The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 29, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Turbo' feels more like tribute to Pixar

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — When I took my daughters to see "Turbo," I was more distracted by the voice talent cast than I probably would have been a decade prior.

Sure, there's Samuel L. Jackson, a man best known for his dedication to certain four-letter expletives, as well as Ken Jeong, who made such an impression during his initial, nude arrival in "The Hangover." But it was hearing gangsta rapper/pot icon Snoop Dogg voicing one of the central characters that really threw me. This is the man who once had a "Girls Gone Wild" video based around him.

Perhaps I'm being prude, but I'd prefer to take my daughters to movies not starring men who proudly live in a haze and have bartered cheap T-shirts to get women to expose themselves.

But maybe that's just me. I was warned about how kids changed your life when I was younger, back when I didn't think twice when I heard Tim Allen voicing Buzz Lightyear, despite the fact that I was aware of his drug trafficking conviction. Nor did it bother me to listen to Eddie Murphy's Donkey, knowing that it was just a couple of years after he was caught picking up a transsexual prostitute ("Shrek" did come before "Norbit," though. I don't think there's any forgiving that).

How you feel about "Turbo" will depend on how well you can buy into its plot. Ryan Reynolds plays the titular character, a tired, young snail that has a fascination with Indy Car racing. Even though his brother rightly points out that there is nothing compelling about watching what amounts to a series of left turns, Turbo is not dissuaded.

One day he finds himself on the hood of a car in the middle of a street race. When the car hits full speed, Turbo is sucked into the engine, where he dies a horribly painful death by incineration.

No, I kid. What instead happens is that Turbo is flooded by nitrous, which gets into his system and turns him into a supercharged racing machine. It also gives him an alarm system, brake lights, a radio and a thumping speaker setup.

Turbo is found by a taco salesman, who also participates in one of those underground snail racing rings that you hear so much about these days. When he sees Turbo race, he realizes that this snail could generate enough publicity to save his brother's struggling taco restaurant, so he makes a hand-painted billboard touting the world's fastest snail.

When this does nothing to generate any extra interest, he decides to take the snail to race in the Indianapolis 500, conning the owners of all of the other borderline bankrupt businesses in the failing shopping center that they share to pony up the entrance fee.

He enters Turbo in the race, but when the snail struggles, it looks as though all of their dreams may be dashed and that the businesses will all go belly up, even though a worldwide audience just saw a snail keeping pace with cars that drive upward of 230 miles, and I would think that would be good for some endorsements or publicity or something.

If you're asking yourself "Did he win?," then this movie is for you. If you, like most other rational human beings aside from the grown man three rows behind us that kept shouting "Go, Turbo! Go Turbo!" (much to the annoyance of my daughter), are saying "I can buy talking toys and dogs flying airplanes, but this just sounds ludicrous," you might want to consider going to see "Despicable Me 2" again.

Not that there isn't a lot of good in the film. In fact, there is quite a bit of good. The only problem is that you've seen all of the good parts in many, many better movies. This may as well have been called "A Pixar Tribute," as liberally as they borrowed from the granddaddy of computer animation.

There's the sadistic boy on the big wheel intent on crushing all bugs (Sid from "Toy Story); the daily motions that the snails must go through to gather their food, and the lone dissenter with bigger dreams ("A Bug's Life); the important race to save a dying business ("Cars"); a group of idiosyncratic hangers on that the snail encounters ("Finding Nemo"). It would almost feel like an homage, if it didn't feel so much like theft.

"Turbo" has its moments. The animation is beautiful, the voice acting solid as always. But where DreamWorks Animation had been able to distinguish itself from its older, more successful competitor by being unique with such fare as "Shrek," "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon," "Turbo" just feels like it is eternally caught in the Pixar shadow.

There is fun to be had in "Turbo." The problem is that there is more fun to be had with all of the films that supplied the inspiration for "Turbo."

If you're looking to spend a couple of hours in an air-conditioned auditorium, and for some reason "Monsters University" is sold out, or the projector goes down on "Despicable Me 2," this is a better option for the kids than "The Conjuring." But if you don't mind saving money and spending time at home, dig out your DVDs and go directly to the source.