It’s nearly impossible not to compare DreamWorks Animation’s “Turbo,” a computer-generated children’s tale about an ordinary garden snail who dreams of becoming lightning fast, to the pantheon of Pixar films. The one “Turbo” most obviously resembles is “Ratatouille,” about a rat who dreams of becoming a chef, but there are hints of “Finding Nemo’s” team-driven adventure and, of course, the racetrack locale of “Cars,” as well.
Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly flattering comparison. Even the worst Pixar films (“Cars”) are still pretty great, and the best — like “Ratatouille” — are instant classics lovingly crafted with a kind of timeless perfection. Which is why it’s probably not entirely fair to compare “Turbo” to Pixar’s oeuvre. Timeless perfection is not the goal here. Instead, director David Soren and the rest of the DreamWorks team behind the film are after something a little less ambitious.
Judged by more modest standards, “Turbo” succeeds far better, though not entirely. It’s a movie that will appeal to young children without making adults want to drive Twizzler rods through their brains. But few of any age will remember it a month from now, much less years down the road, when it has raced, at turbo speed, from their memories.
The movie starts with some clever world building, as Theo (Ryan Reynolds), a common garden snail, goes about his daily business in a garden-factory called the Plant, where snails work slowly, very slowly, together to process tomatoes. Theo’s problem is that he just doesn’t fit in. He dreams of speed — speed that the other snails, especially his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti), believe is both dangerous and impossible to achieve.
Before long, however, Theo’s dreams come true when he is accidentally inducted into the supercharged engine of an illegal drag racer — and becomes super charged himself. After being picked up on the street by small-time taco entrepreneur Tito (Michael Pena), Theo and the still-resistant Chet end up in an off-the-beaten-path Los Angeles strip mall where the bored shopkeepers like to race snails to keep themselves entertained. There, he hooks up with a crew of street-smart racing snails led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Whiplash, and sets his sights on his ultimate goal: racing at the Indianapolis 500.
Early in the movie, Chet ridicules Theo for his interest in races: What’s so interesting about watching cars drive in a circle? They just turn left, and then left, and then left, and — you get the idea. “Turbo’s” story offers about as many surprise twists as a circular race track; most adults and children who have been to the movies before will see all the turns coming.
The movie’s pleasures come mainly from its speedy and well-directed racing sequences and its large cast of silly side characters, voiced by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Richard Jenkins, Maya Rudolph, Kim Jeong and Luiz Guzman. If anything, the supporting cast is perhaps too large — Mr. Jackson’s team of racing snails are amusing but get far too little screen time, especially compared to Mr. Pena’s Tito, who’s too overbearing a presence.
Indeed, the movie can be a bit too aggressive itself, too packed with loud pop songs and braying comedic side-characters. Yes, it’s mostly engaging, and frequently kind of clever. But I kept wanting to tell the filmmakers the same thing all Turbo’s sulky snail friends told him: Maybe we’d all be better off if you just slowed down.