source: Disney+

The Pixar brand has gotten more complicated of late. An up and down track record will do that, especially after it was built up as the preeminent animation studio, a savior of family films, a revered brand. Whether all that hype was truly earned is debatable (even in its heyday people would heap praise then shrug off Cars and entirely ignore A Bug’s Life). Now over 25 years old and deep in the mire of finding new people with great ideas, you’re much more likely to get a mediocre base hit than a home run from the studio, but hope always exists, its glory days still giving any film with its name attached a rosy glow.

Unfortunately, Turning Red will do nothing to persuade people that the studio has gotten out of its rut, but thankfully it doesn’t dig the ditch any deeper. It’s a perfectly fine little film with engaging characters, parent-appealing cultural throwbacks, and the familiar message to embracing yourself.

In a setup not dissimilar to Pixar’s previous feature, Luca, Turning Red centers on a kid with transformation problems. Where Luca saw a fish monster become a boy, Turning Red sees a girl become a red panda, and in both the physical changes coincide with an identity crisis. Mei was a rather serious 13-year-old before all the trouble started, studious and more than a bit deluded about how independent she was from her mother. Overall, though, she had a quiet life, one that couldn’t continue when intense emotions started triggering the fuzzy transmogrification (as if a 13-year-old can avoid intense emotions).

The film is most notable for being several firsts for Pixar: the first film directed solo by a woman, the first set in Canada, and the first to center on a character of Asian descent (Up had Russell, but that movie was about Carl). Unfortunately, these firsts don’t manifest in a story that brings much that’s unique to the table (admittedly a bad metaphor, because the one delicious bit of uniqueness is the food). The cultural specificity doesn’t bring out an eye-popping scenario like Coco did, nor does it set up relationship dynamics that will be all that unusual to general audiences. 

Or maybe I feel that way because much of its cultural specificity comes from my own childhood. To be clear, I’m a white American, so I don’t mean any of the parts about being Chinese-Canadian. What I’m referring to is its period setting, the early 2000s, replete with tamagotchis, brick cell phones, and ravenous fandoms for boy bands. I was around the same age as Mei at the time, and the way her group of friends interacted and what they obsessed over gave the film a homey feel. It’s only after the film ended that I realized these elements were for the adult audience, ostensibly a nostalgia shot for parents taking their kids to the movie. I am not a parent, and despite knowing many people in my age group who have kids old enough to demand watching this movie over and over again, the realization made me feel acutely old.

But credit where credit is due: all the details of this world that I’m capable of verifying are accurate and deftly integrated into the story, including the refreshingly honest way it taps into budding desires. Of course a woman wouldn’t shy away from the reasons girls were into boy and girl bands (the sexual undertones were hardly hidden), and Mei and her friends’ exuberant, unencumbered, and awkward expression of their crushes are spot on (also, shoutout to the sweetness of tamagotchi care). 

If only the story around it had the same specificity, a drawback which is surprising given it’s co-written and directed by Domee Shi, who gave us the incredible short Bao. Through its own transmogrification tale (and again with food that looked delicious), she gave us a familiar journey with rough edges, the kind that make stories stick in your heart. It’s these edges that Turning Red lacks, the toughness that, even when toned down for kids, gives the whole thing weight.

Where this is particularly missing in Turning Red is between Mei and her mother. They are the emotional core of the movie, starting out in an unhealthy but well-intentioned symbiotic relationship. Given the nature of growing up, you know they’ll grow apart (again, see Bao). But instead of adding real emotional weight to the painful moments between mother and daughter the film adds red panda weight, which is fun in the moment but pretty easily shed. Which is too bad, because there’s plenty in Turning Red that deserves to be remembered.

Release: streaming on Disney+ March 11th
Director: Domee Shi
Writers: Domee Shi, Julia Cho
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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