The Friendly Film Fan reviews the studio's third-straight Disney+ release.
Back in December of 2020, as Disney and Pixar’s latest animated feature Soul debuted on the streaming service Disney+ (with no theatrical release), the world was introduced to a new normal of which we were blissfully unaware. One more Pixar streaming release and nearly a year and a half later, the latest effort from the animation studio, Turning Red, has debuted on the service – as Soul and Luca before it – sans a theatrical showing. Whether this is fair of Disney to do or whether it’s fair that CEO Bob Chapeck only seems interested in pushing funding towards projects exclusively owned and operated by the parent company while others like 20th Century, Searchlight, or even Pixar get the short stick is a discussion for another time, but it must be said up front that Turning Red deserved a theatrical release. Now, onto the actual review.
There are moments when Turning Red feels as though it might transform into something brilliantly subversive, and many times, it’s a hair away from doing so. The main character often bucks from tradition, sneaks out of the home, refuses to heed her mother’s wishes, and generally rebels almost the entire runtime, and the movie not only posits this as a good thing, but something essential to a child’s development as they grow in their independence, especially if their trajectory is distinctly non-traditional. In theory, Turning Red should be one of the most underrated Pixar movies to ever grace a streaming platform. Unfortunately, the execution of those ideas is a little undercut by the fact that this is…well, a kid’s movie.
Animation style and any gripes or defenses of it aside, Domee Shi’s first entrant in the Pixar canon has all the ambition it needs to truly cut through some of Disney’s toughest material: parental disapproval and broken parent-child relationships. To its credit, the film doesn’t completely fix the relationship between Rosalie Chiang’s Meilin Lee (a.k.a. Mei Mei) and Sandra Oh’s Ming (Mei’s mother) by its end, but it also doesn’t really make a definitive statement on Mei’s eventual place in the story. We know how we’re supposed to read into whatever’s going on, but it just seems as though the film could have taken 30 minutes getting there instead of nearly two hours, and much of that is due to the story’s lack of focus.
When Mei is at school with her friends or interacting with her mother, the movie’s cooking well, and one can tell there’s a lot more meat on the bones than previously thought, but then the moment would come when that meat is meant to be revealed, and it’s just…kind of there. The film’s attempts at comedy work for what the movie needs, but still largely fall flat, and while many of the metaphors and what the story is meant to be saying work in thought, they feel sloppy in practice. Perhaps the sloppiness is partially intent, partially happenstance, but nevertheless, messiness in story is one thing and messiness in storytelling is another entirely. Most of this can be attributed to the fact that Mei’s friend characters aren’t that interesting or three-dimensional (Mei herself feels largely two-dimensional most of the time), but it becomes most obvious when the rest of the family is brought into the fold.
Mei’s father is not a character; he’s a mouthpiece for the movie to bounce jokes and character development off of, but we neve actually get to see him develop at all. He’s always around, but never engaged, always in the home scenes, but almost never necessary. His one big moment with Meilin pokes at a sensitivity most animated dads take entire movies to grow into, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in him as anything but a chess piece, a way to move everything else to where it can go while he just stays put where he is on the board. In fact, pretty much any male character in the movie is a one-dimensional piece of cardboard for the movie to use in pretty much every way except advancing the plot or bringing nuance to the story. That’s not to say that the men should dominate the story more – this is very much a story geared towards and for young girls – but it sort of felt as if they were just dropped into a story in which they didn’t really have a place.
Where I will give Turning Red its largest line of credit is in how it tackles female pre-pubescence specifically as something that’s awkward, gross, uncomfortable – as all pre-pubescence is – but also entirely and unequivocally normal. The film references periods in no uncertain terms, and I can’t remember the last time an animated movie had the sense to talk about menstruation with anything except cringey embarrassment at even touching the subject. It may seem like a quietly revolutionary thing for an animated film to do so explicitly, but it’s greatest contribution is how non-revolutionary it feels. One notices the jokes around it and the natural embarrassment a child feels going through it for the first time, but the film doesn’t use these as a way to shun or put down the event of having a period; in fact, Mei’s mother goes out of her way to help her daughter get through her “red bloom” (though obviously the movie is dealing with something else entirely in that moment). There are many other thing the movie does well – the animation looks great, the editing is sometimes ridiculously whimsical, it’s not a slog to sit through, there are fun gags and side characters, and there’s stadium scene that’s really neatly executed – but they’re all things Pixar has always done well, so this stood out as something uniquely praiseworthy.
Simply put, Turning Red may present itself as something truly of a kind with its peers, and to some it will be – which is a good thing – but by and large, it feels like Pixar on cruise control, just cycling through the motions until the next Pete Doctor project can show everyone how it’s really done. Maybe Pixar needed to be on cruise control for audiences to see just how much pressure is put on them for quality filmmaking at a level most people don’t expect from live-action projects out of more scrutinized studios. I will still fight for films like this and for their theatrical releases, regardless of whether I believe them to be as good as they have the potential to be or not; but cruise control still won’t win any races, and Pixar is starting to fall behind.
I’m giving “Turning Red” a 7.1/10.
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.