Turbo is frustrating because while there’s nothing particularly heinous or awful about the film, neither is it distinguished enough to really inspire any passion from an analysis standpoint aside from “here is what works and what doesn’t.” To borrow a car metaphor, it feels bolted together from spare parts, and while this isn’t necessarily unusual for a DreamWorks Animation project, rarely does it feel so obvious and half-baked.
For the record, I count myself as a fan of DreamWorks. Sometimes their films are bad, yes, and their insistence on celebrity voices on even the most minor roles can be a bit annoying. But many of their films can stand with the best of Pixar, such as the original Shrek, both Kung Fu Panda outings and How To Train Your Dragon (I am hearing the sequel is just as good or even better). Additionally, their early 2D films are almost all fantastic, Antz remains a great CGI debut, the Madagascar films thoroughly commit to well-animated, voiced and staged silliness, and Megamind is a good superhero romp that has fun playing around with the tropes and cliches of the genre. But Turbo is along the lines of films like Over the Hedge, where the well-made nature of the film makes it amusing to watch but it sits there, mediocre, unlike the extreme, fascinating awfulness of films like Shark Tale or Bee Movie.
The first, major issue is with our snail protagonist, Theo/Turbo, voiced by Ryan Reynolds. He’s cut from the same cloth as follow-your-dreams protagonists like Po from Kung Fu Panda or, to use another company’s example, Remy from Ratatouille. The problem is that while his dream is interesting and could make for a good struggle (a snail who wants to race in the Indy 500), there’s not a whole lot to distinguish him personality-wise. He simply wants, dreams and then pursues that goal despite the occasional doubts. Part of the problem is vocal. With Po and Remy, Jack Black and Patton Oswalt are already interesting, funny performers with unique vocal patterns and speech quirks, and the characters were written to fit their line readings and personalities: Black’s sloppy, overflowing passions, Oswalt as a laser-focused nerd. Reynolds is a fine physical actor, but his voice is very normal, and while he is clearly making a real effort, he can’t overcome the fact that he’s not really interesting to listen to (this is also a problem with him in The Croods).
Another problem is that with both him and the other characters, we don’t really know *why* they want to race. There’s some lip service to the fact that Turbo finds life as a garden snail dreary and pointless, and that racing offers an escape, but he could be excited about literally anything. To contrast with Po again, his reasons for wanting to become a kung fu warrior are very specific: he is painfully aware of what he perceives to be physical inadequacies, and sticks with the hellish training because he desperately wants to be like his idols, the Furious Five. Turbo just…wants to go fast and race. That’s not nearly as interesting a motivation.
The supporting cast isn’t able to pick up the slack, unfortunately. It’s nice to see some diversity in the form of Tito, a Mexican taco seller who discovers Turbo, and his brother Angelo, both of whom are well-acted by Michael Pena and Luis Guzman. But the other snails are one-note stereotypes riding on the charisma of their voice actors like Samuel L. Jackson or Maya Rudolph. The only characters who manage to stand out are Chet, Turbo’s worrywart brother who comes around by the end, and Guy Gagne, a famous French-Canadian racer who ends up being Turbo’s rival. They mostly stand out because Paul Giamatti actually manages to make Chet’s change of heart work through his acting, and Bill Hader is clearly having fun chowing down on the scenery with a ridiculous accent.
As noted, the film is quite well-made. The character designs are nicely cartoony and exaggerated, the cinematography and staging of the racing scenes is fantastic, and Henry Jackman provides a well-used score. But the problem is that the story itself just does not work on the levels that the filmmakers clearly wanted it to. Turbo just ends up as another mediocre CGI animated feature, and considering that so many of those films come out, we really don’t need another one that’s just OK.