Turning Red and the Double-Edged Sword of Pixar Expectations

Pixar breaks new ground with slightly older-skewing coming of age story, but you need to check expectations for the studio at the door.

adorable red fox in Pixar's Turning Red
Photo: Pixar / Disney

For Pixar’s first 15 years as a studio, their output was red hot. It’s almost an unprecedented streak of creativity, with each subsequent film raising the bar set by the last. During this period, Pixar almost singlehandedly changed the critical conversation about animated films as a medium and demanded that the art-form be taken as seriously as any other medium. To state it plainly, Pixar films were events.

However, in the 2010s some of that can’t-miss aura started to fade. While the studio was still capable of turning out heart-wrenching, deep and rewarding all-ages content, such as Inside Out and Coco, more middling efforts like Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur started to appear. Then once the 2020 pandemic struck and forced the film industry to reevaluate release strategies, Pixar’s efforts were relegated to streaming only. Without a theatrical run, the “Pixar film as an event” has felt like a relic of the past.

Turning Red, Pixar’s latest film and the second to be sent straight to Disney+, feels like an unfortunate victim of such timing. It’s a beautifully animated feature with a unique target demographic and a solid story, but due to a misguided release strategy, it never quite gets the opportunity to feel eventful. Without the shared camaraderie of a theatrical experience, its smaller stakes story is all the more noticeable. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge Turning Red against the rest of the Pixar oeuvre, but that’s what happens when there is an expectation of pedigree. 

Turning Red is the story of Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a bright, plucky 13-year-old living in Toronto. Mei has the wide-eyed enthusiasm and self-assuredness of a pre-teen, but now that she’s coming of age, the big emotions and pains of self-discovery that come with being a teen manifest themselves in the form of an ancient family curse. When Mei gets strong emotions, whether good or bad, she begins to transform into a giant red panda. This is particularly inconvenient as she tries to juggle her blossoming individuality with the strong expectations placed on her by her domineering mother, Ming (Sandra Oh).

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As a feature-length metaphor for adolescence, Turning Red is an interesting outlier for Pixar. It feels like a film aimed at a slightly older demographic than your typical Pixar fare and it hits beats common in coming-of-age films. People will be talking about Pixar’s decision to address certain biological realities, a decision that feels both obvious and bold at the same time. Meilin is also an instantly likable protagonist, who particularly shines in the films open moments, which quickly establishes her character and the way she’s torn between indulging in the interests of a typical girl her age—mainly boys—and being the portrait of a perfect daughter, an image she works very hard to uphold. Also, North American-born Chinese people will be happy to see representation in a way that feels natural and not perfunctory. 

For some reason, the film is set in the year 2002, which beyond a few humorous fashion choices, doesn’t feel all that necessary. Maybe it’s because Mei and her friends are obsessed with a boy band, but there’s no reason that this film’s “4*Town” couldn’t be a 2022 K-Pop band. Regardless, the 4*Town tunes penned by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas sound distinctly like era-appropriate pop hits, with a bit of Eilish’s signature sonic flare. In other words, they’re a delight. 

Turning Red’s main message, about learning to accept the messy parts of yourself that you cannot change, comes across cleanly, but not as clean as director Domee Shi and production designer Rona Lui’s animation style. Turning Red is gorgeously rendered, taking inspiration from classic anime and running it through the Pixar filter in what might be the studio’s best-looking film to date. It’s a real shame that vibrant red panda fur’s texture cannot be enjoyed in all its glory on a big screen. The other bummer is the film’s overlong third act, which drags in an otherwise breezy film.

Overall, Turing Red lacks the ambition and big philosophical questions of Pixar’s best work, but it still delivers a unique, small-scale story for kids right on the cusp of becoming teenagers. It’s a winning effort that deserved a bigger release. With fantastic voice performances, gorgeous style, and killer tunes, Turning Red hits the mark even if it doesn’t quite transcend.

Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on Friday, March 11.

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3.5 out of 5