Along with a more-than-average amount of disbelief, Turbo asks that you suspend your awareness of the Pixar narrative bank, which this movie treats like an all-you-can-ape buffet. In and around the garden of a suburban home, where he can somehow watch a TV undetected (not to mention push it over), the titular, speed-obsessed snail (Ryan Reynolds), as well as his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), and a gaggle of other shell-dwellers, avoid a bike-riding bully who could be the twin brother of Toy Story’s Sid. Once Turbo and Chet depart the garden, they cross paths with a streetwise posse of urban snails, who, just as the carny insects from A Bug’s Life label Flik a “country bug,” deride Turbo as a “garden snail.” And, most glaringly, after a run-in with a drag racer’s nitrous-filled engine mutates Turbo (who’s anthropomorphized to the point of having a beating human heart), the film reeks of Ratatouille, with the newly gassed gastropod, a taco salesman named Tito (Michael Peña) who snatches him up, and Turbo’s idol and Indy 500 champ, Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), forming a familiar triumvirate of critter prodigy, human helper, and French hero.
Fleet and pristine-looking, this 3D kid flick’s other essential plot details include Turbo’s NOS-induced development of car-like traits (from headlight eyes and an internal stereo to, of course, lightning speed), and his eventual entry into Indy 500 contention, thanks to a little help from Tito and those hardass snails, who race for Tito au naturel as part of his flea circus-esque hobby. But much more interesting is the film’s somewhat unwitting commentary on our society’s infatuation with speed and efficiency, touching on things like viral media and ever-burgeoning menus of energy drinks. When Turbo first whips around the track in a blue-streaked flash, a kid, by way of some Verizon product placement, catches the takeoff on his smartphone and uploads the clip for all to see. What follows is a reverse-riff on the average biopic’s newspaper-headline montage, with Turbo becoming a within-hours sensation (complete with an Auto-Tuned music video based around the phone kid’s line, “That snail is fast!”), and the Internet hip to the quick bug well before TV and print news can catch up.
That Turbo sells speed, in all its forms, as an unimpeachable virtue is just as problematic as its peddling of the you-are-special/you-can-do-anything message, which, in this era of malcontent millennials who value little because they think they deserve so much, doesn’t quite have the rosy ring it used to. However, as a film about social issues, and simply being yourself, it’s commendably progressive, going so far as serving as a kind of coming-out story. “This is in me,” Turbo tells Chet of his against-the-grain proclivities, with the brother retorting that such things defy nature (Turbo’s real name is Theo, and his insistence on not being called that even brings some whiffs of gender identity into the mix).
If there’s a speed-related element that deserves kudos, it’s Chet’s position as a small-minded semi-villain, whose bigoted, conservative views are causing the world to pass him by. His character’s nature also anchors the film’s handling of race, which is about as equal-opportunity as possible for something that still surrenders to the hero-voiced-by-white-headliner formula. “What are you doing with these freaks?” Chet asks, referencing human and non-human characters voiced by Peña, Luis Guzmán, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Samuel L. Jackson, and Snoop Dogg. Admittedly, almost all of these roles are racial caricatures, and Turbo won’t go down in history as some animated equality landmark. But by ultimately making Chet the “other” (and by generally boasting a surprising wealth of societal subtext), it’s a zip in the right direction.