When I was passing out assignments for this week's movie reviews, I noticed that none of my critics had raised a hand to bid for Turbo -- you know, the DreamWorks animated comedy about a sheltered suburban garden snail who dreams of racing in the Indy 500, and the scrappy squad of Van Nuys strip-mall snails who, with the help of an ethnically diverse array of down-on-their-luck shopkeepers, help him make that dream come true.
Wait, I think I've just figured out why I ended up with this assignment my own self.
So OK, this is not a film to be taken terribly seriously. I'm sorry, what? [Offstage crosschat, undecipherable.] People are worried? That the plot gimmick that, um, turbocharges our slimy hero — distraught when fellow snails mock his hopes of speed-racer stardom, he runs away from home only to get sucked into a street racer's engine, where the nitrous booster alters his body chemistry and oh, like it matters — people are worried that this might send a message to impressionable kids that juicing is how to get ahead in competitive sports?
[Muttering, best left untranscribed, because NPR, manners, etcetera.]
In any case, to return to our discussion of this innocuous animated comedy, which turns out NOT to be a prescription for living — well, the thing is, it also turns out to be kind of fun, if less than revolutionary and more than a little ridiculous. This, for instance, is a film in which Ken Jeong, a 44-year-old physician and comedian of South Korean extraction, plays the diminutive white-haired lady proprietor of a nail salon. Who is Vietnamese.
(Verisimilitude, now as ever not at a particular premium in your animated family comedies.)
Aaaanyway, rather than boring us all to tears with a straight-up review, I thought I'd just highlight a few things you might want to know about Turbo, whether you plan to see it in the near future, wait for it on video, or forget about it as soon as possible.
(N.B.: The good people of DreamWorks, who have staked a significant pile of cash and launched a massive marketing effort around this property, which will doubtless have a future life in various media, would prefer that you not forget about it, for whatever that's worth to you.)
For instance, I have previously noted in this space that there's an Auto-Tuned viral-video sequence that I fully expect my nephews to be torturing me with by next weekend. That bears repeating, because it is insanely catchy. It may in fact be the "Baby Monkey" of the Summer of 2013. I may or may not be humming it here at NPR headquarters as I type this.
Meanwhile, here are a handful of other actual things that are involved in Turbo or that occurred to me while I was watching it:
* Among the screenwriters is one Robert Siegel. Here at NPR Movies, it is incumbent upon us to mention that he's not our Robert Siegel. He is rather that other Robert Siegel — the one who wrote The Wrestler, an underdog story that is somewhat tonally dissimilar to Turbo. Also he is the writer-director of Big Fan, which starred Patton Oswalt and was sad.
(Full disclosure: I once sat, quite briefly, on a sofa, at a competitive chicken-eating contest hosted by NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, next to the Wrestler/Big Fan/Turbo Robert Siegel. The world is small, and our lives are strange.) I bring this up not to claim any proximity to fame, but to point out that at least one very smart person was involved in the shaping of the Turbo story, which may account for some of the moments that felt to me like genuine wit.
* Snoop Dogg voices a racing snail (of the un-boosted kind) named Smoove Move, so there's that. And the leader of the Van Nuys snails, a large, purplish-charcoal bruiser named Whiplash, is played by Samuel L. Jackson. Because apparently there is a law.
* The procedurally necessary on-the-road-to-Indianapolis sequence involves a Jackson Five music cue that must have made some music supervisor cackle with glee. Seriously, there were short preadolescent people bobbing their entire bodies for that little stretch in the screening I saw — and there's a lyric callout to Tito Jackson that the movie incorporates slyly (there's a character named Tito, you see) but without calling attention to it. Smoove indeed.
* Car alarms: still funny. (If they're built into a snail's butt.)
Oh, and as for message? Well, those strip-mall snails beat the newly speedy, newly cocky Turbo at his own game at one point, using ingenuity and pluck to outpace him to a finish line his "juicing" can't get him across. And at the film's climax? Well, I won't spoil things, but let's just say that good old-fashioned sportsmanship and determination aren't the smallest factors in what puts the Indy 500 winner in the victory circle.
Which is to say, don't worry if you're looking for something to do with the family this weekend. Turbo is harmless good fun — and impressionable kids could take worse lessons away from the multiplex.