Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Cinema File #221: "Turbo" Review

Is there anyone currently living on the planet Earth who, when they first heard the premise for Turbo or saw the trailer for it, didn't think it was completely ridiculous? A snail wants to move fast, takes a hit of nitrous oxide, and then joins the Indy 500, which he's eligible to enter because who cares. It sounds like Dreamworks just broke down their CGI formula and started playing Mad Libs with it, and this is what came out. And you know what? Despite all common sense that might lead you to believe otherwise, it's actually not that bad. It's not great, and at the end of the day it's mostly forgettable, but it isn't nearly as painfully annoying as I think anyone would reasonably expect going in, and on the whole not nearly as bad as it could have been, or by all rights should have been. Turbo, the super fast Indy racing snail decent. Go figure.

Turbo is the epic saga of Theo, a garden snail with a need for speed who gets his wish after he gets himself sucked up into the engine of a nitrous enhanced muscle car and comes out super fast enough to achieve his dream of racing professionally alongside his Indy heroes. There is a moment in the film, just as the commissioner of the Indy 500 relents to allowing Turbo into the race amid a crowd of supportive fans, that makes me think the producers knew full well how stupid this all was and just sort of ran with it. It's nothing big, just something in the tone of his voice when he makes the announcement that says "Yeah, we get it, but you've already bought your ticket, and you can't unbuy it, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride." Much like The Purge, another recent film whose premise I mocked before it's release, I found it surprisingly easy to let go of my desire to nitpick this movie into oblivion and let it prove itself on the merits.

Admittedly, my standards were extremely low, but I can't say the movie didn't exceed them simply by not being terrible. This is definitely a kid's movie, which is to say it is geared specifically to actual kids rather than kids of all ages as so many much better cartoon movies are nowadays, but just because there's less here for someone my age doesn't mean its bad. It doesn't talk down to kids, save a few groan inducing puns like "Snailed It!" and "Shell yeah!," and has enough little moments of cross-generational appeal that it wasn't unbearable to sit through. The sublime contentment many of the other slugs feel about their slow and depressing lot in life was amusing, as was the casual indifference with which they treated the almost daily loss of their friends to regular aerial assaults by hungry crows. Something as slight as a headline gag actually had me laughing out loud for a few minutes, in reference to a character's attempt to somehow attract new business to his taco stand with monkeys, prompting an article titled simply "Monkeys No Bueno!!!"

Much of my positive opinion coming out of this movie is owed to Paul Giamatti, who brings a nervous charm to his character that made him even more interesting than the titular Turbo by the end. He plays Chet, Turbo's brother, who is his polar opposite, living in constant fear and happy to dwell in the slow and boring existence a snail is supposed to have. Naturally, his disapproval of his brother's freewheeling lifestyle is merely a set up for his chance to redeem himself in the end and accept his brother for who he is, but Giamatti makes it work, lending gravitas to a final motivational speech that, if it weren't in a silly and trifling movie about snails who want to race in the Indy 500 might have actually been somewhat moving. As for Turbo himself, well, Ryan Reynolds is basically just Ryan Reynolds as a slug, and while I didn't expect him to try to do a voice or anything, hearing him just being him made me wish that a movie would dare to break the trend of celebrity stunt voice acting for once and actually bring in a real voice actor or two.

The one area where the film comes close to being annoying is in its attempt to build two separate rosters of wacky side characters that for the most part fall flat. On the human side you have the two brothers who run the taco stand who are mostly inoffensive but never really rise to the level of actually being funny, and then along with them a cadre of small business owners at a struggling strip mall, some of whom were so uninteresting that I'm pretty sure they weren't even named on screen. Then of course Turbo gets his own snail crew, and though they all do get names that are introduced as soon as you meet them, I had forgotten most of them by the end, except of course for The White Shadow, because his name is all he says for the entire movie. Again, not great, but not as annoying as many movies might have made them, and I enjoyed the increasingly implausible ways in which they are able to keep pace with the action. And of course Samuel L. Jackson is always great, even in snail form.

I want to deconstruct it, but it seems so pointless. Aw, what the Hell. Even getting past the premise, which naturally relies on the famous sports movie logic of there not being anything in the rule book about (blank) participating in the sport (I believe taken from the precedent of NCAA V. Air Bud), I still have to question the decision to let Turbo into the race. It's not that he's not fast enough to keep up, which he proves, but because I would think he would still need a car. The Indy 500 is about car racing. Even if a person were as fast as a car, he wouldn't qualify to be in this race, because this isn't about how fast a person can be in general, but specifically how fast they can operate this particular vehicle. Why not have him want to be on the Olympic Track Team, or just get into the Guinness Book Of World Records or something? And they keep making a big deal about Turbo needing to win the race to get publicity for the strip mall, but wouldn't that happen regardless of whether he wins or loses, just based on the historic fact that a snail qualified in the first place? And for that matter, if you were to encounter a snail with seemingly human level intelligence who has wants and desires, why go to all the trouble of helping him achieve his dream of racing to in turn get publicity for your business, when your initial discovery would do that all on its own?

On that note, Turbo does something that I always notice and always find really strange in movies with anthropomorphized characters, in that it is oddly selective in just what should and shouldn't display human-like qualities. Give me a world where all the animals secretly talk and think like humans, fine, but don't give me one where some of them do, and some of them just act like regular animals. And in this movie, it's obviously done to conceal some very uncomfortable truths about what the animal kingdom would be like if they were as smart as us. At one point, Turbo passes out and is being carried off by bugs who think he is dead, but when he shoos them away, they don't seem to be able to talk, because if they could, they would have to explain how they were just so excited to eat a corpse, presumably in comically high pitched voices. And the snail eating crows aren't villains, just mindless birds operating on instinct, because if you actually applied human level motivations to a predatory animal, they go from doing what their simple minds tell them to do to survive, to wanton murderers.

But then, as I said, that's all just nitpicking, and frankly this movie doesn't deserve that. Turbo works pretty hard to overcome the self-inflicted stumbling block of just how conceptually retarded it is, and while the result is only somewhere between mediocre and just okay, even getting to that point is a pretty solid accomplishment. With their bulbous protruding eyes and slimy limbless bodies, these snails are probably the ugliest group of characters ever to be asked to carry an entire kid's movie, up to and including Pixar's Bugs and the far superior Antz, but against all odds they mostly succeed. Compared to the last movie I saw with comic relief snails, Epic, they were much more annoying in that film even as they were given much less screen time. And especially in light of The Minions from Despicable Me 2, who I'm finding many people even my age and older inexplicably love, I'll take these gooey creatures over those yellow abominations any day, bad puns and all. If you have kids young enough to fully appreciate it, and a low tolerance for abject silliness, you can't really go wrong here.

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