Saturday, July 27, 2013


I could come up with premises for mediocre children's animated films all day. Here is the apparent formula: Take one animal with a well known characteristic for your main character and add a passion to that character that goes against that characteristic. Here are few examples:

1. A skunk wants to open his own perfumery in Paris.
2. A bald eagle desires to make wigs for 19th century American politicians.
3. A bear and a bee become best friends and open a honey shop.
4. A polar bear knows he's destined to become the world's next Olympic beach volleyball champion.
5. A snail wants to race in the Indianapolis 500.

If any Hollywood executives are reading this, I'm willing to negotiate on any of these ideas.

Well... except for that last suggestion because it is the premise behind Dreamworks Animation's newest film Turbo. In it a normally unlikeable animal, a snail, dreams to do something that he shouldn't be able to accomplish, competing in the Indianapolis 500. His quest is driven onward by the optimistic slogan of a famous French master of that craft, Indianapolis 500 champ Guy Gagné. Meanwhile his family and neighbors mock him and beg him to accept nature's cruel reality. His continued dreams eventually put them all in mortal peril and they decide to ostracize him from their simple-minded community. Despite the odds, he eventually ends up befriending a similarly ambitious human, a restaurateur, who despite not knowing our hero's name becomes his fast friend. Only by working together are they able to become successful and overcome the odds.

Sound familiar? If so, that's because I basically just summarized the plot of both Ratatouille and Turbo. While Turbo's basic premise might seem offbeat and original it is essentially Dreamworks Animation's carbon copy of Pixar's more artistic and compassionate film. Yet, while those plot beats are so similar it wouldn't really matter if Turbo was entertaining in its own right and strived to do something more than just retell the simple underdog story for the millionth time.

Ratatouille used this familiar underdog storyline to eventually comment on the relationship between an artist and a critic, which I found personally touching and revelatory. The moment when Peter O'Toole's food critic tastes the simply prepared ratatouille and is transported back to his childhood stands as a highlight of not only that film but in all of cinema that year.

Turbo is never so powerful but it isn't an outright failure either. Children enjoy just about anything with bright colors, well-advertised characters, quick dialogue, and a punchy soundtrack; just look no further than Cars to see mediocrity celebrated. Turbo certainly has all of these elements and its visuals, guided by cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception, The Dark Knight, Moneyball), are often exceptional.  Moments where the titular snail, Turbo, escapes into his daydreams or overlooks the blur of highway traffic are appropriately beautiful and hypnotizing. The low-riding camera provides an exhilarating sense of speed and scale to the race sequences that at times had me biting my nails (it's a filthy habit).

The voice-cast of the film is littered with recognizable names, from Ryan Reynolds, Luis Guzmán, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, to Snoop Dogg (foregoing "Lion" from his name). The best thing about the cast is just how multi-cultural it is. However, much of that goodwill is squandered by how one-dimensional the characters are. Each voice-actor portrays exactly the type of character you'd think they'd portray. The worst of which is Ken Jeong's Kim Ly, an Asian female stereotype that manages to sink Jeong's career to an all-time low, a challenge that I figured couldn't be accomplished.

Turbo also presents a fairly clear moral lesson and even appears to be telling an unique spin on the "no dream is too big" concept. For most of the film there is no direct enemy outside of nature's constraints on Turbo. It is an interesting lesson for children to be exposed to; the idea that sometimes you just might not have what it takes to succeed, no matter how hard you try. However, in a last minute twist, a formerly heroic character takes a dark and cynical turn that I think simplifies Turbo's morality and makes it a binary battle between good and evil, a dichotomy that's not representative of the real world.

Turbo struggles to be something unique, with a strange premise and some interesting black comedy (characters often randomly get picked off by crows), but eventually becomes an exercise in mediocrity. There are some hints throughout that something special could have happened here, particularly the visuals, but no real chances were taken to differentiate Turbo from its contemporaries, Monsters University and Despicable Me 2, all of which seem content to disappointingly retell the same familiar stories.

2 / 4 Reels

No comments:

Post a Comment