The HoloFiles

REVIEW: Turning Red

By Josh Bate

In the past few decades, Pixar Animation Studios has been the source of countless iconic films. Legendary franchises like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, and more were created by the brilliant minds at the company that is owned by Walt Disney Studios. These films have made a great deal of money, too, and many have been recognized for their quality in various awards ceremonies. Pixar has earned 23 Academy Awards, 10 Golden Globe Awards, and various other honors. Many films from the studio have been nominated at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature, including The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, all of which took home the prize. Toy Story 3 and Up were nominated for an arguably more prestigious award, Best Picture. It’s a clear sign of the immense history Pixar has and the incredible role the studio holds in the history of cinema.

Because of this history, every new Pixar-Disney release is highly anticipated, and their latest feature is no different. Turning Red, a coming of age story centering on Mei Lee (voiced excellently by Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese-American young woman said to be in her early teens. Life is good for Lee, who has an enjoyable social life and a close relationship with her family, including her mother, despite the latter’s overprotective nature that gets on her nerves on occasion. However, everything begins to go awry when Lee has a sudden transformation into a red panda, which she learns is an event that happens to all of the women in her family when they hit puberty age. This change occurs when a particularly intense wave of emotions arrive for Lee, something that she finds hard to avoid when dealing with the pressures of growing up as well as school and family life.

This film ultimately serves as a metaphor for growing up, with the red panda symbolizing the many changes that can happen for young people at this critical time in their lives. In this regard, Turning Red succeeds wonderfully, utilizing this truly unique premise in order to tell a relatable and heartwarming story about growth, change, and friends and family. How the presence of the red panda inside Lee affects her school life and her relationships with those closest to her parallel the real life changes of teenage years and coming into adulthood.

All of this is told in a fun and exciting way, as is typical of Pixar, but where it truly succeeds is the emotional aspect of it all. Turning Red ultimately feels like a deeply personal story, particularly for director Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian herself, who has worked for Pixar for over a decade, including on titles such as Inside Out, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, and the short story Bao, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Shi is a trailblazer herself, becoming the first woman to have sole director credit on a Pixar feature film, and her already storied career continues here. Shi established her unique storytelling voice in Bao, a short about a steamed bun magically coming alive, and her directorial and screenwriting vision continues into Turning Red. The developing and often tense relationship between Lee and her mother in this film feels particularly personal, as the expectations for how the child can serve her family is a theme of Chinese culture. Lee’s mother is revealed to have also had a particularly tense relationship with her own mom, leading her down the path to become the controlling parent that she is. Lee navigating all of this and growing alongside her mother Ming and learning how to develop their relationship, all amidst the threaten of the red panda, is told with such a personal touch and is ultimately one of the highlights of the film.

As is the case with Pixar projects, Turning Red’s animation is truly stunning here. The studio have always been trailblazers in this regard, with the development of the technology at the studio clear across the Toy Story trilogy, for example, and their excellent work is on display once again here. This is a common observation of Pixar titles, both their live action and short features, yet something not as noted is the subtle uniqueness of each individual story. This is clear once again here, as Turning Red’s visual style is different from that of Onward or Coco, for example. There’s a certain touch of anime to the art style of this film, and also a clear inspiration of Shi’s Bao short film, another highlight of this personal story and film.

The early 2000’s setting is also a nice feature to this movie, making Turning Red a period piece of sorts. It’s unique for a modern day animated title to go down a path like this, but it adds another level of uniqueness to have the story set roughly twenty years ago and not in 2022, when it’s released.

Since the film’s release, much has been made of the film, with some critics branding it an unrelatable story for much of the audience given its focus on a teenage girl going through puberty and her relationship with her Chinese mother. It ultimately seems an extremely unfair criticism on many levels, as it’s clear from the initial online reactions that many people all around the world are touched by the story and find it to be similar to their own lives. It’s also important to note of the children growing up and watching Turning Red, most of whom might not yet be able to take a side in the currently ensuing social media debate, and they themselves might find it to be a particularly relatable tale.

Verdict: 8.5/10

Turning Red is a deeply personal story with excellent animation, and is a much needed film in that it focuses on Asian-Americans, a group too often away from the spotlight in major titles like this. In typical Pixar fashion, the story is emotional and impactful, making Turning Red another highly enjoyable project from the studio.

Images courtesy of Disney and Pixar

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