Take a look at the animated features that have hit multiplexes recently, and you start to wonder if 2013 is going to be remembered as the Year of the Snail. A goofball snail-and-slug duo was one of the few distinctive elements of the forest fantasy “Epic.” That tardy specimen from “Monsters University” is probably still huffing and puffing to make it to class. And now comes DreamWorks’ 3-D confection “Turbo,” featuring Ryan Reynolds as a garden-trolling slowpoke who dreams of Indianapolis 500 glory. Of course, that’s an order only slightly taller than trying to put a fresh spin on animated racing and micro-scale action after “Cars” and a host of adventure-in-the-grass ’toons. See “Epic” (again), “A Bug’s Life,” etc.
“Turbo” makes an entertaining go of it by borrowing very liberally from the “Fast & Furious” franchise — Michelle Rodriguez even voices a character — and sticking a slime trail onto “Rocky” for the rest. The movie gets to this quickly, not really lingering over an imaginatively rendered opening that depicts life for Theo (Reynolds), his risk-averse brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), and the other snails working at “the Plant” (an LA suburbanite’s tomato vine, naturally).
Forlorn Theo goes wandering near the freeway, winds up accidentally getting sucked into a street machine’s engine and taking a nitrous-oxide bath, and behold, motion-blurry Turbo is born. (What the movie can lack in top-drawer Reynolds wisecracking, it makes up for by getting his mischievous eyes right. Or eye stalks, anyway.) Turbo and thoroughly appalled Chet promptly wind up in the friendly hands of a Mexican-takeout vendor (Michael Peña, “End of Watch”), a backroom snail-racing enthusiast who’s just the guy to help make that Indy impossibility a reality.
The energizing track action is a 3-D highlight, if decidedly boy-centric, filled with Turbo’s neon-streaked maneuvers and point-of-view shots of disintegrating tires creating a dicey, snail-size hazard. Bill Hader’s racing champ, Guy Gagne, is a prima-donna antagonist in the mold of Sacha Baron Cohen in “Talladega Nights,” right down to the amusingly snooty French accent. Another big part of the film’s appeal is how casually director David Soren and his co-writers (including Robert Siegel, former editor of The Onion) present their culturally blended LA backdrop, in another “Fast & Furious” touch.
While Disney seems to actively court entertainment headlines every time it gives us a new princess of color, here there’s no fuss, just a fully realized cartoon world that happens to be made up of the places and diverse faces found around an urban strip mall. The taco joint’s owners (Peña and Luis Guzmán) and their neighbors make a bigger impression, go figure, than the crew of car-culture mollusks hyped by the film’s advertising (Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph, Snoop Dogg, et al.). You’ll come for the snails, all right, but you’ll stay for what the gang over at Dos Bros Tacos is cooking.