Turning Red and all the images you see in this review are owned by Pixar
Directed by Domee Shi
Pixar really hasn’t made anything that I thought was spectacular since Coco, which is a shame because it’s no secret that they’ve been the go-to studio for high-quality family entertainment. To see the studio focus more and more on sequels while their original work feels less inspired each year is just another reason why the world really did just come to an end in the last few years. That’s not even getting into the cowardice of Disney itself in the last few weeks, so there was certainly a lot of pessimism from me going into this one. With so much up against it, does this latest outing from Pixar manage to turn things around and make me appreciate them once more, or will I have to look to the Spider-Verse sequel if I want to see a great animated family film this year? Let’s find out!
Our story begins with Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) who has recently turned thirteen and is living her best life in the heart of Toronto in 2002. She gets good grades at school, she has three great friends named Miriam, Priya, and Abby (Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park), and she has a fantastic relationship with her mother (Sandra Oh)! They work together at their temple, they watch Chinese dramas on TV, and it seems like nothing can possibly tear them apart! That is until puberty hits and with it comes an ancient family gift/curse which turns the women of their family in red pandas whenever they feel excessive emotions. Naturally being a giant furry creature is not conducive to Mei’s life goals and so she needs to keep it under wraps while her family puts together a ritual to rid her of the panda once and for all! Sounds simple enough, but the teenage years being what they are mean that life gets in the way pretty quickly; especially when Mei and her friends’ favorite boy band 4 Town are coming to town before the ritual can take place. This newfound power as well as the other changes happening to her have given Mei a new sense of independence which may help her and her friends get to the concert but is putting a serious strain on her relationship to her mother. Can Mei thread the needle between a goody-two-shoes overachiever and a rambunctious bad-girl without losing sight of what’s really important? How has her own mother’s experience with this gift/curse affected her, and is it only growing the divide between her and her daughter? If Mei’s mother is worried now, wait until she finds out what the internet is!
When the trailers for this started popping up they left me feeling pretty cold about the movie, but I’ll be darned if this isn’t one of the best films of the year so far. Sure, it’s only March and I’ve barely had a chance to see anything at the theater, but Pixar have outdone themselves with this one and for me, it’s one of the better films they’ve made. It’s perhaps not as adventurous as some of their more iconic work like Toy Story or The Incredibles, but the heart and emotional nuances throughout the movie make it one of the studio’s more affecting movies to date. That and it’s genuinely funny with a fantastic art style! I understand that some people might be getting tired of the recent trend towards squishy big-eyed characters and the dreaded “bean mouth”, but you have to give credit when it’s due when a studio manages to use it this effectively. Seriously, how can you say no to a giant squishy panda that also knows how to hit you right in the feels!?
This is definitely a unique entry in Pixar’s catalog, but a lot of their sensibilities are still present and accounted for. The humor is great and uses the medium of animation for a lot of fun gags, but the style is a lot more exaggerated and uses quite a bit of squash and stretch to accentuate the humor. This is most prominent in the facial animations which are absolutely fantastic and convey a lot of personality for each of the characters; even the more grounded ones like Mei’s parents. The sheer energy of everything and the skill with which the animators were able to execute the characters’ movements and emotions made this an absolute delight to sit through, but it also has some strong writing as well to keep it from feeling overly dependent on slapstick. Mei’s back and forth struggle between her friends, her mother, and her own self-doubt are well-realized and have a universal appeal to them for anyone who remembers those awkward teenage years. I guess I can understand how some people may not find the situation and characters relatable (or as relatable as the target audience), but speaking as a grown white dude I still found the whole thing very true to life which made the situations that much funnier.
A Pixar movie isn’t complete if it doesn’t give you a few gut punches of emotion and the story in this movie poses a lot of interesting and complex questions that are digestible and can be understood by kids while the older people in the audience will pick up on the nuances at play. The key to this movie is not the giant panda or even the friendship between her and her friends, but her mother who is by far the most interesting character in this. Everything that works about this movie starts with that character and what’s even more interesting is that she really is the antagonist of the movie; or at least the cautionary embodiment of the film’s messages. She’s the person that Mei might end up becoming if she’s not able to break free and become her own person and the struggle that Mei has to go through is coming to terms with this. She’s all excited about growing up and doing her own thing, but going from childhood to adulthood is understanding the flaws in the people who raised us which is painful, distressing, and can go very wrong if not given the proper nurturing and guidance. Her mother isn’t actively malicious which makes it that much harder for Mei to come to terms with it. Then couple that with the biological cocktail of hormones that puberty brings about and the giant red panda makes a lot of sense as a metaphor. It’s not just between them either that Mei has to do some growing up and work through painful emotions as her friends are not without their faults as well. A situation through no active malice on their part still leaves Mei feeling used by her friends, which is a tough thing to deal with, and how she processes it leaves them feeling hurt as well. The messy mix of emotions, the trading of hurt and harm, the inability of characters to reasonably work things out without crushing someone in the process, it’s what makes this movie more than an animated kids movie with a dancing panda, and I think in a few years’ time this could be held up as one of the great coming of age movies of this generation.
So is there anything wrong with the movie? Honestly, not really. I’ve seen funnier movies, more heartfelt movies, and I’ve even seen movies with better animation (Into the Spider-Verse is all three), but the film managed to accomplish all that it sets out to do with style, substance, and a lot of humor. Drilling down hard enough, I can find a few things that didn’t exactly work which were towards the end of the movie. There’s a contrivance at the end of the second act that’s there to instigate the All Is Lost moment, but it feels a bit forced. I get why it’s there and it’s not a huge problem, but for it to make sense it would require a lot of people ignoring a very obvious detail for quite a long time. There are also some revelations regarding Mei’s mother and her manifestation of this gift that feel a bit clunky and in doing so put the mechanics of how the panda thing works in front of what it means. This is also where I would say Inside Out lost me, but in that case, the mechanics of the conceit were front and center throughout the entire movie and not just something that kind of became an issue towards the end. Still, I can see where it can work in terms of generational expectations and the trauma of living through a less understanding situation. It’s clear that her mother had a much harder time with this than Mei is, and that is a major source of the conflict between them; her mother just not being able to separate her experiences twenty or so years ago from the way things are now and how her daughter feels about it; one person’s liberation is another person’s cage. I feel like if that was the intent though they could have explored it a bit more, especially with Mei’s grandmother coming into the picture, because otherwise, it feels like I’m maybe adding a bit more than intended and that the purpose of Mei’s mother having… that specific issue, was just to raise the stakes in the third act. Then again, if I’m thinking this deeply about the themes and how they can be explored from different viewpoints (I’d LOVE to see a sequel about Mei’s mother that goes more into her past), then I think the movie did a good job telling its story.
When I saw the trailers for this movie, I thought it was going to be another disposable Pixar fluff piece that’s been the norm for them in the last decade. The kids would get this movie and I would get Lightyear which may be milking the Toy Story well yet again but at least knows to throw some Bowie on to grab the attention of older fans. It’s pretty great to be this surprised by a movie and to have my assumptions about it blown away because frankly it’s not that different from what we saw in the trailers and yet I had no idea how much I wanted what it was offering. If it’s playing at your local theater and it’s safe for you to do so, or you have a subscription to Disney Plus, I would absolutely recommend it! I found 2021 to be kind of a bland year for movies, but 2022 is starting off so much stronger and we’ve already got a contender for best of the year! Honestly, I’m starting to feel a little bit sorry for Lightyear which now has to come out in the shadow of such a great film. I mean it’ll probably be good, but will it be Emotional Panda Dance Party good!?
Before we get to the star rating, I want to take a moment to call attention to Disney’s disgraceful actions towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Their funding of politicians who are working to destroy LGBTQIA+ protections and the lives of people in that community is unconscionable and their lukewarm response since being called out for it has been unacceptable. People within Disney, including Pixar, have had harsh words for them and there is a group there working to stage walkouts and try to force Disney to do better. You can find out more about them at the link below, and you can follow them on Twitter.