'Turbo" is a new movie from DreamWorks Animation Studios about a little snail with a big dream. It is also the latest animated feature to use an animal's frustration with the limitations of his species as a metaphor for human aspirations.
Much as the rat Remy in "Ratatouille" did not want to eat garbage, and Mumble the penguin in "Happy Feet" wanted to dance, so does Turbo given name Theo, voice courtesy of Ryan Reynolds long to be fast.
This leads to amusing visual gags, including a race with a lawn mower. Needless to say, the other snails in the tomato patch, governed by a grim, unvarying, slime-trailed routine and subject to random crow attacks, do not respect Theo's ambitions. The chief naysayer is his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who makes a persuasive case against the idea that a garden pest might do something like compete in the Indianapolis 500.
But this is America!
Anything is possible, including that millions of parents and children might flock to this adequate morsel of committee-produced entertainment. They don't call it DreamWorks for nothing.
But it is interesting to note that a movie strenuously preaching the virtue of being different should be so fundamentally so deliberately, so timidly just like everything else of its kind.
Yes, there has never been a 3-D cartoon about a snail before, although there have been a handful of charming children's picture books about snails, including Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold's heart-rending "Gluey."
Still, even in the absence of originality, there is fun to be had, thanks to some loopy, clever jokes (the script is by Darren Lemke, Robert Siegel and David Soren, who directed) and a lively celebrity voice cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Michelle Rodriguez, Ken Jeong, Maya Rudolph, Richard Jenkins, Michael Peña and Luis Guzmán. (Not a lot of women on that list, you'll notice true to formula once again).
Peña and Guzmán play Tito and Angelo, brothers who run a taco truck near a run-down strip mall in Los Angeles. They and the owners of the other businesses a nail salon, a hobby store and an auto repair shop cannot seem to attract customers, and Tito hits on a foolproof plan. If Theo can enter and win Indy with the sponsorship of the mall's tenants, all their problems will be solved.
It should go without saying that Theo, in becoming Turbo, has acquired automotive superpowers and is able to accelerate to racetrack speeds in his shell, without the aid of wheels or gasoline. Like Remy the rat, he is beguiled and disappointed by a French-accented idol, a racing champion voiced by Bill Hader. The film's climax is a 200-lap showdown between them.
It's all very rousing in the usual way, but "Turbo" leaves a slightly sour aftertaste, and not only because of its own brave choice of mediocrity over excellence. Why, you wonder, should it be necessary for a snail to win the world's most famous car race? Wouldn't competing be impressive enough?
I'm sort of kidding, but there is something sad about the idea that a group of hardworking entrepreneurs can hope to succeed only by cutting a deal with the hyper-commercial, winner-take-all forces of celebrity and global media. The rest of us will be picked off by the crows or served up in garlic butter.
2 1/2 stars
Cast: Voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg and Maya Rudolph
Director: David Soren
Rated PG (Some slightly scary action and mildly naughty humor)