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‘Turbo’ is a racing snail from the streets of the San Fernando Valley

"Turbo" director David Soren among his backyard tomato plants in Sherman Oaks.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The San Fernando Valley has provided the setting for countless memorable film scenes. The tree-lined street where E.T. rides a bike into the sky is in Granada Hills, the high school where the stoners disrupt class in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is in Van Nuys and the nightclub where Dirk Diggler is discovered in “Boogie Nights” is in Reseda.

Now the Valley — with its flat vistas, low-slung ranch homes and even its cluttered strip malls — is getting animated in “Turbo,” a movie about a garden snail who dreams of racing in the Indy 500, which opens Wednesday.

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Directed by David Soren, “Turbo” begins in a tomato plant in a Valley backyard where the title snail, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, makes his home, along with his more cautious brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti). Turbo’s quest for speed takes him onto a 101 Freeway overpass, where an accident imbues him with unnatural abilities and ultimately lands him at the strip mall home of the struggling Dos Bros Taco Stand.

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Soren, 40, who is directing his first feature, originally pitched “Turbo” as “‘Fast and Furious’ with snails” at DreamWorks Animation 10 years ago. But it wasn’t until years later, when some snails took over the tomato plants in his Sherman Oaks yard, that he started to work on the story.

Soren set the film in the Valley for both narrative and visual reasons — the region’s rich car culture and its distinctive look. He drew inspiration from sites like Henry’s Tacos, the midcentury North Hollywood taco stand that moved earlier this year to the consternation of its many fans, and a dumpy strip mall he’d pass in Encino while driving his daughter to preschool.

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Turbo’s home yard is authentically Valley-specific, down to the type of garbage cans in the driveway and the style of the house number painted on the curb.

“When you have a snail that can go 200 miles an hour at the center of your story, it helps to have everything else grounded in reality,” Soren said, in an interview at a picnic table in his backyard, nestled in the hills above Ventura Boulevard, last month.

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“Usually in an animated movie it’s a completely fantastical world. The rare opportunity we had with this movie is, we all live in L.A. We could get out of our offices and go look around.”

Soren grew up in Toronto, and has an affection for functional urban objects and scenes. One hallway in his home is lined with painted skateboards, and “Mr. Lucky,” his student film at Ontario’s Sheridan College, was set on a city stoop near a pawn shop.

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“I’ve always been obsessed with everyday stuff, the day-to-day visual pollution out there,” he said. “The flatness of the Valley, the hills in the background, the smog — I immediately spot the beauty in that. And the taco trucks and taco stands, they’re so iconic and charming and cool.”

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It was on the strength of “Mr. Lucky” that DreamWorks recruited Soren in 1997; there, he went on to serve as head of story on “Shark Tale” and direct a “Madagascar” TV special.

When he co-wrote the “Turbo” screenplay with Darren Lemke and Robert Siegel, he wanted his protagonist to have a blue-collar background, similar to characters in some of his favorite, inspirational sports films such as “Rudy” and “Breaking Away.” As a result, the snails file into work at a tomato plant, where Turbo holds one of the lowliest jobs, processing the rotten fruit. When the gardener visits — to a mollusk the equivalent of an act of terror — they run a safety drill.

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Making your lead character a coiled shell creature comes with certain challenges — for instance, how would a snail applaud? (By banging his eyeballs together, it turns out.)

“First and foremost, snails are gross,” Soren said. “Our problem was, how do we make them appealing?”

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In the case of “Turbo,” a lot of the charm of the characters comes from the eclectic voice cast, including Giamatti, whose anxious Chet copes with stress in the only logical way — by pulling into his shell — and Snoop Dogg, who voices a racing snail named Smoove Moove in his characteristically laid-back style. Among the humans are Luis Guzmán and Michael Peña voicing the bros of Dos Bros Tacos and Ken Jeong as nail salon proprietor Kim-Ly.

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Soren cast his lead, Reynolds, the same week the actor was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. “That meeting was nerve-racking,” Soren said. “But he said, ‘I can’t wait to be a snail.’”

On the way to work every day, the director drove past an old, orange Firebird parked in a driveway, which became a touchstone for Turbo’s design. For Chet’s body and personality type, he referenced boxy, 1980s Volvos.

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The quest for authenticity of place extended to the location of the movie’s third act — the Indy 500. Soren and his crew visited the race to take reference photos, and DreamWorks hired Scottish driver Dario Franchitti as a consultant. Franchitti helped devise snail-specific challenges on the race course — the marbles of rubber that peel off tires, for instance, which would be akin to an asteroid field for a snail — and shared his biggest racing movie pet peeve, when a driver is trying to catch up with someone, and slams his foot all the way down on the peddle.

"[Franchitti] said, ‘Our foot is never not all the way down!’” Soren noted.

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For Soren, the car culture was the most alien part of the story. Living in Toronto, he preferred to take the subway, and he failed his driver’s test three times.

“I wasn’t really a speed demon,” he said. “My family had Volvos.”

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After 10 years in the Valley, he has adapted to the driving and to the garden snails, which he managed by moving his tomato plants to screened containers.

“Living in the San Fernando Valley, I had an affinity for this area,” Soren said. “You don’t have to fantasize much beyond the front yard.”

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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