2022 | rated PG | Animated | voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh | directed by Domee Shi | 1 hr 40 mins |
Some movies you can be entertained by and not admire and others you can admire and not necessarily be entertained by. Once the Disney animated studio factory clicked into a formula in the late 90s they made several movies that were entertaining but on auto-pilot. When Pixar blew onto the scene they made masterpieces: purely entertaining works that I also admired for how often they were willing to break cliches and explore more adult themes. From Toy Story 2’s exploration of mortality to Finding Nemo‘s look at overprotective parents from the perspective of that parent to Monsters University eschewing the “if you try you can do anything” mantra. Pixar movies are so often so good they can only be judged against themselves. Turning Red is an equally gutsy exploration of more adult themes in a hyper-active candy coated animated package designed for slightly older kids. This time I wasn’t as entertained by it, but I admire the heck out of what this movie is doing.
Young Meiline (VO Rosalie Chiang) has just turned 13 and become a self-proclaimed adult. She lives in Canada in the 90s and works at her parent’s Buddhist temple in Chinatown. The pop boy band “4 Town” is coming to town and she and her 3 girlfriends have got to convince their parents to let them go. But the anxiety and boy-trouble of middle school eventually becomes too overwhelming, unleashing a family curse that afflicts all the women in her family: turning Meiline into a big red panda whenever emotionally triggered.
Turning Red feels like one of the most personal films Pixar has made – it’s so time and place specific that I can only assume it’s autobiographical from director Domee Shi (of the Incredibles 2 short Bao) – with it’s metaphor of female puberty hung out for all to see. Yes, movies have tackled this subject before – frankly none better than the Canadian werewolf metaphor Ginger Snaps – however not quite in this affectionate family-friendly package. “Owning your panda” is designed to get mothers and daughters to talk about their changing bodies and the movie’s ultimate ending is the life-altering one that makes this studio so ambitiously different than Disney or Dreamworks. I appreciated how Red avoids the easy story where Meiline has to run around hiding her transformation, instead being exposed very publicly as a big red panda early in the film and turning it into a money-making scheme. However, Turning Red more often felt like a educational video than a movie.
This is also one of the most aggressive movies in the studio’s catalog. Meiline is more obnoxious than she is self aware. Said puberty metaphors get very on-the-nose to the point where it stopped being clever several minutes ago. After the beautifully animated human/fish transformation scenes in Luca, Red’s is monstrous, clouded in red dust and harsh anger. The curse and it’s series of rules, is less table-setting and more a strict series of plot points that is barely enough to turn this premise into a story. This hyper movie never breathes and it leaps to the next plot point just to keep it from stalling out. Also in the over-the-top department is the mother/daughter relationship that ends up forming the film’s final conflict, a relationship not dissimilar, but far broader than the quiet disappointment of the grandma/daughter dynamic we just saw in Encanto. When mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), wants to embarrass her daughter, she really wants to embarrass her daughter, publicly flouting private drawings and maxi pads in front of the classmates. It’s effectively cringe, it gets that across, but if I’m ultimately supposed to sympathize with Ming the movie has a lot more bridge building to do to get us there before leaps to a crazy Kaiju monster movie in the 3rd act.
Ultimately, Turning Red misses the mark. Instead of appealing to 13 year old girls now, it might appeal to women who were 13 year olds that had boy band crushes in the 90s. Ambitious but self indulgent with a thin story, Turning Red is one of the least entertaining or immersive Pixar movies the studio has made.