BY KAINE ENE
When I saw the trailers and promos for Pixar’s latest Disney+ feature film, Turning Red, I always suspected that this would be a Pixar film with an at least slightly different animation style, and I was looking forward to that. Although the moment I really realized that this film would be completely different from the rest was during the opening, where Meilin “Mei” Lee breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience, Ferris Bueller style. Yes, Mei is the first Pixar character in the studio’s 36-year history to break the fourth wall, and that’s a little icing on the cake of Turning Red that I enjoy. Besides the little things that make Turning Red pop, it’s the central conflict of the movie itself that, for better or worse, struck me as something different from what I believe makes Pixar, Pixar.
The characters of Turning Red are quite compelling and entertaining. There are three questions that I ask myself about the characters of a movie that’s important for whether or not they’re compelling, and how much so they are. One: do I understand them? Two, which is usually for the main protagonist: do I empathize with them? And three: what do they want? The Incredibles got me to root for ten year-old Dash Parr as he was super-sprinting from henchmen trying to kill him, so I think a part of me was getting ready to root for thirteen year-old Mei. I certainly did to a certain extent. When she started crushing on the local convenience store clerk Devon and started drawing art of the two of them together, I felt her embarrassment when her mom, Ming, revealed them to him, and the school bully Tyler. I thought the fact that she later blames herself for the incident instead of her mom was interesting, and it made me want to see where her character would internally develop from there.
And again, Turning Red has some neat characters to adore. One of Mei’s best friends, Miriam, is a supportive voice for her and serves as the key character in her transition to accepting herself; another one of her friends, Abby, is simply an energetic delight with some memorable lines, and Ming has an intriguing arc of her own. She has a desire to keep Mei “on track” and close to her, which stems from her past falling-out with her own mother, but I like how the movie doesn’t always take her too seriously like a complete killjoy, and for most of the movie she’s more so portrayed like an old friend of Mei. An overprotective old friend, granted. I also like how Mei’s dad, Jin, while he has a minor role, acts as an occasional refreshing voice of reason. He can go on my list of great Pixar dads.
What made me feel somewhat disconnected from Turning Red is the way the conflict between Mei and her mom’s expectations is mainly driven forward. It’s a very real conflict that ends with a great message, but what drives it forward is that Mei and her friends, Miriam, Abby, and Priya love a boy band called “4*Town” so much to the point where they believe going to see a concert together would be their passage rite into womanhood. This makes sense because they’re thirteen, and it makes even more sense considering this story is set in 2002.
Mei’s arc as a thirteen year-old girl breaking away from her mother’s expectations especially commences when she begins to transform into a family-inherited red panda whenever she feels a strong emotion, and she uses that to her advantage to profit off of it in school like a mascot. This is completely against Ming’s wishes, being the only character who expresses a disliking towards “4*Town,” and she wants Mei to keep the panda hidden to prevent her from becoming one with it. Ming’s red panda is what seperated her from her own mom after all, and later we learn part of that might be because hers is Godzilla-sized.
So we get understandable arcs from both Mei and her mom, but the whole boy-band plot is what bumps my rating of this movie down a notch, since Mei and her friends’ desire to go to this concert isn’t relatable to everyone. That’s the main thing that separates this movie from the rest of Pixar in my opinion. Most of us want planet Earth to thrive like Captain B. McCrea from Wall-E, most of us have wanted to prove ourselves like Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille, most of us have or want dreams like Miguel in Coco, and we can imagine how it would feel to have our families disapprove of them. The boy band craze of Turning Red on the other hand, yes we all like different kinds of music, and attending concerts like that can be an amazing part of growing up, but I just don’t think enough of us will be able to see ourselves in Mei (and her friends’) shoes to the extent that the movie seems to imply we should. The concert remarkably tears her and her daughter apart towards the climax as well, so I find it odd that Mei and her friends never acknowledge that after all is said and done, it really is just a concert. I think it should’ve been a part of her arc, but the movie at least does well by the resolution: “Don’t hold back for anyone,” Ming tells her daughter. “The farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.”
Domee Shi, the director of “Turning Red” and “Bao.” (thatshelf.com)
Turning Red has more to offer than a throwback for early 2000’s music fans, though. It’s directed by Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian woman telling the story of a Chinese-Canadian girl, so this story is somewhat self-inspired, and there’s some beautiful representation of her culture because of that. Simple things that are shown well, like the clothes worn during the failed ritual to separate Mei from her panda, or the food Jin is dedicated to making, which is first seen in a gorgeous animated sequence as an introduction to Jin himself. Also, the panda separation ritual is a Cantonese “protecting chant” only made possible by an actual Cantonese dialect coach.
As well as this and Mei speaking to the audience a couple times, the movie is sprinkled with details that make it unique from the rest of Pixar in a good way. The animation style is more different than I thought: it’s what has been described by others as anime-inspired, but I’d say it’s more so 2-D inspired in general. It’s CG animated, but it takes the simple character design styles akin to Luca, with some hand drawn wrinkles around the mouth when a character smiles, or—the most important part of expression—hand-drawn features in the eyes. Like the glistening in Mei’s eyes as she’s about to cry, or even stars when she’s excited or hearts if she’s lovestruck. My favorite moment animation-wise is a sequence during the climax after Mei mistakenly knocks out her mom, who’s in panda form, in a fight after mom destroys the stadium for the concert. In the sequence, Mei’s aunts decide to band together and release their pandas so they can help drag Ming into the ritual circle. We see them sprint like anime heroes (okay, maybe this one is anime-inspired) and remove their panda vessels one by one—earrings, hairpins, etc.—before breaking them all together in a smart, satisfying animation that pops with style. With energy like this in the animation style wrapped around the movie, it adds to a sense that it’s Mei telling the story herself, despite that she’s not voicing over the entire thing.
I didn’t know the composer Ludwig Gӧransson before Turning Red, and now after a quick search I don’t know how. He’s composed pieces for Creed, Black Panther, and The Mandalorian to name a few, and he doesn’t disappoint in Turning Red. Here he offers a traditional Chinese sound that meets hip hop-like beats. The most memorable part for me was the music that played during the resolution after Ming accepts her daughter for who she is. It’s called “No Going Back” in the soundtrack, and I love the return of the recurring flute near the end that adds a solemn sentiment over the piano. The soundtrack is another piece that makes the movie unique.
Meilin falling… with style! (Pixar)
And penultimately, I’d like to touch on a minute of the film that I believe had a little magic in it that reminds me of classic Pixar, that for a moment redeems it from its unusual plot. A moment where you’re celebrating with the character because you no longer just understand them, you are them. It’s the moment in The Incredibles where Dash is being chased by henchmen, thinking he’s going to die, then he giggles realizing he can run on water; it’s the moment in Wall-E where Wall-E and EVE share a dance in space. In Turning Red? When Mei is running away from her family to see the concert after the failed ritual, her frown turns itself upside-down when she realizes that with the poof of her panda-human transformation, she can fly. It was a fun scene that reminded me of that magic, and I couldn’t write this review without crediting the movie for it.
And now, I’d like to start a review tradition: favorite and least favorite lines of dialogue.
Favorite line: “What are you doing? Linear equations? Geometry? I have a double-jointed elbow. Look, I can make a perfect circle!”
Least favorite line: “Awoogah!”
Honorable mention: “Mine [mom] called it stripper music, what’s wrong with that?!”
Turning Red is a film that stands out with uniqueness with its art style, character designs, and soundtrack. The film even has some fun characters for you to pick a favorite. Every Pixar film is its own, and Turning Red isn’t bad just because it doesn’t follow tradition. Although what Pixar films typically have is a plot driven by something relatable for anyone to feel at home and jump right into. Turning Red takes some of that away with its boy band driven plot that feels more targeted towards a certain audience than the rest. Overall, it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something nostalgic, yet a little different.