The Media Man Reviews: Turning Red
Updated: May 6, 2022
Pixar has been hitting their stride lately. After the 2010's proved to be a bit of a struggle for them, things started to look up when they replaced John Lasseter with Pete Docter as the man to run the company. After Toy Story 4 came out, they finally stopped making sequels and have gone back to making original movies starting with Onward and they've been releasing critical hits like they did back in their prime with Soul and Luca especially being considered highlights of the studio's filmography in recent years. While the COVID pandemic has been a problem for Pixar (especially when Disney keeps throwing their movies onto Disney+ and not giving them a chance in theatres), that hasn't stopped people from highly anticipating their new releases, one of them being the subject of today's review.
Turning Red is the first of two new movies coming from Pixar this year, the second being Lightyear which I'll cover when it comes out. Turning Red is an interesting entry in Pixar's huge and fascinating history of cinema for this is the first Pixar movie to be solely directed by a woman, Domee Shi who is best known for directing the Pixar short Bao back in 2018, and it's also Pixar's first movie to be set in Canada while also being the second movie after Up to feature an Asian lead character. When this movie was announced, I was like "This is gonna be one of those weird premises that Pixar will somehow make work, won't it?" and when the trailers were revealed, I just got more and more intrigued with the film and couldn't wait to see it.
Now it's out on Disney+ for all to see, is Turning Red as fun and charming to watch as an actual red panda? Or will we be turning red out of anger for how bad the film is? I'm the Media Man and follow me as we dive into Pixar's Turning Red...
Section 1: The Story
Pixar movies have a habit of sounding weird when you describe the plot out loud, and this movie is NO exception. I mean the plot is about a teenage girl named Mei Lee who has this family curse where she turns into a giant red panda when she experiences extreme emotions. Even by Pixar standards, that is one weird plot! XD
And yet, just as I expected, Pixar once again takes a story that sounds decidedly absurd and makes it work surprisingly well. Turning Red is a movie that has everything we expected from a good Pixar flick: strong character writing, emotional drama, good comedy and a lot of heart and it delivers on those in spades.
The story is also yet another example of Pixar making their movies surprisingly adult and somehow keeping it family-friendly too. The reviews aren't exaggerating when they say there's a lot of stuff in here that might make you double-take and wonder how Pixar got away with it. There's even mention of menstruation, multiple times the word "crap" is mentioned, a moment where Ming accuses a guy for taking advantage of her daughter and as many people often interpret, the whole red panda curse is kind of a kid-friendly metaphor for puberty, going through change or possibly even coming out. Heck, the story itself even kinda sounds more like something you'd hear in a movie aimed at teenagers what with it being about a teen girl going through some kind of big change. And yet, the movie manages to still be appropriate enough for families, even if it might be best you watch it with older kids than young ones, much like how movies such as Up and Inside Out kinda feel more for older audiences too.
Speaking of older audiences, the story feels like something a LOT of kids, especially teenagers, can relate to. I imagine many people watching this will identify with Mei Lee's struggles to please her overly strict and controlling mother, her struggles with controlling the red panda (and subsequently the changes in herself) and also wanting to sneak out and go to concerts and parties that they'd otherwise be barred from going to. Let's face it, we've ALL gone through that rebellious streak in our lives and it's all done in a way that makes this movie feel so real as a result, giant red pandas notwithstanding.
I also like how the movie defies a lot of the usual clichés that come with this kind of story. We have no real villain for this story with Mei's mother being the closest we have to an actual antagonist (and even then, she's not evil, just protective) and when Mei's panda curse is revealed to her friends, they're actually cool with it and don't shun her for it. I can't tell you how refreshing that is when every story where the hero has some kind of shameful or freakish secret gets revealed and we have that moment where everyone's scared or disgusted with them but grows to like it in the end and this movie gives us a heart-warming twist on it. It's really sweet how Mei's friends are such loving understanding people that they don't mind their best friend turning into a red panda. It also feels believable for in real life, we can get that friend who's so understanding and caring that they're cool with whatever we might have to say or reveal to them, especially any embarrassing secrets. The fact her friends are still kids, as is everyone else in her class, also helps in selling how they're not freaked out by this as kids are always going to be the demographic that's more curious and fascinated by anything unusual than us adults.
While the heart of the movie is very touching and sweet as always, Turning Red is also a surprisingly funny movie. No exaggeration, I was legit laughing at a lot of moments in this movie be it how overly quirky the main cast is to the fantastic comedy that gives us a lot of well-executed slapstick moments with Mei's red panda form and a lot of snappy dialogue. I know Abby's overly enthusiastic personality was especially hilarious to me. Pixar has always been surprisingly good with its comedy and this movie's no exception.
All in all, Turning Red is ultimately a story about family and going through change. It's all about Mei's relationship with her mother, Ming, and how they're so close together but as Mei's getting older and becoming a teenager, things are changing between them and their relationship isn't going to be the same anymore. Director Domee Shi has even detailed that the movie is based on her own experiences growing up and the changing relationship between her and her own mother. As teens, we've all gone through this kind of change in relationships. We've been close to our parents as kids but then the teen years come in and things just seem to flip-turn upside down and we don't seem as close anymore. It's oh so very relatable in that regard and a reflection on the kind of changes we've gone through in our own lives. Once again, Pixar manages to come up with a strange sounding concept, and yet ground it in reality and make it engaging to watch with how much there is to relate to.
If I had to find anything to criticize, and I don't say that lightly as I don't like to criticize Pixar movies, is that the story may be very well told and brilliant with its metaphors...it's also pretty recycled too. I mean hear me out: the story is about a girl who wants to please her mother but has problems to overcome and the climax involves the girl and her parental figure falling out and a lot of destruction happening and the movie is about how being overly perfect does not equal good. Gee, kind of sounds an awful lot like Disney's Encanto, doesn't it?! Hell, a character from Encanto even cameos in the movie so that can't be a coincidence! You may as well change Mei and Ming's names to Mirabel and Abuela and give them a musical number about the amazing gifts of the Madrigal family and you've pretty much got the same movie! XD Hell, the plot even kind of reminds me of Pixar's Brave too what with it being another mother/daughter bonding movie that features one half turning into some kind of creature (bear for Brave, red panda for Turning Red) and the main characters are a growing, rebellious teenager and a loving but overly strict and controlling mother. It seems oddly coincidental that both times a woman directs a Pixar movie, they tell this kind of story, doesn't it?
But of course, being unoriginal doesn't mean bad, it's just that Turning Red could've made this plot a little less recycled compared to Encanto if you know what I mean. As for other things I didn't like about the movie, I really didn't like the stuff with Tyler. He's just a generic bully character who ends up using Mei's panda power as a means to get people to come to a party of his and come the end of the movie...he's revealed to be a 4-Town fan and the girls don't hate him anymore. If they'd devoted a single scene to showing Tyler being regretful and apologetic to his actions and desiring to make it up to Mei and her friends for being a jerk this whole time, it would've made him being accepted as their friend at the end feel more earned. As is, it feels like the writers just flipped a switch from "Bully" to "Friend" and called it "character development". It's not guys, it's lazy writing and should've been done better.
Also depending on the viewer, Ming might be a little too overbearing and thus might be seen as unsympathetic to some people. I felt her character arc was done well enough, but it wasn't perfect and I can easily understand why some may not like her.
As is, Turning Red is still another example of Pixar's great story-telling and I say it's admirable how they managed to make this weird sounding premise work in a story that tackles more adult subject matter while also being funny, touching and engaging to watch...
Section 2: The Characters
If there's one thing that's as colourful as the movie's visuals, it's easily the cast it has.
We have our bouncy, hyperactive protagonist, Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), who is probably one of the most believable teenagers ever written for a movie, animated or not. She is a blast throughout the movie thanks to her endearingly dorky and quirky personality but also carries much of the heart of the movie with her struggles with her new red panda form as it makes a big change in her life that she never would've anticipated. She is ultimately a good kid in the end what with being a good student and always valuing to please her mother more than anything, but she develops a more rebellious side as she's getting older and even uses the red panda form to further her own goals. Thankfully, she never becomes unlikeable or goes too far when going through this and is ultimately still a relatable and sympathetic protagonist. Anyone saying they can't relate to her has probably never been a teenager in their life because I guarantee just about ANY teen will relate to this character or see a bit of themselves in her.
We have her trio of friends, Miriam, Priya and Abby. While their characters aren't as deep or developed as Mei and are mostly just one-note tropes, they are just as endearing as Mei herself thanks to their individual personalities giving them a fun little quirk that makes them enjoyable while also being very nice people in general who are the ultimate example of good friends. They accept Mei just as she is, red panda and all, and play a part in helping Mei go through her struggles and accepting the changes she's going through. They also add a lot to the movie's comedy too, particularly Abby's over-the-top scenery chewing nature which made her the funniest character in the movie to me. Seriously, I could watch a whole movie about Abby just going crazy, it'd be hilarious! XD
And then there's Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh). She's Mei's overly protective mother, and believe me, the movie spares NO expense in showing just how ridiculously protective she is, whether it's played as a joke or to show how damaging it is to her relationship with Mei! Like any well-written character though, Ming has an understandable and even sympathetic reason why she's such a worry-guts and as we learn her own past regarding the red panda curse, it's easy to see how and why she turned out the way she did. As I say, some might find her too overbearing and I can understand why anyone might not like her, but I personally felt she was well-handled and managed to believably learn her lesson in the end. Like how teens can relate to Mei, I can see adults relating to Ming as I'm sure many mothers and fathers have gone through these kinds of struggles with rebellious teenagers and the changes going on with their children.
The only other significant character to mention is Tyler. I did not like him at all and felt his story was botched in the execution. As I say, just one single scene of him making up to everyone might've saved this character for me and made his change from bully to friend of Mei's gang more believable. As is, he's just a generic bully character and has nothing else going for him aside from him secretly being a 4-Town fan. Still, I've seen worse bully characters in other media (and worse redemption arcs) too so I'll give him a pass. He could've been better, but at least he wasn't worse than he was.
We have a few more minor characters like Mei's other family members who end up being more important than we might think. Mei's dad especially has a really lovely scene where he and Mei talk together and that conversation ends up influencing Mei's later decisions in the movie and Mei's grandmother and aunts add more to the film's world-building and family lore. Let me tell you, when I first saw Mei's grandmother, I was worried she was going to be some kind of forced, unnecessary villain that would ruin the story but thankfully, they didn't do that with her, which made for a neat subversion of expectations.
The film may not have the biggest cast out there, but the characters they have are memorable, quirky, fun, endearing, sympathetic and enjoyable (all except for Tyler) to watch and make this movie such a fun treat to engage with.
Section 3: The Animation
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Pixar's movies have really good...
Yeah, that's the reaction I expected. XD
Seriously though, what's new around here? Saying a Pixar movie has great animation is like saying water is wet and fire burns. This movie is especially an example of just how good Pixar's animation has gotten over the years. The movie manages to make the city of Toronto look very beautiful with the huge towering city skyline complete with the CN Tower looming over everything and the huge amount of details that are everywhere as well as being very colourful to make the movie look even more appealing to the eye. Domee Shi has even described the film's colour palette as "an Asian Tween Fever Dream" and it really shows here. Pixar has especially been doing great at making realistic and gorgeous looking settings ever since the 2010s and this movie makes Toronto look as beautiful and real as Soul did for New York City back in 2019. All the textures look incredibly convincing and like you can actually touch them from the clothes the characters wear to the furniture in Mei's house to the fur of Mei's red panda form and so much more. It's almost uncanny how much animation can blur the line between fiction and reality with how realistic computer animation can look these days.
Thankfully, the character designs keep us in a cartoon world so we don't fall into uncanny valley. Some have taken umbrage at this movie's art-style for deviating from the norm and looking closer to something out of a modern Disney or Cartoon Network show. While I agree that the character designs kinda look a bit Gravity Falls-ish rather than Pixar's usual style (especially with Mei's mouth), I think the characters look fine enough and the style works to this movie's benefit. This movie IS a comedy remember and the more cartoony character designs reflect that while also giving us some very expressive characters be it how they show their emotions or how they move. The movie especially plays with the character animation and how expressive these characters can be, particularly Mei who has A LOT of hilarious expressions during her more emotional moments and the exaggerated moments play into the movie's comedy even more with how over-the-top it can get at times. It shows that this movie takes a lot of cues from Japanese anime with the more frenetic movements and it even plays on some anime clichés such as that joke with Mei's dad having the shiny scary glasses look, only for it to turn out they frosted up. It is a style different to what we're used to from Pixar, but it's one I feel really gives Turning Red its own identity and plays more into its strange premise and how it's from the perspective of a teenager.
I also like how the setting accurately captures an early 2000's setting. From the older technology we see to the absence of any modern phones to even Mei carrying a Tamagotchi, it's very clear that time period this movie takes place in and for someone like me, it feels pretty nostalgic as a result while also making this movie more unique for no other Pixar movie has this kind of setting. Animated movies have to work a lot harder to stand out these days so major props to Turning Red for finding a way to have its own unique identity.
Not only is the movie absolutely gorgeous to look at and really fun to watch, but it also takes advantage of its concept and really brings it to life. The work put into Mei's red panda form is amazing in how they managed to make her look so big, poofy and cuddly and they play around with it a lot to give us some action, comedy and emotional moments. We even get to see more of this concept when more red pandas come into action, particularly in the climax where we get a kaiju-sized one going on a rampage and they manage to make it look genuinely threatening as it's wrecking the stadium Mei and her friends are at. I also really liked the moment where Ming explains the story behind the family curse and the scene changes into an ancient Chinese art-style to make it look as if it's an old Chinese painting come to life and it plays out like a motion comic. That was really cool. What was also cool was the ritual scene where Mei has to decide whether to release or except the panda and the spirit realm she enters is this tranquil bamboo forest with a portal she has to go through in order to be cured of her condition. It's almost like a visual metaphor for "finding peace within yourself" and it's a great visual to go with.
Pixar has always pushed the boundaries of what they can do with their animation and Turning Red is another example of how there's no such thing as "reaching the top and that's it". They reach the top and keep on climbing and it's resulted in one pretty, fun and awesome looking movie that's a pure treat for the eyes. It maybe repetitive when it comes to saying "Pixar's animation is great", but it's because they consistently make their animation look so amazing as to why it never gets boring to talk about...
Turning Red is another home run from Pixar. With its surprisingly relatable story, quirky sense of humour, interesting use of Chinese culture, fun and colourful cast of characters and absolutely gorgeous, anime inspired style of animation, this movie is once more a sign that Pixar can't do wrong and that they've really gotten back into their stride despite the change in management. True the plot may feel too similar to Encanto and some characters are problematic, it doesn't stop this movie being an enjoyable ride and I have a feeling this'll become a huge fan-favourite for many Pixar fans. I highly recommend giving this a watch, especially if you're a teenager as it may help you come to understand yourself a little more or if you're a parent of a teenager as it'll give you something to relate to. Pixar turned into a big fluffy red panda in this movie, and it's as fun and appealing to look at as a real red panda...
And that's it for my review of Turning Red. I hope you enjoyed this review and feel free to share in the comments below what you thought to it. Did you like it? Did you not like it? I'd love to hear what you guys thought to the movie. Next time, I'll be doing a countdown in where I'll be going over a list of ten characters who I feel deserve better than what they've had in their times in the spotlight. See you then guys!
This is the Media Man signing off...