LOS ANGELES - In delivering a film about a garden snail that dreams of winning the Indy 500, it's as if the makers of "Turbo" had been pressed to come up with the most extreme underdog tale they could think of. Or else animators really are running out of ideas for original new characters. An attractively designed but narratively challenged, one-note film, "Turbo" skews younger than the norm for big animated features these days and has limited appeal for little girls.
"The sooner you accept the dull, miserable nature of your existence, the happier you'll be," worldly-wise snail Chet (Paul Giamatti) advises his younger brother Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) after yet another day scouring a garden tomato patch. Turbo spends all his downtime watching VHS tapes of professional car races, especially the many won by his hero, Guy Gagne (Bill Hader, amusingly assuming a French-Canadian accent).
Of course, the message of the film, as with so many other kid-inspirational cartoons and other fantasies, is that no dream is too big, you can do anything if you set your mind to it, etc., etc. Unfortunately, the real embedded lesson of Turbo is that, if you're too small or weak or otherwise incapable of greatness, you have a shot to win if you're juiced.
Which is what happens late one night when Turbo, coming upon a "Fast & Furious"-style drag race in the dry LA River bed, gets sucked into an engine. Instead of being toasted, however, the little guy becomes infused with nitrous oxide, enabling him to zoom along the ground seemingly as fast as Superman shoots through the skies. Ahhh, the wonders of chemicals and strength enhancers. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire would approve.
Of course, Turbo needs a sponsor, which he finds in the form of Van Nuys taco truck driver Tito (Michael Pena), a wild dreamer himself who argues endlessly with his more practical brother Angelo (Luis Guzman) about the merits of promoting their forlorn business-Dos Bros Tacos-with a snail. Joining in is a rainbow coalition of smart-mouthed supporting snails and neighboring business owners voiced by the eminent likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Michelle Rodriguez, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins and Ken Jeong.
The ultimate destination-Indianapolis--is inevitable but it takes a long time to get there, given a script that is short on invention and long on largely unfunny yacking. Once the gang arrives and begins overcoming the obstacles that might prevent a snail from entering a car race (conveniently unmentioned is the most obvious one, that Turbo lacks four wheels and an engine), the hitherto genial Guy Gagne suddenly becomes a villain, feeling so threatened by the now-mighty mollusk that he goes to all lengths to prevent an eternally humiliating defeat.
In the run-up to the race and then during it, you mostly wonder about how a critter so small it can't be seen on the track (although its blue/white-hot streak can be) will avoid being crunched by the giant tires of the humans' racing machines; indeed, the film's most irreverent merit is that it is periodically honest about the fate of snails by casually showing them getting squashed by humans or gobbled up by animals, especially crows. In the event, Turbo just zips through traffic as if in an obstacle course, the obvious longshot pipsqueak favorite in a field of giants.
"Turbo," a 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks Animation release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America "for some mild action and thematic elements. Running time: 95 minutes.