Turning Red is one of Disney-Pixar’s most imaginative and original film in years, both in its animation and its story. It’s clever in how it showcases the different stages and transitions a young, teenage girl can go through and it does so unapologetically, which in turn, makes for an incredibly charming, heartfelt, and hilarious watch. It also emphasizes the importance of friendship, the pressure of living up to other’s expectations of you, and being yourself.
Say what you will about Pixar as of late, but I’m absolutely loving the direction the company has decided to take with some of its most recent films, particularly 2020’s Soul, which is a beautiful film and my absolute favorite of that year. Its track record speaks for itself and can’t be denied either, being responsible for some of the greatest animated films of all time. I was being a bit specific when I mentioned the “direction the company has decided to take” since I feel its sort of branching out and taking some different approaches with the movies being made. Last year’s Luca is a great example, but I truly feel its latest venture, Turning Red, is one of the most original riskiest films Pixar has ever made in quite some time. Since its announcement, I was always intrigued by the concept of the film since it seemed silly (in a good way), full of charm, and the animation was a bit different compared to what I’ve been used to seeing from the company my whole life. I finally got the chance to see it on Disney+, which is a shame since this movie deserved to have a run in theaters. Regardless, I’m still grateful I had the opportunity to watch it since I thoroughly enjoyed it. Honestly, it may be one of the most imaginative and original movies Pixar has ever created. I’m not exactly sure it cracks my top five Pixar list, but it’s definitely in my top 10.
Turning Red follows 13-year old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a young teenager who finds herself in a crisis, if you will, of trying to live her young life and be herself, but also living to please her mother and meet her demands. If that isn’t already a ton of pressure, she eventually reaches the age and discovers when she gets excited or overly emotional about something, she turns into a massive Red Panda, which is a trait all the females in her family go through at one point or another.
From the jump, this film doesn’t shy away from portraying a teenager in her natural habitat. You get a ton of crazy thrown at you immediately, and when I mean crazy, I mean her and her group of friends fangirling over whatever they love. Her group of friends are Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park), and what I loved about her friends is how each of them are drastically different from each other in terms of personality and temperament, but still have an unbreakable bond. For example, Miriam is a tomboy who loves to sing, Priya is more of an introvert with a cool, calm, and collected demeanor, and Abby is the definition of hyper who’s constantly, and there are various scenes where the creators display this expertly according to what she’s doing and what’s going on in her personal life. Her bright, bubbly, and eccentric character comes out when she’s around her friends and talking about all things 4*TOWN (a boy band in the movie), boys they like, and so on. However, when her Mom is around, she tends to be a completely different person, and becomes someone she really isn’t. In a sense, she’s a shell of her former self, and she does this in order to please her and live up to the expectations she has of her. It’s an interesting dynamic and one I feel many viewers will be able to resonate with since, at least in one point of our lives, we’ve all (maybe not all) had to act like someone we’re not in order to feel accepted by our peers. Turning Red presents this very well and makes it all feel believable. Seeing them gush over what they love was one of the highlights of the film, especially from a comedic aspect.
Touching more on the relationship with her Mom (Sandra Oh), she has a pre-conceived notion/idea of how her daughter should behave because of certain experiences she’s already been through. She has plenty of unresolved trauma from her past, and she doesn’t want her daughter to experience similar things. Her intentions are genuinely good and thoughtful, but at times, she doesn’t realize she may be doing more harm than good because of her extremism and overprotectiveness. This is one of the main reasons why Mei, in essence, lives two lives. She’s one person with her friends, but she’s entirely someone else when she’s at home around her mother. The film does a phenomenal job portraying this dilemma of Mei having to live in two worlds and dealing with all the pressure she goes through on a daily basis. You sort of come to the conclusion that, at one point, her mother was similar to Mei in some behavioral aspects and she was led to believe, or life experiences happened, that someone can’t be themselves and must act a certain way. All of this really comes into play when Mei discovers she can transform in the Red Panda. With her mother seeing this, it only makes her even more worrisome of her daughter and what could happen, which forces to crack down even more.
The film does fantastic work making each character feel unique, including the ones mentioned, as well as her father (Orion Lee), who doesn’t say much and doesn’t have such a big role, but still feels as equally as important as everyone else with some pivotal scenes. You also have some of the school bullies, the rest of her family, including her grandmother, Wu (Wai Ching Ho), who’s extremely influential in the way everyone acts in the family and probably is one of the main factors as to why Mei’s mother is the way she is, and then the rest of the aunts. As a cast of characters, everyone seems to serve a purpose and I don’t recall anyone feeling out of place or unimportant, and sometimes, it’s rare to find this in a film. Credit has to be given to the voice actors as well for bringing these characters to life in a very entertaining way. The standouts, to me, are Chiang, Oh, and Park, but everyone is still pretty great.
The story is one I could really get behind since it feels genuinely real. I’ve seen some criticisms about how this movie may encourage young teenage girls to think it’s okay to be rebellious towards your parents at such a young age, and although I could understand that, I also never really felt this was the message Turning Red was trying to send. I think, ultimately, Mei was trying to live up to the expectations people had of her, whether it was her mother or her friends. Her mother wanted her to be a specific somebody, and so did her friends. Maybe it isn’t Mei trying to be somebody she’s not. In fact, there are various instances where she truly wants to please those around her and has it in her to that specific person. However, you can sense the pressures she has of trying to keep everyone around her happy, and part of that is figuring out who she really is. Once she reaches this stage in her life, everything changes. So, yes, she does do some things that may not honor the wants of her mother, but I never saw it to be with malicious intent. You see her go through this journey as the film progresses and, in the end, it all works out for the better. Some may be too young to understand who they really are and guidance may be necessary, but there are also needs to be room for them to be able to express themselves and have open conversations about these things to avoid confusion or doubt about who someone may really be, and this movie touches on these themes beautifully.
Another complaint going around is how annoying the film can be in terms of how the characters act. At the end of the day, films are subjective, and some people may like certain things, while others won’t. It seems some viewers were turned off by the childlike behavior from Mei and her friends. But, I honestly think it’s a weak opinion to have, considering it’s trying to portray girls from this age group as accurately as possible, and middle schoolers as a whole. I remember doing and saying plenty of stupid things back when I was younger, and the very same viewers making this claim were probably the same way. Criticizing young kids for acting like kids is a poor stance to have at the end of the day.
I absolutely loved the animation style. It’s very similar to Luca in that regard, and I was definitely behind it from the get-go. As mentioned earlier, I love how Pixar is taking some risks and going different places in terms of how it creates these characters and the worlds they’re in since, in reality, most of the other movies to come before it have had a similar animation style. It’s not a knock on it by any means, but I’m always open to a different variety when it comes to aesthetic. Some of the visuals I enjoyed the most are when Mei is in her panda form. The things she’s able to do as the Red Panda, such as jump long distances, have increased strength, and run a lot faster, is put on display and it brings sort of a supernatural element to the film I wasn’t really expecting. The editing is phenomenal as well. I love some of the shots and sequences in this movie. Some of the perspectives it goes in terms of how you see a specific character, a specific setting, and so on; there’s plenty to point in this film and it’s one of the better edited animated movies I’ve seen in some time.
While I understand why some people may have been turned off by Turning Red, I don’t think most of the arguments are very sound. The animation is beautiful, most of the cast and characters are lovable, and most importantly, it tells an important story that needs to be heard. There are plenty of themes here I think many viewers will be able to relate to, and it’s much more clever and nuanced than you might think. I can see plenty of real life, personal conversations being started because of the messages in this film. It’s definitely another Pixar hit and I don’t see how Pixar doesn’t keep on rolling if it’s continuing to create quality content like this.