There are underdogs. And there are underdogs. Then there is "Turbo," a garden snail who dreams of winning the Indy 500.
Honestly, they pretty much had me at "racing snails."
The idea for animation's latest 3-D event movie sounded absurd enough to provide fertile visual terrain: the vroom, vroom grit of Indy racing action, the Garden of Eden lushness of tomato vine crawling. There is the general shape of all things snail as well: the shell, the slime, those antennae eyes. And who knew about the goofy grins?
That's before we even get to Turbo's impossible dreams, ones that can be so easily crushed. Squish.
A hesitant, hand-wringing older brother named Chet ensures there's plenty of sibling conflict to chew on. And a series of strong emotional crosscurrents tied to the notion of winning and losing are in the hands of a very eclectic and capable cast — the ever-charming Ryan Reynolds charismatic as Turbo and often-irritating Paul Giamatti fretting as Chet to start.
But really "racing snails" is one of those two-word combos that suggests cleverly subversive minds behind the wheel.
The idea was initially David Soren's, who directs and co-writes with Darren Lemke ("Shrek Forever After") and Robert D. Siegel (a former editor in chief of the Onion). Soren has spent a few years in the animation trenches — head of story on "Shark Tale," directing "Madagascar's" TV holiday special. Making his feature directing debut only 10 years after he first had the idea means Soren is on a pretty fast track at least in the animated world, which has so many pace parallels to Turbo's.
The story itself grew out of Soren's own snail problem and a son's love of fast cars. Still, the movie's themes of dreams and brothers are pretty basic ones. A few well-observed cultural riffs a la "Shrek" and a smattering of Onion-styled satire help to juice up the old tropes.
The film begins with a sense of Turbo's obsession. His own speed trials are a hoot. But it's the eyes glued to the TV as French Canadian racing champ Guy Gagne (Bill Hader) wins another Indy that suggests how multi-layered things are going to get.
The grown-ups can thank some of the spot-on voice casting for a good deal of "Turbo's" adult amusement. Has there ever been a nasal so born to nag as Giamatti's? Meanwhile, Hader drips arrogance. And we haven't even gotten to the streetwise snails. Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), Smoove Move (Snoop Dogg), Burn (Maya Rudolph), Skidmark (Ben Schwartz) and White Shadow (Michael Patrick Bell) bring considerable swagger.
The garden, where all things begin, might look like paradise — the animation certainly brings out the leafy beauty of the well-watered L.A. life. But there are hazards aplenty: Gardener Day, the maniac moppet on a trike and the dreaded crows.
But soon Turbo leaves the garden behind and the adventure really begins. A drag race that Turbo gets unexpectedly sucked into — literally — and an accidental nitrous oxide infusion changes the young snail's fundamental chemistry (so parents need not fear Lance Armstrong or juiced athlete overtones). Suddenly all the speed Turbo wanted is at his command, but power comes with a price and that becomes one of the movie's many arcs.
It will also take Turbo into other worlds. Primarily Van Nuys. Which is funny enough if you know Los Angeles. Regardless, the squabbling sibs of Dos Bros Tacos — Tito (Michael Peña) and Angelo (Luis Guzmán) — take care of any worries that a snail's journey might not be enough.
One of the movie's more amusing conceits is its complete integration of the snail and human communities. Mollusks and people seem to understand each other — it just happens. And except for a minor dust-up over rules, why or how a snail can compete alongside Indy drivers is never an issue. It is, however, a lot of fun.
The journey to the Indy 500 is not without is major bumps. It helps that Tito and Turbo's big dreams happen to coincide. Tito's been convinced that snail racing can save the Starlight Plaza, where the brothers' taco stand languishes.
The strip mall makes for a nice little bit of nostalgia that, like everything else, the animation details beautifully. It has a hobby shop run by Bobby (Richard Jenkins), an auto repair shop headed by Paz ("Fast & Furious'" Michelle Rodriguez) and one of those ubiquitous nail salons with an acerbic owner named Kim-Ly (Ken Jeong, claiming he's channeling his mother-in-law). But the snails are the main attraction. Between their tricked-out shells — and their attitude — they should draw crowds. But they haven't, yet.
The film takes a little longer than it should to get everybody to Indianapolis, but that's a minor quibble. Because once we get there, the Indy 500 is wonderfully wild. There are so many ways to crash and smash the cars as they roar around the track. And for a snail, even a super-charged one — you cannot imagine the perils, the pitfalls, the pit crews …
Thankfully there is plenty of animation wizardry to take care of that for you.
MPAA rating: PG for some mild action and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun