The time-worn storyline tells yet another underdog tale for children about impossible dreams that get achieved through fierce determination. The film’s novelty though may present a box-office stumbling block. The movie is about a snail — a snail that dreams of winning the Indy 500.
Well, Pixar’s “Ratatouille” proved you could have a cartoon rat dreaming of becoming a legendary chef in a French gourmet kitchen. (I did have one friend who never could get past the fact it was a rat in the kitchen — but only one.)
Of course, rats and mice have been the subjects of cartooning glee dating back to Mickey Mouse. But snails? I don’t know. DreamWorks animators draw these creatures with bulging eyes on their antennae, big mouths, rubbery one-tone bodies and sometimes dazzling art work for their shells.
It still will be a tough sell. A cartoon rodent can achieve all sorts of poses and purposes. A cartoon snail may just not be charismatic enough to carry a movie.
Ryan Reynolds plays Turbo, an outcast snail bored with chewing up tomato plants and obsessed with speed. Despite moving at a, ahem, snail’s pace, he pins his hopes on somehow overcoming Mother Nature.
Paul Giamatti plays his long-suffering and safety-conscious big brother Chet. Another pair of brothers, these of the human variety, are played by veteran actors Michael Peña and Luis Guzmán. They run a taco stand in a rundown Van Nuys, California strip mall only Tito’s (Peña) real obsession is, yes, snail racing, leaving big brother Angelo (Guzmán) to run the stand.
Then for a team of racing snails corralled and trained by Tito such voice actors as Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz and former storyboard artist Michael Patrick Bell bring plenty of color to these dippy characters.
During an unplanned foray into Los Angeles’ nightly carmageddon, Turbo gets tangled up in a “Fast and Furious” illegal race in the empty L.A. River bed. He winds up engulfed in nitrous oxide that alters the snail’s molecular structure sufficiently to render him a high-octane racing machine.
So when Tito captures Turbo and Chet and discovers his super abilities, he hits upon Turbo’s racing as a means to promote his brother’s meager taco business. (“See the world’s fastest snail!”) And this in turn leads, although not with any logic even by cartoon standards, to the Indy 500 brainstorm.
Bill Hader’s amusing pseudo-French accent makes for a nominal villain as a French-Canadian racing champion who takes up Turbo’s challenge and grandly brings him into the Indy race only so he can crush this “underdog.”
But Soren can’t do much with this villain or with the race itself for that matter since its outcome is a foregone conclusion and the villainy thrown in without much enthusiasm or conviction.
There’s no question, however, about the delightful CG animation as this film reps a highlight for DreamWorks. It’s a constant visual treat. And I can’t think of another animated feature set so definitely — and accurately — in Los Angeles, home to many of the animators themselves.
They get the sprawling city right from the congested nighttime freeways and vast carpet of city lights to the tawdriness of the rundown mall with its taco stand and forlorn beauty, car repair and hobby stores.
The suburbs too get a deft treatment from the once-a-week pull-up and drive-away gardeners to the bratty kid on his tricycle and the newspaper thrown exactly where the most damage may come to it.
What the animators labor over though is the Indy 500 finale. Try as they might, a tiny snail can’t be accommodated in the same frame with huge racing cars. Perspective keeps shifting from Turbo’s micro point of view to the cars and long shots from the stand.
But logic has flown too far out the window even for a cartoon. Longer shots see only a streak of light zipping among the cars so a viewer can somehow track Turbo’s progress.
Since abandoning European fairy tales many years ago, American animators have imagined all sorts of worlds from the viewpoints of bugs (“A Bug’s Life”), bees (“Bee Movie”), toys (all the “Toy Story” movies), imaginary characters (“The Incredibles,” “Monsters Inc.”), cars (the “Cars” series), video-game characters (“Wreck-It Ralph”) and a waste-collecting robot (“WALL-E”).
So snails fit right in. Only they don’t. Not as protagonists anyway.
Not every critter can get turned into a cartoon character. Snails as secondary characters or part of a menagerie of critters would no doubt have been fine. But as the chief protagonists in a movie, they fall short.
And small. Very, very small.
Opens: July 19, 2013 (Paramount Pictures)
Production company: DreamWorks Animation SKG
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzmán, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: David Soren
Screenwriters: David Soren, Darren Lemke, Robert Siegel
Story by: David Soren
Producer: Lisa Stewart
Art director: Richard Daskas
Visual consultant: Wally Pfister
Production designer: Michael Isaak
Music: Henry Jackman
Head of story: Ennio Torresan, Jr.
Head of character animation: David Burgess
Editor: James Ryan
PG rating, 94 minutes