Turning Red — out Friday on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar — is just the third original effort in Pixar’s 27-year history of releasing female-centric films. (A few sequels or spinoffs fall within the range, making a grand total of five films out of 25. The other 20 are male-led.) Turning Red is responsible for an even bigger behind-the-scenes Pixar debut, with the director Domee Shi – Oscar winner for her short film Bao in 2018, released ahead of Incredibles 2 at the cinema – being the first woman to direct only a Pixar film. (Before that, Brave’s Brenda Chapman held the only honor of a female Pixar feature film director. Brave is one of those other two aforementioned original efforts.) So it’s clear that Pixar — or perhaps animation in its together – urgently needs an imbalance correction, even more so than the rest of Hollywood.
And thanks to her female perspective – Shi wrote the screenplay for Turning Red alongside playwright and TV screenwriter Julia Cho (Halt and Catch Fire), based on a story crafted by Shi, Cho and The Wilds creator Sarah Streicher – coming of age animated middle school comedy is stepping into virtually uncharted territory for a Pixar film. On one level, Turning Red is about a 13-year-old girl struggling through puberty and adolescence, as her rapidly changing body freaks out and scares her. But on another level, Turning Red offers a commentary on the classic misogyny remark: women are too emotional. The young protagonist of the new Pixar film is repeatedly told to “contain her energy” – with characters alleging that it would be “impossible to contain the dark side” if she displays too many emotions.
There is diversity and some other firsts in other areas as well. Turning Red is the first Pixar film with a Chinese character, and only the second with an Asian character, after Russell in Up, oscar winner in 2009. And fortunately, their identity is not specified, they simply are. Turning Red is also the first to take place in Canada – but although Toronto’s multiculturalism is controlled, it is never explored in any meaningful way. In fact, all of the supporting characters are vastly underdeveloped, whether it’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Netflix’s Never Have I Ever) as the protagonist’s Indian-Canadian friend who has a handful of lines, or Pixar storyboard artist Hyein Park as a lively Korean-Canadian friend. who beatboxes. Turning Red’s diversity should have meant more than surface-level inclusions.
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Set in early 2000s Toronto – Shi moves away from her own childhood – Turning Red follows 13-year-old energetic, overachiever Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) who wants it all. Of Asian descent, Mei was raised with one sacrosanct rule: honor your family. That means prioritizing family duties over everything else, including spending quality time with her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse) who is Caucasian, and the aforementioned Priya (Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Park). But Mei is also a teenager. She and her friends are obsessed with 4*Town, a fictional counterpart to boy bands NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. (Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell provide catchy pop songs for Turning Red, which serve as the girls’ soundtrack — and ultimately, the film’s emotional foundation.)
So when the girls find out that this touring 4*Town is coming to Toronto, it’s a big deal — and an even bigger deal. Mei and her friends know their parents won’t let them go, and therefore they must find a way to raise the money they need – which is a lot – on their own. But for Mei, that’s far from the only challenge. One fine morning, as her hormones begin to take over, Mei discovers that she struts around in a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited. (That’s the literal meaning of the film’s title.) Mei learns that he’s attached to his family heritage, which is how Turning Red’s other major character comes in: Mei’s helicopter mother, Ming Lee ( Sandra Oh) who, in her own words, watches Lee like a hawk. A frightened Mei turns to her mother for help, who tells her the only way to control him is to contain him.
For now, Mei is fully on board, because all she wants in life right now is to attend the 4*Town concert. And she can’t do that as a giant red panda after all. On Turning Red, Shi does a good job of capturing the very relatable embarrassment of adolescence – doing justice to the metaphorical meaning of the film’s title – and the early scenes capture well the grimace and awkwardness we’ve all felt at several points in our adolescence. lives. (Turning Red also puts a fun spin on some elements by rote. Mei and her mom really love cleaning, which turns into a hilarious montage.)
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Turning Red clings to certain ideas – including that feeling of never being good enough for your parents and never being able to meet the standards judged for you. It shows the multigenerational impact that a creed like “honor your family” can leave, but it’s not given as much time and depth as it needs. On top of that, the second act of Turning Red fails to add it significantly, with Shi and Co. unable to expand on their themes in the usual Pixar fashion. And then Turning Red’s ending pushes into more action-fantasy territory that doesn’t add to its emotional beats. The film’s closing (voice-over) lines deliver its message succinctly, but it had to be shown instead of just thrown over our heads at the end.
It’s a sign of a movie that needed more rewrites and baking time – Turning Red is around 90 minutes long, but a minor Pixar effort overall. And the lack of depth is a sign that Shi is struggling to make the leap from shorts to feature-length projects. It’s also a blow for Pixar, as Shi is the only female star among the next generation of in-house filmmakers that continues to be a male-dominated environment.
Shi spent years with Pixar’s “Senior Creative Team” before receiving his first feature, alongside Enrico Casarosa who made his debut in the Italian adventure Riveira. Lucas last year, and Angus MacLane who, after co-directing Finding Dory, gets a solo shot with the Toy Story prequel spin-off Light year Later this year. They’re supposed to take over from Pixar veterans like Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich – veteran Docter directed Pixar’s last big movie, Soul, so they’re still around – but all is not well. While some struggled like Shi, others left to pursue their careers elsewhere after success. The growing pains continue with Turning Red.
Turning Red was released Friday, March 11 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar. In India, Turning Red is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. In countries without Disney+, Turning Red is available in theaters.