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Movie Review: Turbo

Updated on April 11, 2015
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Dreamworks has had an interesting history since starting an animation studio. Their films have been generally good. But compared to Disney, their output has been a little more hit and miss. Facing competition from Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 (and movies that are not family movies), how does Turbo hold up?

Turbo tells the story of... well, Turbo, which is nom de voyage of Theo. Theo is a snail who dreams of being fast - makes sense. However, more specifically, Theo is obsessed with race car driving and dreams of doing it himself. Theo works as a tomato-collector who is so obsessed with speed and racing that he watches traffic and (somewhat involuntarily) tags along on a drag race. During the drag race, Theo encounters an accident that fuses his DNA with nitrous oxide which gives him the powers of a car - most notably the speed Theo has always desired. Theo is not just fast, he can outrace cars. However, flaunting his newfound speed in front of his co-workers lands Theo and his brother, Chet out of their jobs.

On the road, Theo and Chet are captured by Tito, a driver for Dos Bros. tacos. Tito puts the brothers in a race against other snails for the amusement of his friends. And Theo finally shows off his speed by eviscerating his opponents in the race. However, Theo learns that the other snails - lead by Whiplash - have a few tricks of their own. With the help of his new snail friends, Tito and Tito's friends - all of whom run shops of some kind near the taco stand - enter Theo into the Indy 500.

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While I was watching Turbo, I could not help but think about the animation. I remember the first time I saw Toy Story in theaters. It was a pretty big deal. Aside from being a good movie that still holds after all these years, Toy Story was mind blowing because of its computer animation. These days, computer animated movies are everywhere. In 1995, Toy Story was in a league of its own. In 2013, (as I said before) Turbo is up against Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University. Granted the animation does look good, but when computer animation has become so ubiquitous, it really does not save what is an otherwise mediocre movie.

So where does Turbo fall flat? One of the biggest problems is that this movie has a serious "been there, done that" feeling to it. Everything in this movie feels as though it has been done before and done better. How many times have we seen the shiftless dreamer who just wants to be something he can't? Not to mention, the film treats us to not one, but two subplots about bickering brothers where one does not believe in the other. Specifically, Turbo and his brother Chet constantly argue because Chet does not believe Turbo should be constantly dreaming about being fast and racing - even though he is quite good at it. This just did not work because it felt unmotivated. Turbo seems capable of moving faster than anything else, and Chet STILL thinks he is unable to race at all. The story between the Dos Bros. who run the taco shop is a little more interesting, but still feels redundant. The reason this works a little better is because the brother's reason for being mad at Tito makes sense: Tito is theoretically putting their business on the line by backing Turbo and even abandons their business.

Another disappointing aspect in this movie is a subplot about Theo's hero, Gig Gagne. Gagne is one of the most popular race car drivers in the world and he frequently dishes out advice, sayings and similes. This is going into mild spoiler territory, so be warned: Eventually Gig is revealed to be a villain who is too ego maniacal to allow Turo to win the race and tries too hard to thwart Turbo's advances. There are two reasons this was annoying. First of all, revealing Gagne was actually an ego-driven jerk seemed like too obvious of a payoff. In fact, I saw it from a mile away. Also, for the first two-thirds, Turbo is a movie that does not have a villain. And it actually worked without one. Going the movie without a villain is a pretty rare and bold feat - in live action or animation. And it really worked better without one. Turbo is in way over his head in a sport that - despite his speed - he is not totally qualified for, while the fate of several people's business lies on his "hands." Not to mention racecar driving is a sport that is notorious for its accidents. Is that not enough conflict that a villain has to be crowbarred in there?

Samuel L. Jackson as Whiplash is one of the definite highlights of the film
Samuel L. Jackson as Whiplash is one of the definite highlights of the film | Source

Generally, in animated family movies, humor is a big draw, and frankly, this movie is just not that funny. Humor is very subjective, but there are a few reasons much of the humor in this movie falls flat. Much of the humor comes off as a little too forced, as if the writers were trying too hard to be funny instead of the humor coming naturally. The film also has a nasty habit of ruining some of its funnier jokes by repeating them. A prime example is that early on, when Theo works in the garden, there is a recurring joke that his fellow snails are continuously hunted by crows. At first, I laughed because it came out of nowhere. However, the exact same thing happens at least two more times without any kind of variation. Once the surprise is gone, a joke like ceases to work.

A lot of jokes in this movie also do not make sense. For example, there is a running joke where Chet is constantly mistaken for a girl. However, there is no real reason for this. Compare this to Pixar's A Bug's Life where the joke is that everyone thinks Denis Leary is a girl simply because he is a ladybug. That was also funny because Leary's character was not at all feminine. There are also a load of awkward moments that left me seriously thinking "Was that a joke?" Also, the filmmakers had a prime opportunity to parody sports movie cliches with Theo's acceptance into the Indy 500. However, these scenes are played completely straight. No, that is not a typo: A snail entering the Indy 500 is played straight.

Giving credit where it is due, I did laugh here and there. However, these were mostly smiles and the occasional chuckle - no big, out loud laughs. A lot of the legit laughs did come from the snails Theo meets at Dros Bros. that end up leading him to the Indy 500. In fact, these characters reveal many of the films flashes of brilliance. In particular, watching them operate and help Theo - including a clever pit stop scene near the end - are fun to watch. As Whiplash, Samuel L. Jackson's natural charisma truly shines through and the other snails are a lot of fun too. If there had been more of scenes like that, this movie may have been a little more entertaining, but sadly, these characters are lost in the shuffle of tedious subplots and awkward jokes.

In conclusion, is Turbo a terrible film? I can not go that far, but it is definitely not a good film. The filmmakers played things way to safe and took zero risks with this film. The lackluster comedy really shows off the lack of confidence in the material. However, the film does have a few charms to it. I laughed here and there, and some of the characters were entertaining. It is hard to recommend this one to kids since I am not a kid and I do not have kids, but my guess is that if they do not recognize the cliches, kids might like this one. For everyone else, this movie lies in that grey area: There are worse movies, but you could also do much better.

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