Wait, wait. That’s a little unfair. Yes, this triumph of speed over slime trails borrows some elements from that Vin Diesel action franchise. It’s got a drag race. Nitrous oxide pumps through its plot. Even Michelle Rodriguez, Diesel’s recently resurrected girlfriend from the “Fast” flicks, provides one of the voices.
But really, “Turbo” feels more like a hybrid of Pixar’s “Cars” and every family-friendly tale, from “The Tortoise and the Hare” to “Monsters University,” that champions the outsize dreams of underdog underachievers. None of which, by the way, detracts from its charms.
“Turbo” is a derivative but nevertheless good-hearted movie that’s peppered with enough clever touches to engage adults as well as moviegoers of the smaller, squirmier variety. And during a season when moms, dads and nannies often struggle to keep kids occupied, there’s something to be said for having an entertaining alternative to seeing “Despicable Me 2” for the fourth time.
The star of this show is Theo (voice of Ryan Reynolds), a snail with his shell in the dirt but his itty-bitty, gelatinous head in the clouds. Theo is obsessed with auto racing and determined — against all odds, logic and the persistent naysaying of his older brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti) — to compete in a legitimate speedway event. His wish steers closer to reality after he’s snatched from his garden home by a crow, dropped near Highway 101 and eventually knocked onto a sports car in mid-street-race, where he gets injected with enough nitro to make him worthy of a segment on “Top Gear.” Theo arrives at a strip mall in Van Nuys, Calif., where he competes in an underground snail-racing ring and convinces an equally idealistic taco shop employee (Michael Peña) that he possesses the jaw-dropping velocity needed to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
It’s easy to guess where the ride goes from here. Still, the impressive heard-but-not-seen actors in this cast — among them Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader as Guy Gagné, the narcissistic French driver who initially embraces the opportunity to compete against a tricked-out piece of escargot — infuse the narrative with enough comic energy to partially forgive its predictable trajectory. There’s something especially endearing in the way Giamatti brings whiffs of the apoplectically judgmental characters he’s played in movies like “Sideways” to his stocky little oozer.
“Turbo” also deserves credit for its inventive depiction of its snail-dominated world. Before their foray into racing, Theo and Chet work at The Plant, which is literally the plant: a web of backyard vines where their fellow slowpokes put in eight hours daily, foraging away on ripe tomatoes. And when Peña’s Tito adopts Theo, he sets him up in style: on a cushy napkin-holder bed with a taco sauce packet for a pillow and a tortilla for a blanket.
Moments like these brim with more imagination, frankly, than we’ve seen in some of the recent Pixar pictures. And that should be enough to make most moviegoers perfectly content to spend 98 minutes with the plucky little souped-up slug that thinks he can.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
(96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some mild action and thematic elements.