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Non-Review Review: Turbo

Turbo is the best animated movie of 2013, well worth coming out of your shell to see. It’s probably the best Dreamworks film since Kung-Fu Panda and the best CGI animated feature since Toy Story 3. Indeed, Turbo manages to evoke a lot of the charming early Pixar films, in particular channelling Ratatouille, as we follow the adventures of one common unloved animal who decides that “good enough” is not quite good enough.

Stop the clock...

Stop the clock…

Of course, Turbo isn’t the most tightly plotted of adventures. Even for a movie about a snail seeking to race in the Indy 500, there are logical plot holes. After all, once Turbo has qualified, it’s hard to imagine that he hasn’t overcome all of his obstacles. His human partner, Tito, might have had to invest all his money (and all the money of his friends) to get Turbo into the race, but it’s hard to believe that Tito can’t earn back $20,000 by having a turbo-boosted snail that can keep pace with F1 racing cars.

Then again, this is a movie about how a snail who gets juiced with Nitro can race at hundreds of kilometres per hours, so we’ll forgive fairly sizeable plot holes and logic issues. Turbo isn’t the most creatively plotted or tightly constructed animated film ever produced, but it has a talented cast, superb animation and it knows what it’s doing. Turbo’s character arc is instantly recognisable to anybody familiar with cinema, let alone family cinema. He’s the guy who really wants to do something that he’s not cut out for – that he was never designed to do.

He's really come out of his shell...

He’s really come out of his shell…

Much like pandas haven’t evolved to do kung-fu, and rats have not developed to cook five-star meals, snails haven’t evolved to be mean racing machines. It’s a set-up that even the youngest members of the audience will immediately recognise, but what helps Turbo stand apart is the combination of a wonderful ensemble and a wry wit. Turbo never feels like it’s indulging in coy sentimentality or overt manipulation, always undercutting the big moments with comic relief.

The sweetest scenes in the film succeed because they play off familiar beats in slightly quirky ways. As Tito provides a home for Turbo in the back of his Taco van, he provides a nice warm bed for the racing snail, putting him down on a napkin dispenser. “I heated your blanket for you,” he generously assures the little snail-who-can, before providing him with a piece of tortilla bread to keep him warm. It’s ridiculously absurd, but also strangely affecting because of that quirky absurdity.

Snail's pace...

Snail’s pace…

Similarly, the decision to mirror the conflict between Turbo and his brother with the conflict between Tito and his own brother might seem clumsy or forced, but the script has a great deal of fun intercutting the arguments and even having the arguments seem to reference each other – making it clear that this is really just one fight with four participants. (“What he said,” Turbo’s brother repeats at one point as the conversation cuts back to him.) There’s a cheeky self-awareness to all this which prevents Turbo from ever feeling like it is over-burdened or too weighty.

The animation helps a great deal. Turbo seems like an entire movie built around the fact that the slugs and snails were the best part of Epic, with their eye stalks allowing for some stunning sight gags and visual expressiveness. The world of Turbo is lush and hyper saturated, but the real beauty of the animation isn’t in the pimped-up shells or the high-speed chases; the real beauty is in the expressiveness of two eyes dangling on the end of long stalks.

City of blinding light...

City of blinding light…

The cast is pretty stellar as well. Casting Ryan Reynolds as Turbo adds a strange resonance to the role. Reynolds is, after all, an actor with charm and charisma who has yet to really find a major project to anchor his career. With films like Green Lantern and R.I.P.D. behind him, it seems like his pursuit of a career as a leading man is just as tough as Turbo’s struggle to have others recognise his desire to race and to speed. Reynolds gives Turbo a sense of charm, but also lends him a strange vulnerability. Reynolds knows what it’s like to strive for that fresh tomato only to end up with “overripe” ones.

However, the real stellar performance here comes from Michael Peña as Tito. Peña is one of the great supporting actors working today, and one vastly underrated. Here, he manages to flesh out a fairly shallow comedic supporting character and turn Tito from a potentially annoying and distracting human supporting character into a character who is as sympathetic and as endearing as Turbo. Peña’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he does wonderful work here, making Tito the sfilm;s co-star, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear until almost the half-way mark.

Life is the thirty-two centimetres in front of your face...

Life is the thirty-two centimetres in front of your face…

The rest of the cast is similarly well-chosen. While the cleverly named Guy Gangné is a character who could easily have done without the completely predictable “… and he’s also evil!” twist, Bill Hader oozes the right sort of manipulative arrogance in the role. Paul Giamatti seems tailor-made for the supporting role of a safety-conscious over-anxious snail supporting character. Even Kurtwood Smith is perfectly used for the three or four lines he is asked to deliver.

Turbo isn’t a movie that strives for too much complexity. Indeed, it works so well because it goes through familiar motions with a witty and disarming grace. There’s nothing here quite as emotional or affective as the best sequences from the best Pixar films – but there haven’t been any of those in actual Pixar films for years. Instead, the emotional stuff that registers here works because the movie doesn’t push it. Instead, it – if you’ll pardon the use of the incorrect garden animal – worms its way into your heart with a cheeky charm.

It’s ridiculous, it’s familiar, it lacks complexity, but it’s also funny and clever and brilliant to boot. Rush out to see it.


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