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Entries in Turbo [2013] (1)

Sunday
Jul212013

Turbo (2013)

Dreamworks Comes Out of Its Shell

Like a lot of people, I'm guilty of having watched the trailer for Dreamworks Animation's Turbo and thinking, "Oh, great. It's Cars with snails." With its cocky, need-for-speed hero zooming around race tracks and goofing off with a gang of colorful misfit sidekicks, the movie looked colorful but uninspired--a pointless, off-brand oddity in a genre dominated by Pixar.

Silly me, I forgot that we're living in the Dreamworks 2.0 Era, a new and wondrous time inaugurated by How to Train Your Dragon. In the early 2000s, the studio shot themselves in the foot by taking the wrong lessons from its global smash, Shrek: audiences, they gleaned, love pop-cultural references, toilet humor, and dumb, broadly drawn animals voiced by celebrities. The formula worked and worked and worked, finally petering out sometime around Shrek Forever After and Madagascar Twelve: Sassy Penguin Luau. Granted, the studio hasn't wanted for profits, but they are generally held in much lower esteem than its heart-on-its-lovingly-rendered-sleeve older brother, Pixar.

With How to Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks tried something new--which is to say, they tried something old: they made a film that animation snobs could enjoy just as much as three-year-olds and their really tired parents.* The tone was darker, the characters and environments were stylized to look like an indie graphic novel discovered in medieval ruins, and there wasn't a wisecracking, anthropomorphic animal in sight. The studio still turned out safer fare in the ensuing years, but their outside-the-box experiment paid off in spades: thanks to a different kind of world-wide success, they wouldn't be forced into production on Puss in Boots Two: Banderas Gotta Eat.

Now comes Turbo, the weird meat in Summer 2013's animation sandwich. It lacks the clout and brand recognition of Monsters University and Planes, but I'd pit David Soren's plucky, fun, and innovative adventure against any of the lesser Pixar films. That's not to say it's a bad movie; it's pretty terrific, and is obviously an evolutionary leap in the right direction. Turbo is Dreamworks learning to walk upright, and their next outing, I bet, will see them fashioning spears.

The movie stars Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Theo, a snail who lives and works in a suburban L.A. garden. He and his older brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), harvest tomatoes as part of a boring, factory-style job while avoiding crows with an appetite for escargot. At night, Theo watches Formula 1 racing on an old TV in the garage, dreaming of becoming fast enough to race his hero, a charming and magnanimous French-Canadian champ named Guy Gagner (Bill Hader).

One evening, while fleeing the creepy neighbor kid who likes to squash things with his Big-Wheel, Theo gets swept up in a traffic current that eventually lands him on the hood of an illegal street racer. While hanging on for dear life, he basks in the thrill of super-speed--until a nasty bump forces him into the engine and a nitrous oxide/gasoline bath. As this is an off-beat superhero origin movie, of course the viscous blue liquid gives Theo mutant powers; in this case, infusing every cell in his body with magical race-car mojo.

Yep, the world of Turbo is a place where headlight eyeballs, car-alarm tails, and hundred-mile-an-hour-plus speeds are just things that happen to snails in lieu of death. But that's not the weirdest part of the film. Theo and Chet are picked up and taken to a strip mall in a depressed neighborhood whose handful of bored employees race snails competitively after hours.

You read that right. There's also a cadre of trash-talking hip-hop snails who take Theo in, and a squabbling pair of brothers, one of whom dreams of taking their struggling taco restaurant to the next level by becoming a professional snail-racing coach (or something).

The plot gets weirder as it goes along, but Soren and co-writers Darren Lemke, and Robert D. Siegel never substitute shtick for story. Turbo exists somewhere between Sesame Street and The Twilight Zone, always hinting at its universe's bizarre rules but never (as far as I can tell) contradicting them. Humans treat snails like friends, even though the species clearly don't understand one another, and, in this alternate reality, one can simply waltz up to the registration window of the Indy 500 on race day and pay to get into the competition.

At the center of this bizarre tornado are two really great, classic stories that are told in a way you may not have seen before. The first is a life lesson in never meeting one's heroes.** I like this one the least, because Turbo almost had the balls to remain villain-free (I'll give you two guesses as to who the bad guy turns out to be). Despite the predictable third-act turn in what, to that point, had been a pretty unpredictable story, I loved the resolution of the climax, in which two champions are forced to drag their respective vehicles across the finish line in a John Henry-esque display of man-versus-machine-versus-snail.

The second story is actually comprised of two parallel conflicts between Chet and Theo, and the taco-stand-owners, Tito (Michael Pena) and his older brother, Angelo (Luis Guzman). Tito wants nothing more in life than to see his family's business succeed, and sees Theo as their ticket to fame and fortune. Angelo wants Tito to get his head out of the clouds, with his ridiculous notions of a world-champion racing snail. His doubt mirrors Chet's, and both younger siblings must learn to break free of the elders' shadows and forge their destinies from raw talent and will.

Monsters University tackled similar themes of fighting against one's nature on the road to realizing dreams, but they took what I'll call the 'conventional Pixar route" to get there. Don't get me wrong: I love that film, but contrasting it with Turbo brings up the signature differences between the two animation houses--and begs the argument of which truly does things better.

Watching the gray skies, multi-cultural cast, and urban decay of Turbo was a striking experience for me. Compared to Pixar's Crayola-colored, nostalgic view of the world--which often seems forged by old, middle-class white guys who grew up reading the same 50s sci-fi magazines--Turbo enhances the fantasy elements of its strange story by setting it in something resembling the real world. Beyond the protagonist's problems of self-doubt and familial bickering lie greater issues of class, poverty, and the ever-elusive American dream. The filmmakers don't hit us over the head with their impressively dreary canvas, but these themes run like a current under the action, transforming Theo from merely a sympathetic character into a truly hopeful one.

I went into Turbo expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised to find a fun, funny, and really touching film that's ultimately familiar, but strikingly original where it counts. It's a shame the movie didn't have a better showing this weekend; some chalk it up to animation overload at the box office, others to the stink of Ryan Reynolds (an especially unfair charge here, as he and Giamatti are downright terrific).

Whatever the case, don't let the numbers or any other factors keep you from discovering this bold challenge to an industry titan. Turbo is the best evidence yet that Dreamworks Animation is a real contender in the heart-and-stunning-visuals game, and I can't wait to see what this particular collection of filmmakers comes up with next.

*Technically, Kug Fu Panda was their first test, offering more action-movie set pieces and adult themes, but its main character was still a goofy talking animal. Don't get me wrong: I dig Kung Fu Panda, but there's a night-and-day difference between Po and Turbo, evidently, in terms of how they were conceived by the filmmakers--one is a clown hero, the other is a code hero.

**By the way, if the obsessed-fan-coming-face-to-face-with-the-heartbreaking-reality-of-stardom angle sounds familiar, that may be due to the fact that Siegel wrote 2009's Big Fan, the darkly brilliant Patton Oswalt indie.