Hey kids! Do you have dreams of athletic glory, but don’t have the chops to run a five-minute mile or dunk a basketball? Well, here’s Turbo: a family-friendly talking animal underdog sports film that basically condones the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Somewhere, Rudy Ruettiger is crying. And Lance Armstrong is high-fiving himself.
“The Feel-Conflicted Movie of the Summer” stars Ryan Reynolds as the voice of a garden snail who dreams, for some never-adequately-explained reason, of NASCAR glory. The gag of course is that he’s a snail, and snails are slow! So when our hero’s dreams of racing are dashed in an unfortunate incident with a tomato (don’t ask… just don’t ask) he runs away from home and falls into the engine of a muscle car, gets doused with nitrous oxide, and emerges with super speed powers. He can crawl at over 200mph, make beeping noises when he backs up, pick up radio stations on his antennae and emit headlights from his eyes; because NOS is directly involved all of those functions in every car. Right? Right…?
Our hero winds up in a taco restaurant with his naysaying snail brother Chet (voice by Paul Giamatti), and together they get adopted by another idealistic dreamer – a human voiced by Michael Peña – who can’t get his more practical brother (Luis Guzman) to believe in his get rich quick schemes. Together they decide to drum up business for the restaurant by entering the newly renamed super-snail “Turbo” into the Indy 500, because – like in all the Air Bud movies – the rules don’t explicitly state that an animal “can’t” participate. Although I’m pretty sure there’s something on the books about needing an actual car. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.
Turbo plays more like a parody of a family movie on "The Simpsons" than an actual family movie. “Oh, I really hope this snail wins the Indy 500! [Squish] D’oh…!” There are a few funny jokes here and there, but the concept is fundamentally ridiculous, the plot is confusing, the pacing is appropriately sluggish and the message is inherently problematic. It’s also a drab, grey movie with little in the way of visual flourish, but that’s hardly the problem.
Turbo tries to embrace the underdog sports movie clichés but falls apart thanks to its nonsensical superhero setup. The title hero has no athletic skills, and only develops his supermolluskulan abilities by happenstance, not by self-improvement. Turbo tries to turn its protagonist’s selfish abuse of his newfound abilities into a triumph of the human-slash-mollusk spirit, but the only way to apply the film’s life lessons in a real world context would be to engage in rampant steroid use. There’s a reason why Spider-Man didn’t keep his job as a pro wrestler: using an unfair advantage to defeat weaker opponents who actually worked hard for their success isn’t very sportsmanlike. In fact, it’s kind of villainous.
Turbo’s actual villain doesn’t help matters. Like the similar but wildly superior Ratatouille, Turbo idolizes a human success story in his chosen field. French racing sensation Guy Gagné (voice by Bill Hader) even inspires the animal hero with his televised words of wisdom, if you really want another direct comparison. But Turbo transforms the human figure into a villain when – gasp! – Guy tells Turbo that he’s still going to try to win the race! Plot points don’t get much more poorly conceived than that. The score gets all malevolent and Turbo reels in astonishment because his personal hero is a “bad guy,” just because Guy – Turbo’s competition in the Indy 500, don’t you forget – actually wants to win. Of course he wants to win! He’s a racer! Turbo is his competition! The movie Turbo has the audacity to demonize this character just for not taking a dive. Sure, at the end Guy pulls some dick moves on the tarmac, but the movie treats him like a despicable human being long beforehand, just because he refuses to stop doing his job because snail got superpowers.
Lots of family movies go out of their way to support underprivileged dreamers. Turbo goes out of its way to reward a dreamer even though he’s done nothing to deserve his success. It’s not unwatchable but it’s got such an unhealthy theme that I can’t quite imagine anyone really supporting it. The obvious excuse for this kind of animated family fantasy is that it’s “harmless,” but I’m pretty sure teaching children that having a dream and overdosing on chemicals to achieve it, rather than actually work your ass off like the rest of us, isn’t harmless. If anything, it’s a little grotesque.