‘Turbo’s’ Troubling Take on Race

It seems innocuous enough — the story of a little snail who dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500 — and the execution has all the bedazzling bright lights of a post-Pixar production. Indeed, Turbo has a lot going for it, especially when you consider that it follows in the footsteps of lesser family films like Ice Age (and its various sequels), Madagascar (same on the series) and any other ancillary CG knock off you can name. But there is a bigger problem brewing with this soon to be sensation (it’s an animated movie in the middle of Summer – it would have to suck slug warts not to make a bunch of money), a problem parents might not recognize initially, but should make them approach this latest electronic babysitter with a giant sized salt shaker and a few lessons on intolerance.

You see, Turbo is borderline racist. No, it doesn’t actually come out and call any of its minority characters by recognized hate crime names, but it sure does use stereotypes as a shortcut to any real character development. As with most children’s films, the minds behind the scenes assume that the underage set and their un-attentive parents really don’t care about the content of what they are watching – and judging from the list of trivial junk mentioned above, they are probably right – so any real attempt at personality or psychological complexity has to be pared down to the bare bones. Good guys are really good. Bad guys are evil incarnate. There’s no gray area, no middle ground where a potentially wicked figure actual finds their inner heart of gold (unless, of course, that’s the point).

No, a family film has been formulated to meet certain expectations. Simple story. Even simpler message. Fun characters to cheer for/hiss at. Plenty of eye candy, and on occasion, a few rudimentary treks into more complicated narrative territory to test the waters. Turbo easily manages the first four factors here, and even adds a bit of the fifth (our heroes are under constant threat from predators outside their insular little world). In the film we meet a snail named Theo who, as stated before, longs to win the Indy 500. Voiced by Ryan Reynolds (no problems here), he is constantly clashing with his no nonsense brother (Paul Giamatti, again no issue) who wants him to stop dreaming and live his shallow slug’s life. One night, a run-in with a street racer sees Theo’s DNA merge with some nitrous oxide. Next thing you know, our hero is fast. REALLY fast.

So far, so good. Theo, now nicknamed Turbo, has gotten his wish. He can race around like a maniac and never get caught. While his fellow garden snails are a bit baffled by the transformation (and so are some in the audience – talk about a leap of suspension of disbelief faith), a young taco truck owner – uh oh – named Tito doesn’t blink an eye. Instead, he brings Turbo to his brother Angelo’s Mexican restaurant in a failing LA strip mall to race against a bunch of street smart mollusks – double uh oh. Now Tito is the kind of character with a good heart and a lot of dreams. He believes Turbo can win the Indy 500 and do whatever it takes, Babe the sheep pig style, to see our tiny trailblazer gets into the big race.

And herein lies the social landmine. Tito are his brother Angelo are sketched out in very limited Latino terms. Both are overweight, jovial, and constantly talking about tacos. It’s as if they have no other frame of reference than food and menial labor. Now, this is not really meant as a mean spirited slap at all Mexicans, but what is clear about Turbo the movie is that it’s not going to venture beyond the almost Speedy Gonzales like quality of the characterization. There’s no backstory to explain their situation, no reason why we don’t see them in non-food service rolls. Instead, even at the Indy 500, Tito is pushing product while his brother is back home doing the same. It’s more Taco Bell than the truth.

Two other occupants of the strip mall are equally concerning. Ken Jeong, the over the top Asian male comedian from such films as The Hangover, plays Ms. Kim-Ly (yes, a woman) who brings all the bad qualities of an ethnic stereotype to life. She’s mean and rude, speaking in horribly broken English. Jeong doesn’t go so far as to mock the “L” and “R” usage that stand-ups have been spouting for dated decades, but it’s about the broadest interpretation of a type — that is, until you look at the racing snails who initially mock before eventually befriending Turbo.

All but a couple are given sassy African America rap demeanors. Samuel L. Jackson is Whiplash, the in your face leader of the diminutive racers, offering slang soundbites and jokey jive. Snoop Dogg (isn’t is Snoop Lion now?) is his polar, pot-suggesting opposite, Smoove Move. Still, he’s all snizzles and shizzles. Maya Rudolph is Burn, the gastropod version of Jackee Harry, each line delivery accented by an imaginary hand on the hip and roll of the eyes. Along with the one note White Shadow (that’s about all this character has to say) and a goofball called Skidmark, you’ve got a giddy Greek chorus that sounds like it’s auditioning for The Cleveland Show. There is nothing wrong with working stereotypes for satire. After all, we can learn something from taking about archetypes and determining the truth.

But Turbo is a kid’s film, a movie aimed at entertaining — and in many cases, inadvertently educating — its demographic… and what are they learning? That all heavily accented Mexican Americans love tacos? That all Asians run nail salons and mock their costumers before screaming at random people in the street? That African American characters use the language in a lax, lamentable hip-hop fashion? Granted, one should actually praise Turbo for not making everyone in the cast as laughably lily white as other examples of the genre. But doesn’t the minority audience you intend to serve by making them the main participants in the story deserve better than being shown in such a sketchy, specious light?

Who knows? Maybe this is reading too much into a movie aimed at the still developing brains of the under-10 set? On the other hand, Oscar Hammerstein III offered one of the most thoughtful pronouncements on the subject of racism ever. In South Pacific, he wrote that prejudice is something that has to be “carefully taught.” It’s not inherent. It’s learned. And what, exactly, our kids going to take away from Turbo? Outside of a love for snails, who knows… and that’s troubling.