25 July 2013


2013 has been a remarkably mediocre year for American animated features, but even in the company of Monsters University and Despicable Me 2, there's something special about Turbo, the second and final DreamWorks Animation project of the year (following The Croods, which is starting to look like an elder statesman). It is mediocre; unabashedly so. But it's more than just that; it is aggressive, poisonous in its mediocrity, not just denuded of imagination and creativity but openly contemptuous of the idea of such things. It's so mediocre, so proud of how much it dislikes itself, that it's downright mean. I think what pushes it over the edge is the casting of Hollywood's current favorite Asian, Ken Jeong, as a tiny, sassy old Chinese woman, it apparently being the case that the only thing that Jeong could possibly do to become more goddamnably irritating than he has been was to double-down on sexism to help flavor his minstrelsy.

The film is not, as you would certainly be led to believe by the concept, DreamWorks's outright carbon copy of Pixar's Cars. Indeed, the rival studio has taken a much classier route here: Turbo is an outright carbon copy of Ratatouille. A small animal wants to do something that small animals oughtn't be able to do, he is encouraged because of the slogan of a famous French-accented practitioner of that same art, his relatives mock him and want him to come back to reality (Turbo condenses the crabby father and dim brother into one figure, the crabby brother), he ends up joining forces with a somewhat dream-addled human who speaks to him using a cutesy nickname and a vaguely simpering tone of voice. All that's missing are the consummate artistry, a pulverising emotional climax, and likable characters.

Anyway, the film follows Theo (Ryan Reynolds), a garden snail living in a tomato patch in a Los Angeles neighborhood, whose overriding desire is to drive a racecar, like his hero, French-Canadian Indy 500 champion Guy Gagné (Bill Hader), who always sagely notes, "no dream is too big, and no dreamer is too small". Theo's brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) is the cold voice of reason, but when Theo goes wandering on a particular despondent night, he ends up falling into the engine block of a car in a street race, and is saturated in nitrous as a result, which turns him into a mutant with all the abilities of a car: headlights, car alarm, radio, and the ability to buzz around at 200 miles per hour. When he inevitably fucks up and gets himself and Chet thrown out of the snail community, they end up falling in with a group of non-mutant racing snails who are kept by the impossibly bored shopowners in an impossibly low-rent Van Nuys strip mall. One of these, starry-eyed taqueria employee Tito (Michael Peña), immediately sees how this magnificently fast snail can be a great attraction to draw clients to the mall, begins to plan a great scheme to win acclaim and fame for him and his friends. Before you can say, "God, are you sure this is only 96 minutes long?", Theo - now calling himself Turbo - has managed to secure a spot in the Indy 500, on the grounds that the rules don't say a snail can't race.

Paint-by-numbers, yeah, but that's not the problem here. In fact, I admire the grace notes by which Turbo attempts to not be so ridden with clichés; the unconventional choice of location, undoubtedly motivated by the street racing scene in Los Angeles, already gives the film enough of a unique set of characters (when was the last time that most of the prominent characters in a wide-release animated movie were voiced by non-white actors? Ever?) that it stands out on that front, even if it's not entirely to the film's credit: no polyglot Van Nuys mixed-race neighborhood, no Kim Ly, the cringely rancid Jeong character. But also no Michelle Rodriguez riffing on her The Fast and the Furious character, and if I have to have the former, I am glad it's tempered by the latter.

No, the problem is more dire than being creatively uninspired: it's uninspiring, with no characters who are easy to like, either in design (other than making them all fluffy cartoon colors, no real attempt is made to make the snails not look like snails, and they're just not appealing animals), or in characterisation and performance. Reynolds has such a smarmy voice; good for his character in The Croods, dreadful for his earnest dreamer here. And with so many side characters to keep track of - besides Turbo, Chet, and Tito, there are five other slugs and four other humans who count as "major" even before we get to the lazy choice to put Guy Gagné in the film in the flesh, whereupon he turns out to be a loathsome villain (frankly, I think that if nothing were changed about the film other than making him a decent man, a driven competitor and fair sport, Turbo would be so much radically better than it is as to be unrecognisable) - nobody has any chance to break out. All the time the movie has to spare on characterisation is "oh, this one is Samuel L. Jackson, so he's sardonic", or "this short, oddly Harvey Fierstein-looking fellow is Luis Guzmán, so you know he's easily flustered and cowardly", and while that's the studio's all-time favorite trick, it's rarely worked less effectively than it does in Turbo, which ends up populated by notions of characters rather than characters themselves, and the dismal interplay between Reynolds and Giamatti does not remotely cut it as far as giving us anybody to root for.

It's too bad that the thing sucks so hard as a character-driven narrative, because it's actually fairly handsome looking; there's a shot of Turbo/Theo looking mournfully over US-101 and all the cars blurring past that's as beautiful as anything in any animated film this year, and the neon details on the snails (don't ask) are entirely pleasing to the eye. The whole thing is as technically accomplished as anything DreamWorks has ever made (the humans are every bit as solid as How to Train Your Dragon, the studio's current standard-bearer in that direction), and if technique were the sole reason we went to watch cartoons, I'd have little to say against it. But we also go for heart and brains, and Turbo has absolutely none of either. It's as soulless as anything in this barbaric year for animated pictures, and then some.



MrRoivas said...

Oh man, that bit about the sage advice from a French professional is such an on the nose rip off of Ratatouille that it hurt. Thanks for watching it so that we don't have to.

One line did interest me. How would changing the character of the French driver from a stock villain to a decent man make the movie to be so much better?

Jeremy said...

Kid almost talked me into seeing this, but I was like, "Screw that, Wolverine has got to be better than the first one". And it was! For the most part, smart, sensible, and knows exactly what it wants to be. In a world of endless superhero origin stories and apocalyptic stakes, it's refreshingly intimate and personal, along with some satisfying Logan slashing. Good job, Mangold/Scott Frank.

oh right, Turbo. Yeah, mediocre kids movies huh?

Tim said...

MrRoivas- The third act is brutal, just a string of unimaginative, oversimplified moments, and eschewing a traditional underdog-villain situation would have forced it into any other direction. And pretty much by definition, any other direction would have been an improvement.

Jeremy- Glad to hear that! I have been pinning the last of my summertime hopes and dreams on it not sucking.

MrRoivas said...

Another thing: I really think you've been too harsh on Monsters U. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it. Is it a masterpiece on the same level as Up or Toy Story 3? No, but its still quite a solid film, and certainly one on a different level than The Croods or Buy Minion Plushies 2.

Not every Pixar film has to redefine what can be done with 3d animation.

Mr. K said...

"impossibly low-rent Van Nuys strip mall"

I think you give Van Nuys too much credit.

David Greenwood said...

You know, people keep bitching about Planes, how it's going to tarnish the Pixar name and so on. But hasn't anyone that elitist about Pixar and high art already written off the Cars franchise as it is? It's like the franchise I watch and enjoy with my wife while every other film critic I know whines about it.

Oh yeah, Monsters U. I liked it. Not great, but a fun day at the movies. I didn't think a good college movie could be made without drugs or sex, but somehow they did it. And the climactic scaring sequence was TOP NOTCH.

David Greenwood said...

It just occurred to me that I posted to the wrong article. Whatever. It's a cartoon at least :P

Bryce Wilson said...

I have to say I'd be genuinely curious to see the screenplay that Robert Siegal handed in because I literally have difficulty conceiving how it could be as shitty as this.

Then again I have difficulty conceiving the series of decisions that led to the statement, "Hey you know the guy who writes movies about desperate marginalized people and blends them with religous allegory. Lets hire him to write a movie about a racing snail."

KayMartha12 said...

You guys are harsh. My feelings toward Turbo are the same for Monsters University: trite but well executed.

What was most frustrating to me was how I could count the Ratatouille rip offs one by one as I watched it.

A little off topic: After more than one viewing, I never got too into Ratatouille because I can't get past how Linguini's moment of telling Colette how he feels was not dramatically built up. And in that same scene, Remy does not want Linguini to "rat him out," but later, Remy gets mad at Linguini for not giving him credit for the cooking. That inconsistency bothered me throughout the stunning rest of the film.

Turbo was less emotionally ambitious, but it aimed low and succeeded.

Caroline Harkin said...

You should use less big words next time it makes it sound like you're trying to make up for lack of content in your review. Also it's a kid's movie so maybe next time use a review like this: "I feel the need... the need for speed(y snails)."

Mark said...

Riffing a bit on your frustration with Planes (i.e. the film was so dull and unappealing that your mind is bound to wonder about what the hell is going on in it), after watching this with my kid I found myself sitting up at night trying to understand how Theo (pre-Turbo) actually got to the 101 and back. As we know, the film takes great pains to establish that Theo (at "racing" speed) covers one yard in 17 minutes. Let us presume that the house in 1 mile from the 101 overpass (which Tim so enjoyed)--a mile is 1760 yards. Thus at 17 minutes per yard, such a trip would take almost 21 DAYS each way (and never mind the return detour caused by the fall, drag race, beetle encounter, etc.)! Clearly we are meant to think that Theo came back home the day after his little soul-searching adventure.

Look, none of this has anything to do with the movie, I know, but it is indicative of the point you made--if you make a hopelessly boring movie that allows one's mind to wander so, don't compound the problem by adding useless and ridiculous details that keep parents up at night!

zimnomel said...

Tim, do you plan on writing about the significance of the DreamWorks Smirk one day in a review? It crops up in every one of their movies, and I feel it speaks volumes about them in general. (Also, it was what turned me off the movie as soon as I saw it on the poster.)