Turbo (Film Review)

For a film named Turbo it has an absolutely appalling rate of acceleration. The film gets from naught to sixty in about seventy minutes. But at least it gets to sixty, as for many films this is a rare accolade to achieve.

Turbo is the latest Dreamworks animation about a Snail who spends his nights watching old racing car tapes in his garden owner’s garage. After freak accident that lands him in the engine of a supped up sports car, he finally has the speed that could see him realizing his dream of competing in the Indy 500.

The film starts out in a tomato (work) plant where our hero Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is in charge of the most degrading job in a soulless existence. He’s a daydreamer and unsurprisingly for a kids film, made fun of for it. The film captures the monotony of a snails existence with an alarming degree of empathy. Ten minutes in and you’ll feel the drudgery and boredom almost as much as our hero does. It’s a slow opening. The jokes fall flat, their personalities drag and the peril seems so insignificant you wonder why they even bothered animating them.

You attention will pick up though after the first night time scene. The lighting effects are fantastic. The ambience created by the glowing night time lights capture urban twilight with an artistry unobtainable by real world films. The lights paints colours across the canvas that break free from the usual orange and teal scheme most Hollywood films find themselves trapped in.

This is also where Theo has the accident that transforms him into Turbo, half snail, half car. As well as having the overtones of a superhero origin story, it shows off the true prowess of the animators for the first time. Snails are not the best protagonist choice for CGI films because they don’t have the most diverse range of movement, but in this scene the animators show how much flexibility they can give the most immobile of creatures.

After the powers have been bestowed the characters of Theo and his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) finally pick up. Theo is no longer just an annoying dreamer, he is a doer. He has the ability to go after his dreams and his new found confidence makes him a hero we can get behind rather than roll our eyes at. And after a change of location Chet is now a fish out of water totally out of his depth. As his character sees control slipping away from him and on to his brother their relationship deepens, engaging you in their estrangement.

Halfway through the film we are introduced to a group of racing snails that replace the factory workers as the supporting cast. These characters personify two of my most hated tropes in animated films. One is celebrity cameos with such distinctive voices you hear them and not the characters they are supposed to be playing. The second is the degradation of street culture to a few stock phrases repeated ad nauseous with the efficiency of a 1920’s ford factory.

Turbo (miraculously) gets away with them, just about. The cameos are mostly very funny, including a scene stealing Samuel L. Jackson who gets all the best lines “Yeah, I’m crazy! What made you think I was sane?” The part was obviously written directly for him in a way that makes you wish Theo could have had a little more of Ryan Reynold’s natural charisma written into him. Once again the animation department does its work to ensure we are hearing the characters, not their real life counterparts. The kiddy hip hop stuff I still could have done without but the jokes are good enough to make me ok with slogging through it.

Finally we have the climactic race between snail and machine. Yes a snail gets to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and is the best part of the movie by far. Filmed with a sense of speed that makes the rest of the film seem positively sluggish, the race uses the size of the cars and its protagonist to create one of the most thrilling climactic sequences I’ve seen all year. Pulling together story, character and action with a confidence that glues you to your seat. Bill Hader makes a particularly booable turn as the films villain. He has a great presence especially for a guy we only know to be bad for the last quarter of the movie.  And the climax to the climax is a great example of why we don’t need speed to make a race exciting.

I’ve never seen a film get better and better in the way that Turbo does. Literally every scene outdoes the last. Granted seeing how boring this film was to begin with that may not be the compliment it seems on the surface, none the less it is a commendable effort. It also serves as another example of a film, like Cloudy 2 where I just wish the writing team were afforded the freedom the animation team so clearly enjoy.