Turning Red- A Movie Review

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Disney/Pixar

“Pixar’s new movie looks like Inside Out meets The Incredible Hulk

Brigham Larson, Reporter

Pixar has been going through something of a transitional phase lately. They have had to adjust not only to the pandemic-caused closure of studio campuses and theaters, but also to their 2019 announcement that they will no longer be producing sequel films for the foreseeable future. Since this announcement, the Disney subsidiary has released the films Onward, Soul, and Luca, all great movies in their own right, but not quite up to the standard of quality set by films such as Coco and Toy Story 3. The question is, does Turning Red break this chain and deliver something on par with the emotional journeys of Miguel or Buzz and Woody?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that despite this, Turning Red is still a bright, vivid, and beautifully animated adventure that has the same sense of humor, flashes of darkness and emotional resonance audiences have come to expect from the studio. It contains a significant amount of DNA from director Domee Shi’s previous short film for the studio, Bao, tackling many of the same themes (and, just a friendly reminder, if you haven’t seen Bao, shut down this computer right now and go watch it).

The film follows Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13 year-old student living in Toronto, Canada in 2002. She’s fairly ordinary; she has a small but close group of friends, she obsesses over 4*Town, a hilariously stereotypical amalgamation of every single early 2000’s boy band, and works a part-time job at her family’s temple. After being embarrassed in public by her mother (in a horribly awkward scene that would even make the writers of The Office’s “Dinner Party” blush), Mei goes to sleep and has a strange, horrifying, supernatural nightmare.

As anyone who has seen any of the promotional material for this film probably already knows, she wakes up with the ability to turn into a red panda whenever she experiences strong emotions.

The plot, which, in case you couldn’t tell, is an obvious metaphor for puberty, while being far from Pixar’s most creative, is still interesting, thought-provoking, and most importantly, a great deal of fun. It can shift from surreal to satirical to serious at the drop of a hat, as longtime Pixar fans would probably expect. The setting and time period are utilized lovingly, with the film dropping clever references to Tamagotchi digital pets, the since-renamed SkyDome, and the early 2000s boy band craze.

The film’s fictional boy band, 4*Town, to many, is an obvious draw to the film. Their songs were written by the singer-songwriters and Gen Z mascots Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell. I feel hesitant about shoveling praise on the songs, given that I’m not exactly a fan of their work, but I will commend the duo for their faithful recreation of the very particular and oft-parodied style. The score, written by The Mandalorian and Community composer Ludwig Göransson, is well done and compliments the action of the film well.

The humor of the film was one of its definite strong suits in my view. The majority of the jokes land well, even if some of them make you want to sink deep into your couch and never come out again (looking at you, every single scene involving Mei’s notebook). Visual gags and exaggerated facial expressions abound. The dialogue is clever and well-written, and the character-driven nature of the humor allows the audience to connect with the characters in the story through even the most superfluous of throwaway gags.

Pixar, as everyone who has ever seen one of their movies knows, is very good at making one’s jaw drop more and more at the sight of their latest animation stylings. Turning Red is certainly no exception to this. The animation provides an intriguing combination of cartoonish art and character designs with photorealistic rendering. Light reflects incredibly realistically off of surfaces. Every shot of Mei as a red panda has thousands and thousands of individually rendered fur strands that sway realistically with the movement. It should hardly be a surprise that the animation is as stellar as it is, but it truly needs to be stressed how beautiful the film is to look at.

The movie is, of course, not without its flaws. It takes a little bit to really get off the ground, devoting the first few minutes to a rather phoned-in introductory sequence, featuring Mei discussing herself, her friends, and the setting. It’s not a dealbreaker at all, but it does feel like these elements could have been introduced using a more subtle method, as they have been in the majority of previous Pixar films. Pixar’s touch for emotional resonance, while still definitely present and sharp as a tack at emotionally anchoring the audience to the characters, doesn’t quite match the winding emotional journey of Coco or the sheer heartbreak of Up’s endlessly gorgeous “Married Life” sequence. Am I going to tell you not to watch the movie just because it didn’t leave me a bawling mess like those two did? Absolutely not. But after decades of sheer emotional destruction, it’s safe to say I expected a few more tears than I ended up shedding over the course of this film.

The film has been the subject of some controversy since its release, with some feeling that the film was supposedly “unrelatable” due to its unusual setting, and some stating that the film’s frank demonstration of puberty, menstruation, and teenage crushes were somehow “inappropriate.” The first criticism is, of course, ridiculous. The film is about a time that everyone experiences in their lives, and just because the character and setting aren’t exactly the same as the viewer doesn’t make it unrelatable (you don’t see anyone complaining about Ratatouille being unrelatable due to the fact that they aren’t a Patton Oswalt-voiced rat chef). This movie has something in it that everyone can relate to, whether it be the awkward realities of puberty, the urge to let one’s emotions loose, or even something as small as being embarrassed by one’s parents occasionally. The second criticism is nonsense for many reasons. There’s the obvious issue of trying to protect small children from learning about these things that are simply the reality that people live in, and the stigmatizing of these topics only leads to harm. In fact, I view the way in which the film addresses these topics in a hilarious, clever, and interesting way as one of its greatest strengths. And less importantly, they are the topic of some of the film’s best jokes.

Turning Red is an excellent movie and a definite standout amongst the studio’s more recent films. Its fresh take on the coming-of-age formula with intelligent humor and a nicely added supernatural touch makes it a movie that’s definitely worth at least one watch. The new ground it covers not just for a Pixar movie, but for a children’s film in general, is so far-reaching, innovative and fascinating that other studios are sure to take notice. While it lacks the vibrant world of Coco or the emotional annihilation of [insert any Toy Story film here], this movie’s incredible comedy and likable characters make it well-earning of a recommendation. Just try your best not to die during the notebook scene.