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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Ryan Reynolds voices a speedy snail with a dream in "Turbo," now playing.

"Turbo" doesn't put the pedal to the creative metal


It must get very old for Dreamworks to be constantly compared to Pixar. For the better part of the past 15 years, the bouncing desk light of Pixar has crushed its rival much like how it crushes the I in their company's name at the beginning of every film.

Even when Dreamworks goes above and beyond ("How to Train Your Dragon"), how well it compares to Pixar is the ruler it's always measured by, as though Pixar has a monopoly on emotionally satisfying animated movies.

Even though its rival is struggling, Dreamworks' "Turbo" isn't going to change much. If anything, the comparisons are almost guaranteed, especially considering the plot is eerily reminiscent of Brad Bird's "Ratatouille."

An animal most find repulsive (a snail in this film, a rat in the previous model) wants to leave the boring, confined ways of his colleagues to achieve his improbable dream. This time around, the goal is to become a racer at the Indianapolis 500, a gig that goes against a snail's inherent slowness much like how becoming a chef goes against a rat's inherent appreciation of trash.

The snail, named Theo and competently voiced by Ryan Reynolds, gets some extra help, however, when he falls into a car engine mid-street race and gets doused in nitrous oxide. Much like nuclear waste in a comic book, the neon steroid fuses with Theo's DNA, making him blindingly fast and putting the go in escargot.

He loves his new automotive powers (including headlights, radio and a sexy new blue tint to his shell); his stubbornly pessimistic brother Chet (a sputtering Paul Giamatti), dedicated to working at "the plant" (a garden), is less enthused.

Chet is even less pleased when the duo is captured by Tito (Michael Peña), a taco truck driver for his brother's struggling taco restaurant, as well as an avid snail racing enthusiast (everyone's gotta have a hobby I suppose). Theo, nicknamed Turbo, impresses the ambitious Tito with his incredible speed, so much so he thinks he has a shot in the Indy 500 against Theo's French, inspirational phrase-spouting hero Guy Gagne (cleverly voiced by Bill Hader). So they head off to Indiana in the hopes of earning themselves the checked flag and a bottle of milk.

Along for the ride are Tito's friends – voiced by Michelle Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins and Ken Jeong –from the restaurant's neighboring strip mall, as well as a band of streetwise daredevil snails, led by Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson).

There are plenty of characters in "Turbo," but the script – written by Robert Siegel, Darren Lemke and director David Soren – doesn't give them much to do. Jenkins and Rodriguez barely have five lines combined, while Jeong gets most of the attention, playing an elderly Asian woman (really? Are there no Asian actresses in Hollywood who could do this role? Or are they just not as willing as Jeong to talk like a glaring stereotype?).

Meanwhile, the snail friends – including voices from Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph and Ben Schwartz – barely have enough screen time to leave an impact. Jackson gets an amusing riff off of one of his signature "Pulp Fiction" lines, and a plump snail cohort named White Shadow (Michael Bell) steals a few scenes. For the most part, though, they're completely unremarkable, blandly designed to be Happy Meal toys (or, considering the product placement, Verizon mascots) and nothing more.

Then again, if "Turbo" was looking for another five-letter word to call itself, "Bland" would be an accurate option (if not exactly one that would please the marketing guys). Nothing about "Turbo" is particularly bad or harmful, but nothing about it is particularly interesting, emotional or even all that funny either.

It has its amusing moments – an early gag about snails getting picked off by a bird is always worth a laugh – but much of the humor, including puns like "snailed it" and an autotune-fueled song montage, plays pretty limp.

Meanwhile, the story and characters are as routine and predictable as a Garmin's directions during an Indy race. There's a rather lovely early montage featuring the various characters going through their lonely everyday lives, ending on a sweet grace note between Tito and his skeptical brother, but other than that, the film's adherence to formula never quite allows the audience's emotional engines to get revving.

Most of the imagination seems to have been put toward the movie's visuals, which are very vibrant and creative (Christopher Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister is credited as a visual consultant). The swooshing camera movements – especially on the opening shot – and blurring colors nicely capture a taste of the speed and thrill of the sport.

If only the rest of the film was as bright and original.



Theaters and showtimes for Turbo
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