Who declared this the summer of the animated snails? In Twentieth Century Fox’s “Epic,” a snail and slug duo stole the spotlight from the human characters, even the Beyoncé-voiced nature queen. The end credits of Pixar’s “Monsters University” features not the movie’s main characters but a cute snail coda. And now DreamWorks'”Turbo,” one of this year’s best family films, gives racing snails center stage in a story that puts the “go” in escargot.
Ryan Reynolds is Theo, a garden snail who knows to the bottom of his snail-y soul that there is only one thing that will make him happy: “terrifying, terrifying, blazing speed.” He longingly watches car races on an old VCR, imagining that he is racing alongside French-Canadian Indy 500 champion Guy Gagné (Bill Hader). When Guy proclaims from the winner’s circle that “no dream is too beeeg and no dreamer is too small,” Theo feels that the message is meant just for him.
But that dream seems far away. Theo and his very cautious older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) work at the plant. Literally. It is a tomato plant, with an intricate series of conveyer belts to deliver the fresh tomatoes to the snails. Theo is in charge of rotten tomatoes (possibly a gentle swipe at the popular movie review website of that name) and there is an amusing series of shots with Theo getting repeatedly hit by squishy, overripe fleshy fruit.
Theo gets exposed to a chemical accelerant that hits him like the radioactive spider-bite hit Peter Parker. When Tito (Michael Peña), half-owner of the Dos Bros taco stand, enters him in a snail race, he zooms across the finish line and changes his name to Turbo to fit his new identity. Tito and his strip mall neighbors, proprietors of a hobby shop, a nail salon, and a garage, trick up Turbo with a snazzy shell cover and enter him into the Indy 500 race, where, it turns out, you don’t need to have a car, you just need to be fast. Turbo will be racing against his idol, Guy Gagné.
The movie, it must be said, gets a bit slow in the middle, with too much time spent on the human characters. The economic struggles of the human strip mall denizens are dreary and under-written compared to the big dreams of the little snail. The effort to create a parallel in the strain between the taco-selling brothers of Dos Bros and those of the snail brothers, one adventuresome, one risk-averse, is labored.
But it picks up every time the racing snails come back on screen, thanks to the adorable character design, with very expressive use of those googly eyes at the end of their antennae, and especially to the voice talent. Reynolds’ Turbo has a lot of heart and gives a nicely dry twist to lines like, “Let me get my calendar, so I can time you.” The stand-outs are Giamatti as the perpetually worried but caring Chet and the indispensable Samuel L. Jackson as Whiplash, a racing snail who leads Turbo’s hilarious pit crew. He’s the snail who has “the skills to pay the bills,” if snails had bills to pay, that is. “Your trash talk is needlessly complicated,” he crisply advises another racer. Just hearing Jackson say “I’m going to preTEND I didn’t hear you say that,” coming from the mouth of a snail with a toy race car chassis over his shell, gives the same boost to the movie that the jolt of nitrous gives to Turbo.
Parents should know that this film has some cartoon-style peril and violence, with minor characters getting eaten by birds and hit by a car.
Family discussion: What do you think separates the ordinary from the extraordinary? What is your one thing that makes you happy and how will you follow your dream?
If you like this, try: the forthcoming “Turbo” television series and the Pixar classic, “A Bug’s Life”