“Turbo”: Routine Underdog Learns Lessons about Perseverance, Self-Promotion

Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Turbo, DreamWorks

Reynolds. Giamatti. Turbo.

Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Turbo the Best Indianapolis Tourism Ad of the Year!

That was my first impression, anyway. It’s rare that Hollywood sets a big-budget motion picture in my hometown. The last film to use us, Eagle Eye for a single action scene, couldn’t be bothered to research our geography on Google Maps and pretended that 72 West 56th Street is a crowded financial district like downtown Boston. Local pro tip for future filmmakers: 72 West 56th puts you in a highly tree-filled residential area between the wooded Butler University campus and the trendy bars of Broad Ripple.

Anyway: as a 96-minute commercial for the Indianapolis 500, I’m glad the filmmakers did the legwork, saw the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for themselves, and nailed the architecture within the confines of pared-down CG animation — e.g., the fences, the track itself, the pit crew area, the iconic scoreboard, the lightly forested areas outside the Speedway. In the single establishing shot of downtown Indy, seen from the south side via I-70, I was pleased they used our real skyline and existing buildings instead of drawing a generic skyscraper cluster. I even saw my own workplace!

In the local-color department I would only nitpick two items: the first day of qualifications should have many more spectators, and the areas outside the Speedway before the race shouldn’t look deserted. In the hours before the green flag is waved, the surrounding areas are teeming with over 100,000 spectators all impatiently waiting their turn to enter so they can claim their spaces and immediately get drunk. Personal space and upright postures are at a minimum.

About the basics of the movie itself: if you’ve seen one underdog-makes-good flick, you’ve seen Turbo. Ryan Reynolds is a snail named Theo who wishes he were fast, but his big brother Paul Giamatti (the film’s MVP) disapproves of everything he does, especially auto racing in general (“Left turn! Left turn! Left turn!”). After an accident involving street-racing nitrous oxide bestows Theo with the proportionate speed, strength, and gadgetry of a street-racing car, the sparring brothers find themselves exiled from garden-snail society and stumbling into the life of a Van Nuys food-truck driver (Michael Pena, silly but sincere) who takes them in and discovers Theo’s new talent, and who also has a disapproving brother (the Luiz Guzman), so we have parallel lives and sympathy and whatnot. Yadda yadda yadda, the snail lands a spot as one of the 33 racers in the Indy 500.

This is the plot point at which the movie-going public lost their minds and decided the cartoon about the talking snails was way too unrealistic for their kids to see. It kindasorta works if you forgive the movie up front as a cinematic fairy tale. And it’s not that easy for Theo, later rechristened Turbo, to complete the proper forms and qualify for a position on the field. As with any such story, all the officials are against him, the general public doesn’t know what to make of it, and Giamatti naturally throws a series of abrasive fits about the absurdity of it all. And then Turbo is in, because yay happy sports flick.

Everything else is cobbled together from pre-owned movie parts. There’s a rival driver we’d love to see lose (SNL’s Bill Hader with a French-ish sneer). There’s that moment at the starting line when Our Hero cowers in front of his professional competitors until he sucks it up and believes in himself. There are five other racing snails who serve very little purpose (including a self-parodying Samuel L. Jackson, SNL’s Maya Rudolph, Snoop Dogg/Lion/whatever, and Jean-Ralphio from Parks & Recreation) except to give the DreamWorks merchandising department more toy options. There are moments of self-doubt, unforeseen calamities, a dangerous accident that threatens to ruin everything, a temptation to surrender, and one well-timed Moment of Truth borne from the brightly lit corridor between the parallel morals of What’s Inside You Is What Counts and Family Is Important.

Compared to the surprising nuances of Pixar’s Cars, Turbo is, at best, a decent starter for kids who’ve never seen an inspirational sports film before. I did admire one unconventional lesson it taught, though. When Tito the taco-truck driver discovers Turbo’s super-powers, his first impulse is to paint a billboard above the failing family restaurant to proclaim “WORLD’S FASTEST SNAIL”. Then he sits back and waits for hungry diners to mob the place, hand over their money in exchange for super-snail watching, and magically save their decrepit strip mall.

Nothing happens. Nobody cares. Snail, shmail. The movie doesn’t end at the forty-minute mark with Dos Bros Tacos rolling in profits and opening franchises across California while Turbo signs autographs for thousands of fans. Tito and Turbo learn the hard way that sometimes having a wondrous talent alone isn’t enough in itself to captivate an audience or make a living. Somehow you have to let the people know you’re there and give them a reason to take notice. Sometimes you have to be bold about it. In fact, that’s where the Indy 500 idea comes from in the first place: if a snail wins the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, that is something people will remember.

If you’re a creative type who’s struggling to build an audience and fancying how lovely it would be if only more people noticed your innate awesomeness, it’s a challenging thought to consider. Unfortunately, the movie’s own lackluster performance at the U.S. box office this past weekend teaches the flipside of that moral: all the promotion in the world — excessive trailers, TV ads, media tie-ins, etc. — won’t captivate an audience if you don’t give them something wondrous to notice. Despite its little flourishes, Turbo doesn’t quite qualify.

To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Turbo end credits, but film-trivia fans might find it odd that the Turbo crew includes a “Visual Consultant” credit for Academy Award Winner Wally Pfister, the cinematographer for every Christopher Nolan film from Memento to the present. I’d love to know which parts benefited from his direct input. The auto racing in general? The nighttime neon-lit scenes? The shadowy lurking of the Whiiite Shadooow? I’m rather curious here.

The credits also confirmed for me that the guitar lick used for a two-second gag was indeed the opening riff from Ministry’s “N.W.O.” It’s nice to know I wasn’t imagining it.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: