Turbo on the Hero’s Journey

SPOILER WARNING: This gives most of the plot of the Disney* movie “Turbo”.

We went to the movies yesterday. Our local cheap theatre was playing Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and because the theatre is great like that, you get to stay for as many matinées as you like on your admission of $5. So we went early, and watched Turbo. And in the midst of all that movie extravaganza I got to thinking about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Now, it’s to be expected that a movie like Percy Jackson is all about the Hero’s Journey. Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here – I’m not giving anything away when I say the story is about a bunch of demigod heroes going on a quest. So, the movie is rather questy. D’uh.

But Turbo? We’re talking about a story of a garden snail obsessed with speed (well, yes. That’s the key point of the whole story.). Typical Disney cartoon, as predictable as you can get. And I was kind of rolling my eyes at it a bit, when suddenly it dawned on me: this is the classic Hero’s Journey, the monomyth. Campbell all the way:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow a boon on his fellow man.

How does this apply to a flashy Disney cartoon about a speedy snail? Well, the hero (Theo, who likes to call himself Turbo) ventures forth from his common-day world of the garden (where he works as over-ripe-tomato processor) into a region of supernatural wonder, a drag racing strip. He gets sucked into the engine of a souped-up car, and is endowed with fabulous powers – all of a sudden this snail is a race car, complete with vroom-vroom noises. He temporarily returns home, but is evicted again (enters the Belly of the Whale, in Campbell’s terms), and begins his adventure in earnest. He is picked up by a taco salesman named Tito (the threshold guardian/supernatural guide) and put into a snail race, where his magical powers soon become apparent. Tito, with the help of some friends, decides to enter Turbo in the Indy 500, where the snail has to compete against his long-time idol, the race car driver Guy Gagné (whose supposedly French-Canadian accent is less than convincing. Couldn’t they have found a Québécois actor to voice the character?). Gagné becomes Turbo’s antagonist, and in their great, giant, titanic struggle for the Indy win Turbo nearly dies, losing his magic powers in the process (apotheosis). But with the encouragement of his friends, Turbo makes one last giant effort, crawls across the finish line, and wins the race by a finger’s length (the decisive victory, the ultimate boon, fulfilment of the quest). He then returns from his fantastic adventure with the ability to bestow a boon on his fellow men and snails: Tito’s taco stand and the shops of his friends who have helped them in this quest experience a tremendous boost to their business because of Turbo’s fame, and the snails in the garden are forever safe from danger (the vicious little boy on his tricycle who used to crush them under his wheels is now scared of snails, and Turbo’s racing snail friends and his brother have taught the nasty crows a lesson, too).

Once I saw all those patterns, I could stop mentally sneering at the predictability of the story, and actually quite enjoyed it. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is everywhere – and not just in Hero Stories like Percy Jackson, either. Garden snails with a speed obsession count, too.

*Sam Afriyie pointed out in the comments that Turbo is a Dreamworks movie, not Disney. My bad – sorry about that! I’m not going to change the text of this post now, four years after the fact, but just be aware that any reference to Disney here is a mistake.

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