Pixar’s latest film, Turning Red, arrives this week on Disney+ (yet again), and while it’s a different kind of movie for the company, it’s no less impressive.
Turning Red, despite not looking like the typical Pixar movie, has been pretty high on my radar since it was first revealed. The trailers looked hilarious along with a story that seemed by poignant and touching. Okay, so maybe it DOES seem like a typical Pixar movie, but there are some aspects that certainly make it feel different.
Turning Red puts the focus on 13-year old Meilin “Mei” Lee. Mei is a typical teenager in Toronto, Canada as she deals with the growing pressure of middle-grade schoolwork, boys, and keeping her over-the-top mother happy.
Directed By: Domee Shi
Written By: Julia Cho, Domee Shi
Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Sandra Oh, Hyein Park
Release Date: March 11, 2022 on Disney+
Mei wants to keep being the dutiful daughter she’s always been, and honor her family (who runs the “oldest shrine in Toronto”). Doing so, however, while trying to be a normal teenage girl comes with its own set of problems. In trying to keep the status quo at home, while doing everything possible to make her mother proud, she sets aside her own wants and friends (Miriam, Priya, and Abby)…Including her love of the pop boy-band, 4*Town!
It’s something pretty much everyone goes through at some point. A strange period of time where kids seek to maintain the same kind of relationship they’ve always had with their parents, while finding separate lives of their own. For parents, it’s hard to let go and embrace the realization your child has their own interests and no longer needs you in the same capacity. The balance almost always results in conflict of some kind, and both parent and child have to find a way to navigate the shift in their relationship.
It’s in this aspect Turning Red finds its focus, and heart. But if all the rigors of teenage growing pains wasn’t enough, Mei’s family holds another secret. The women in her family have a mystical connection to the Red Panda’s, dating back centuries, and when they come of age…they gain the ability to transform into a giant Red Panda whenever a STRONG emotion (good or bad) hits them.
While the ability served a purpose back in the day, in the modern world it’s a bit of an “inconvenience.” Thankfully, there are things that can be done to rectify the situation…
I don’t want to get too much into spoilers here, especially because the story goes in a direction I wasn’t expecting. The plot it seemed to be setting up was a smaller step towards the bigger (more emotional) final act storyline. But suffice it to say, Mei’s life doesn’t get any easier with the Red Panda looming. As she struggles to balance life with the Panda, work toward seeing her beloved 4*Town in concert, and keeping her mother happy, Mei ultimately finds herself.
To put it bluntly, I REALLY enjoyed Turning Red. Since finishing it the other week, I keep coming back to several scenes; replaying them in my head and turning over the various themes present. One my first watch, I wasn’t sure what its staying power would be.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast while watching it. I was never once bored, and it hits you with solid joke after joke. Even so, when the credits rolled, I wondered about the chances I would actually watch it again (aside from enjoying it with my kids).
And yet…I haven’t really stopped thinking about it. The themes presented in the movie feel universal. Everyone remembers those awkward teen/tween years. I can’t tell you how many times during the film I thought back to my own childhood moments and coming to grips with learning to be my own person. Hell, as a father now the film highlighted aspects I’m beginning to see in my own kids as they grow.
Turning Red manages to take many of those turbulent feelings (and even embarrassing moments) and present them in a fun, easy to understand, way. It doesn’t shy away from certain elements either; directly addressing teenage girls having their periods. I loved that even though it’s a kids movie, the filmmakers were willing to openly talk about important things adolescents go through.
They way it’s all presented, however, makes it feel perfect for all ages. Like, it’s not hammering you over the head with certain things, but treats them as a normal reality (because these things are). For kids watching, it makes it so they can see themselves within the story and understand they aren’t alone in some of the things they feel. For parents, it was neat to see it presented from the kids side and maybe see how our own actions might look from their perspective.
Character and Animation
A big reason all the themes work so well, is due to the strength of the characters. Mei is incredible on her own, but when thrown in with her friends Miriam, Priya, and Abby it’s just completely delightful. The filmmakers absolutely NAIL the overall tone/vibes of young teenagers (both generally speaking and specific to teenage girls). Seriously, it’s impressive to see and it’s done in a way that’s brutally funny.
Turning Red is very much Pixar’s take on the teen/tween angst movies. While watching, I was constantly reminded of films like 10 Things I hate About You, She’s All That, and The DUFF. Not necessarily due to the story being told (which isn’t the same and features no love interest stuff), but in terms of the vibes and overall aesthetic. It captures that same feeling, just in animated form.
In this regard, the four friends could have easily become caricatures and annoying. Instead, the result is wholly endearing. From their introductions, they’re all instantly charming and its hard to NOT love them. Each of them have their own distinct personalities that shine through in every conversation, but you get the sense of kinship and love they have for each other as well. Much as Mei is the main character and driving point of the story, Turning Red is very much a film about the power of friendship. As such, it’s great to see how wonderfully this group of friends is presented.
On top of that, Turning Red looks incredible. Frankly, from the first trailer, I’ve been a fan of the animation style they chose this time around. While it might not be for everyone, I loved it. It was a solid blend of realistic and fantastical, allowing for sight gags (lotta anime influences going on) that would feel out of place otherwise, but still giving audiences an authentic element to ground them emotionally.
Every character and element in the movie feels distinct in how it’s shown, and the style the film goes with allows for all of these unique character designs (easy to pick out on the screen) to blend together and make each frame pop.
A Narrower Audience (Maybe)
The film is ridiculously hilarious! Seriously, Turning Red is some of the hardest I’ve ever laughed in a Pixar film. I’m talking full on belly laughter to the point of having to pause so I wouldn’t miss the next bit of dialog.
That said, I’m not sure how much of the jokes will land with every audience. This brings me to about the only “complaint” I really have for the film: it feels like something that won’t appeal to everyone. Yeah, I know, Pixar movies are supposed to be for kids, but one of the reasons the company’s films have remained iconic for decades is due to their universal appeal. They’re something kids, parents, and adults without kids are able to enjoy in equal measure (though for different reasons).
Turning Red, on the other hand feels like it might be for a more specific audience. Many of the jokes that left my sides in stitches dealt with me being a parent and relating to certain experiences in raising a child. Other moments cracked me up due to recalling my own awkward teen years. It’s hard not to think of myself as a parent these days, but there were a few times I legitimately wondered if certain jokes would be engaging for those who aren’t parents.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it can still be a ton of fun, but it might not capture the same broad audience other Pixar movies do. Then again, given how much it’s stuck with me over the past week, I could be entirely wrong. I think it’s fun enough to jusitfy a watch for EVERYONE, but unlike other Pixar classics, it might not be on repeat outside of certain households.