact: Most snails have both male and female organs.) It’s not clear what happens to the French guy, Guy. Theo’s powers are gone, but he can still do stunts with the racing snails who never needed superpowered speed to enjoy racing each other.
The movie spends too much time undercutting itself and its own positive messages and relationships. Obviously we know it’s ridiculous to hope a snail can race against cars, so if you keep reminding us of that, you destroy the willing suspension of disbelief and pretty much destroy the hero’s victory. You undercut the “I think I can” message by making the hero’s idol a villain. You undercut the “I believe in you” human ally by showing us that his own brother doesn’t respect him or his ideas. You undercut the friendship between the hero and the racing snails by setting them up as rivals to whom he loses, in spite of his powers. You undercut the hero’s sincere dedication to speed by making him appear genuinely foolish and by showing how a bunch of other snails have already figured out how to be fast without supernatural help. You undercut human racing heroes by depicting the best one as a narcissist. Does anybody escape unscathed from this movie? Does a kids’ cartoon have to have all these cynical postmodern undertones? Do you need to make snail deaths a throwaway joke? No, no, no.
I think one could write a better story about a snail in the Indy 500. His primary conflict could be keeping his dream alive in the face of discouragement from snails and lack of recognition from humans. He could gain powers and then lose them at a crucial point and then win by sheer persistence. The powers, in a way, aren’t really what make him who he is, any more than Dumbo’s “magic” feather gave him big ears. Theo’s brother or best friend could at first be a wet blanket but ultimately be convinced of his merit. The reward could be recognition from a genuinely benevolent human idol, and from family and friends back home. That’s it.
Why did they make it so complicated? I think simple things are deceptively hard. Also, I think they purposely invoked Cars and the Fast and the Furious and possibly also Ratatouille. All things considered, that was unnecessary and a bad idea.
I think the relationships between humans and snails were badly done. The snails could understand the humans, but the humans couldn’t understand the snails. I think the arrangement should have been more like Toy Story, where the chasm between the world of the humans and the world of the toys is better preserved, and the toys carry on under the noses of unaware humans. In Turbo, it’s not clear why the humans don’t understand the snails because they can see them talking and gesturing just like we can. I think we should have been shown the snails from the human point of view from time to time.
One thing I thought was done well was the snails’ character design. They have no limbs, just faces, yet they still work as anthropomorphic characters. The eye stalks and eyes are used as arms and hands! Thus, snails sometimes lift or climb things, or hug or high-five each other using their eyes. That’s funny to see. Just the fact that their eyes are over their heads, leaving empty space in the middle of their faces, is entertaining. (Fact: Snails do have eyes at the top of their two longest stalks.)
I was also impressed by some of the visual effects, especially those involving water and light. When I saw the rainbow in the yard sprinkler near the beginning of the movie, I thought, “Somebody worked hard on that.” Good job, whoever you are!
Certainly a lot of people seemed to be involved; the credits on CGI films always scroll for what feels like forever. By the time they’ve finished, my eyes so strongly expect things to move up that when a static logo appears, it seems to be moving down. Ever notice that?