"Turbo" is the story of a snail named Theo who just wants to race in the Indy 500. Theo is an animated snail (both visually and emotionally), who is living a life of drudgery disposing of rotten tomatoes at his job at the tomato plant (both vegetable and factory). His routine life does not appeal to him, nor does his daily commute to the plant, where crows periodically pick off the traffic-bound snails. Death hovers over all snails, in the form of cawing shadows and the rustle of dark flapping wings. Conscious of his fragile mortality, Theo longs to do something. He oozes across a glowing television monitor at night, watching old videos of past Indy 500s. "No dream is too big; no dreamer too small," he tells himself. You have seen this movie before: the oxymoron that resolves its fatal discrepancy to achieve fame and satisfaction.
In "Turbo," the oxymoron — the accelerative snail — is resolved by magic. One night, after a bad day at work, when Theo's ambition to snag a prime tomato nearly gets him chewed up by a lawnmower, the young snail goes out for a nighttime ooze. He gazes upon traffic from a highway overpass, where he wishes upon a star that turns out to be an airplane. Tumbled into a whirlwind in the wake of the plane, Theo falls into a sort of arroyo, scene of a drag race. After bouncing around on fenders and hoods, he is blown into the bowels of a retrofitted dragster, falling through its churning pistons and receiving a deep infusion of nitrous oxide. Instead of producing a giggle fit, the nitrous oxide turns Theo's beating heart a luminous blue.
The first indication of his metamorphosis happens when he realizes he can turn his eyes into high beams, that he's armed with an alarm, and that he can transmit the full array of Clear Channel radio stations. (Note to parents: Theo shuddering through his radio stations was the only scene in this movie that made the children in the theater laugh.) Most importantly, instead of being confined to the slimy locomotory waves of the ordinary mollusk, Theo discovers he can rev and zoom, leaving only exhaust patterns of cold blue light.
At first unable to control his newfound power, Theo causes an accident at the tomato plant that gets both him and his brother fired. Cast out of the garden, the snails face destruction on the mean concrete swaths of Van Nuys, Calif. There they are rescued by a young man named Tito, a taco truck owner whose blood sport is racing snails. After realizing he has a winner on his hand, and to promote his failing strip mall taco business, Tito enters his snail, now renamed Turbo, in the Indy 500. The denouement: "Free tacos for everybody!"
A snail is a difficult creature to anthropomorphize. The challenge of determining the gender of a snail provided some weak jokes, and it never felt quite right to watch the snails embrace each other with their eye stalks. As for the animated humans, here there is no deviation from the standard Disney repertoire of the comically furrowed eyebrow, the quizzical look, the pursed lips, the exasperated sigh. Theo's main rival, a French-Canadian racecar driver named Guy Gagne, is like "Beauty and the Beast's" Gaston hybridized with Jean Girard of "Talladega Nights": same French accent, same alliterative Gs, Frieda Kahlo-villain-brows, and cleft chin. The typecast voice actors perform as expected: Ryan Reynolds as the chirpy irrepressible Turbo; Paul Giamatti as his neurotic older brother Chet; Samuel L. Jackson as a leader of a snail racing gang; Michael Peña as the affable Tito. If what one seeks from an animated children's film is a sequential presentation of rote formulas, then "Turbo" is satisfactory, but there's little in the way of fancy, or imagination. The most inspired creative choice, after the shadows of the circling crows, turns out to be the strip mall setting, with its nail salon and its hobby shop, the place where immigrant entrepreneurialism meets the Americana kitsch of an Ed Ruscha photograph. Here, at least, was something original.