It's been a crackerjack summer for the likes of ''Despicable Me 2'' and ''Monsters University;'' with ''Turbo'' coming around the bend, our critic reflects on the state of big-screen cartoons

By Chris Nashawaty
September 23, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Despite a handful of high-profile summer bombs like The Lone Ranger and After Earth, there’s one genre that’s remained bulletproof at the box office this season: animation. Should we infer from this boon that we’re in the midst of another golden age for ‘toons? Or simply that kids on furlough from school aren’t as discerning as their elders? I’m going with the latter.

In the past month, both Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 have raked in cash hand over fist. But I don’t think anyone would claim that either of those films rivals the dizzy creative heights of such Pixar classics as Toy Story and The Incredibles. During its unparalleled run, from the debut of Buzz and Woody in 1995 to the disappointing Cars 2 in 2011, Pixar single-handedly revolutionized animation. Suddenly, hand-drawn was out, digital was in. Throw into the mix the special je ne sais quoi that the studio sprinkled like fairy dust on all its films, and you had a guarantee of both artisanal quality and bang at the box office. Pixar’s success opened the door for secondary players like DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say. Now every animation house is duking it out on a level playing field; they all have the same shot at spinning their tyke-friendly tales into fat stacks of simoleons — even if Pixar still dominates the market by a wide margin.

DreamWorks’ Turbo (PG, 1 hr., 36 mins.) is merely the latest contender to jump into the Toon Town scrum. And while no one will mistake it for the studio’s high-water mark, 2001’s Shrek, the movie is a step up from its last flick, The Croods. It’s a perfectly enjoyable (if slightly by-the-numbers) warm-weather diversion made with the sort of spit-polished craftsmanship Pixar once had a monopoly on. Voiced with a peppy anonymity by Ryan Reynolds, Turbo is a slimy slowpoke garden snail who spends his days leisurely noshing on backyard tomatoes and his nights watching car-racing legend Guy Gagné (Bill Hader) zoom around the track on TV. Gagné tells his fans through a bouillabaisse-thick French accent, ”No dream is too big and no dreamer too small.” Against the grumpy advice of his jowly snail brother (an excellent Paul Giamatti), Turbo interprets Gagné’s words as a sign that he too could be a world-class speed demon.

Then, after a freak accident in which Turbo gets sucked into the engine of a Fast & Furious-style hot rod and inhales nitrous oxide, he transforms into a fuel-injected mollusk. He no longer slithers along at a millimeter-a-minute clip. He burns rubber, leaving a vapor trail of whizzing neon light in his wake. Soon a taco-truck driver (Michael Peña) discovers Turbo’s strange gift, adds him to his freak-show menagerie of delusional snails (nicely voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, and Maya Rudolph), and enters his wonder slug in the Indy 500. The climactic race scenes of this wholesome, heartwarming film have a zippy whiplash velocity thanks to the vertiginous 3-D. But it won’t make anyone believe for a second that the next chapter in animated films has been written.

Turbo: B

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 96 minutes
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