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Tortured premise, but a worthwhile message

Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
This film publicity image released by DreamWorks Animation shows (from left) Smoove Move voiced by Snoop Dogg, Burn voiced by Maya Rudolph, Turbo voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Skidmark voiced by Ben Schwartz, and Whiplash voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, in a scene from the animated movie “Turbo.”

When it comes to animated movies, all the good ideas, and even the not-so-good ones, seem to have been taken. The rat who becomes a chef, the supervillain who turns good, the zoo animals stuck in the wild – they’ve been done.

How about a snail who enters the Indianapolis 500? Because snails are slow and race cars are fast, get it? All right, so you’re not bowled over. Nevertheless, “Turbo” has just enough heart to make it to the winner’s circle.

Like its hero, “Turbo” gets off to an achingly slow start. The film takes too long establishing its parallel world, in which snails are beaten-down workers at a tomato garden called The Plant. Theo (the voice of Ryan Reynolds) is the misfit with a need for speed; his older brother, Chet (an excellent Paul Giamatti), tries to impart wisdom. “The sooner you accept the dull, miserable reality of your existence,” Chet says, “the happier you’ll be.”

In a mishap that borrows a page from “Spider-Man,” Theo is transformed into Turbo, with headlight eyes and the ability to push the 200 mph mark. But the story still hasn’t begun: First, we must meet the daydreaming Tito (Michael Peña), who works at Dos Bros Tacos with his pessimistic older brother, Angelo (Luis Guzman). A snail-racing hobbyist, Tito makes quite a discovery in Turbo.

Things get even more cluttered by several other racing snails (Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Lion, Maya Rudolph and others) who look and talk like the “Fast & Furious” cast. Underneath all the chatter, though, “Turbo” delivers a message worth hearing. “No dream is too big and no dreamer too small,” says the French Canadian racing champ Guy Gagné (Bill Hader). As you might guess, Gagné turns out to be an espresso-sucking jerk, but his words still ring true.

“Turbo” deserves credit for its multiracial characters (it’s set in ethnically diverse Van Nuys, Calif.), for occasionally sharp direction by David Soren and for casting Ken Jeong as the voice of Kim-Ly, a cranky woman. The climactic race sequence can be a little queasy-making, given the squishy possibilities, but it’s also a fairly rousing closer to the film. It’s hard not to root this little gastropod over the finish line.

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