Review: Dreamworks Animation’s ‘Turbo’ offers up a sort of diet ‘Ratatouille’

It seems unfair to compare Dreamworks to Pixar or Illuminated Entertainment or Blue Sky. After all, they all produce family-oriented family entertainment, but that doesn’t mean they’re chasing the exact same goals… does it?

To be honest, I wish they worked harder to distinguish their product, because it can start to all blur together at times. Even when someone makes an amiable, charming little movie, when you start to see unavoidable echoes from one project to another, it’s a bit of a drag. “Turbo” arrives in theaters tomorrow, and while younger viewers are going to enjoy it, most likely, it started to feel very familiar to me to a disconcerting degree.

Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” was one of those cases where Pixar reached a breaking point on a film that wasn’t working, and they were willing to strip it down and start again, resulting in a film that carries a powerful emotional charge and a surprisingly smart, adult message. It was not originally Brad Bird’s film, but the idea of a rat who loved to cook was enough of a hook that they felt like they had something there to build off of.

It’s an incongruous image, and part of what makes it interesting is how revolting the thought is at first. We think of rats as disgusting animals, carriers of disease, and the mere presence of one in a kitchen is reason to close it, let alone actually having the rat prepare someone’s food. Somehow, though, that film gets you over that horrifying initial image and then digs deep into any number of ideas about how we work to please our parents and how we follow our ambitions and the role of a critic in society, and even with all these various ideas in the mix, it feels like a coherent, singular voice, a very clean story structure with a huge pay-off.

David Soren’s “Turbo” begins with an equally incongruous image, the idea of a snail who is obsessed with auto racing. The difference is that I’m not initially horrified by the idea. It seems ridiculous, sure, but there’s nothing to really overcome. Instead of telling a story of someone whose passion is so powerful that they blast through the natural barriers holding them back from a goal, “Turbo” features an accident early on where somehow being sucked into an engine and doused in nitro during a race gives Theo (Ryan Reynolds) magic powers that make him faster than a car. Unlike the difficult relationship that was built between Remy (Patton Oswalt) and Linguini (Lou Romano), the moment Tito (Michael Pena) sees Turbo run, he knows that this magic snail is the key to turning around the fortunes of the taco truck and restaurant he runs with his brother Angelo (Luis Guzman). The supporting cast in “Ratatouille” on both the human and the rat side of the equation was all working to create interesting, multi-faceted characters who often played against expectation. In “Turbo,” the moment you see a character for the first time, you’ve got a pretty good idea who they are and exactly how things will play out, and the film seems almost determined not to throw you any surprises along the way. And while “Ratatouile” features one of the greatest moments of redemption for a villain in recent cinema when food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) first tastes the ratatouille that Remy makes, asshole French race car driver Guy Gagne (Bill Hader) is pretty much exactly what he seems to be from start to finish.

Having said all of that, “Turbo” isn’t a bad film. It’s just a very easy film. It’s one of those movies where there’s never a moment of doubt that everyone will get what they want, exactly how they want it, and there’s no real obstacles in the way of the main character. He wants to race, he gets magic powers, he gets into the Indy 500, and then he races. It’s all very simple, and so what you’re left with is the personality of the thing, the sense of humor, and like I said up above, it’s perfectly amiable. It’s pleasant. It is occasionally very funny, but often just fine. The characters voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ken Jeong, Richard Jenkins, and Michelle Rodriguez never really move beyond broad stereotype, and there’s no indication that they’re supposed to. From music choices to style designs, everything about “Turbo” feels safe and familiar, and I have no doubt that’s the point.

Dreamworks Animation has definitely hit some high marks with recent films like the “Kung Fu Panda” series and the first “How To Train Your Dragon,” but by and large, they remain more blatantly kid-oriented than Pixar’s work, less willing to challenge the audience, more than happy to pander a bit if need be. I doubt anyone’s going to be offended by “Turbo,” but when you refuse to risk anything, it makes it hard to get excited by what you’re watching. While “Turbo” isn’t a chore for an adult, it comes close enough to make the differences between Dreamworks and Pixar more apparent than ever.

“Turbo” opens in theaters everywhere today.