TORONTO - David Soren's movie idea was simple, and appropriately ludicrous: "The Fast and The Furious" with snails.
That was 10 years ago, when the Canadian animator submitted a one-page outline to a DreamWorks pitch contest.
The idea won, and roughly a decade later, the Toronto-bred Soren found himself on a promotional tour for his big-screen debut feature, "Turbo."
"It's great to kind of wrap up this whole thing in my hometown," a smiling Soren says during a recent stop in Toronto for a round of interviews, noting his career has been a gradual climb through the industry.
"I started as a storyboard artist and then worked my way up, directed a couple of 'Madagascar' shorts, and then this was the next leap. It's just a bigger pool obviously to swim in, trying to make a feature — it's a lot more people, a lot more work involved. By the end we had about 250 people on our crew and it took about two-and-a-half years for the production itself."
Soren's motivated mollusk is determined to win the Indianapolis 500 — despite the fact that he's a slow-poke garden variety snail.
Voiced by Canuck star Ryan Reynolds, the starry-eyed Theo spends his days toiling at the tomato "plant" and spending every other moment either trying to crack his new record of completing a 17-minute-yard or watching TV clips of his favourite driver, French Canadian champion Guy Gagne.
Theo actually gets a shot at his dream when a freak accident unexpectedly injects race-car speed — as well as other curious abilities — into his tiny shell-covered frame.
Paul Giamatti provides the voice of pragmatic older brother Chet, who is reluctantly dragged along for the ride when Theo falls in with a crew of like-minded adrenaline junkies voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph and Ben Schwartz.
Fittingly, "The Fast and the Furious" star Michelle Rodriguez turns up among the larger supporting cast, while a "Fast and the Furious"-style drag racing scene plays a key role in spurring Theo's transformation into a speed demon.
Soren admits he's not a racing fan himself but was inspired by his young son's passion for cars.
"I failed my driver's licence test three times growing up and it was not in the cards for me to get into racing," chuckles Soren, who previously directed the TV special "Merry Madagascar" and "Madagascar: Escape to Africa."
A simultaneous garden infestation of snails at his house got the filmmaker thinking about a possible underdog tale with escargot-go-go.
He says DreamWorks partnered with IndyCar to make the climactic showdown as authentic as possible, and that allowed Soren to take a spin around an Indy track and see what it was like to careen past the grandstand.
"They gave us just unparalleled access to the Indianapolis motor speedway. We went to a couple of the Indy 500 races, we went to Long Beach and did that race, got to talk to many of the drivers. One of their champion drivers Dario Franchitti consulted on the movie as a racing expert. We really just tried to make the race feel as authentic as we could and treat it like the real Indy 500, only with a snail in it."
Aside from Reynolds, some hefty CanCon comes by way of the cocky Guy Gagne, voiced by "Saturday Night Life" star Bill Hader.
"You never get to see enough French Canadians in movies, and never in animated movies, so I wanted to shake it up and try that," says Soren, who was the head of story on "Shark Tale" and voiced the shrimp character there.
"That character just basically came out fully formed in (Hader's) audition. Half of what he did right in that very audition is in the movie."
Soren notes that his leap to Hollywood came quickly. He was snapped up by DreamWorks 16 years ago, straight out of Sheridan College where his graduating film won the school's top prize and was accepted into competition at the 1997 Academy Awards.
"I was fortunate because I graduated at a boom time in the industry and Sheridan was the only real school in North America at the time to study animation," says the now L.A.-based Soren, who worked as a story artist on "The Road to El Dorado," "Chicken Run" and "Shrek" and also worked as an animator and storyboard artist at Toronto's Nelvana.
"There was a school in L.A. called CalArts and (at the time) all these studios had emerged — DreamWorks was a year or two old, Disney was going strong and Pixar was going. And it was just like a feeding frenzy on these two schools."
Soren says he's grateful for the charmed run he's had so far.
"It's honestly a tremendous privilege getting to be a director on a DreamWorks movie because the people you're working with are the best in the industry," he says.
"They kind of ran with this ridiculous idea I had and made it so much better than I ever could have imagined."
"Turbo" opens Wednesday.
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