The finest Pixar Animation features, in this critics’ opinion, play to a universal audience. We all imagined our adolescent toys coming to life during playtime, and feared the shadows that lingered in our closets or under our beds. By exploring those themes in Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., Pixar’s animators and storytellers constructed comedic yet emotional adventures that virtually everyone could watch and absorb relatable life lessons (some, depending on your upbringing, being more relatable than others).
Recently, though, Pixar has turned its reigns over to fresh voices, and given them the freedom to share deeply personal – though less universal – stories. Films like Onward, Luca, and now the studio’s Turning Red come from the heart, without question. But they also risk alienating audience members who can’t find a way into the story, beyond admiring the impressive animation that is the Pixar trademark.
Also, when seen from a bird’s eye view, Turning Red plays like Pixar’s version of Teen Wolf, only with a female protagonist turning into a red panda instead of a wolf. Complete sequences are lifted directly from Michael J. Fox’s underappreciated comedy and translated into animation here. The result is a jumble of familiar ideas and manic energy that exhausted me far more than it entertained me.
Turning Red’s target audience seems to be small, and incredibly specific.
In Domee Shi’s Turning Red, 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) tries her best to balance school work, an overprotective mother (Sandra Oh), her social life, and the raging hormones that have her drawing racy cartoons of the convenience store clerk on which she has a crush. Meilin runs into the expected gamut of teenage issues. She’s obsessed with a bubble-gum boy band called 4*Town, but her mom won’t let her see them in concert. She’s a closet artist, even though her mom has pegged her for a more serious career path. And she’s flowering into womanhood… which, in Meilin’s family, comes with its own problem.
Yes, Turning Red embraces the awkwardness of a teenage girl experiencing the onset of puberty, something unexpected in a Pixar feature (though welcome, for its seemingly honest portrayal). Meilin’s mother, for example, stands outside her daughter’s high school class in one sequence and screams because she believes her daughter has forgotten to bring pads with her. No doubt, female audiences watching will cringe and chuckle along.
A subtle and more nuanced story about puberty’s effects on teenagers might have been preferred. Turning Red, with a literal translation, can stand for the color one changes into once embarrassed. But Shi doubles down on the symbolism by adding a mystical wrinkle: Because of a curse passed down through her family, Meilin learns that she now morphs into a massive, fluffy red panda every time her emotions spike (there’s that Teen Wolf twist). She literally turns red. And this story hook leads to all of the expected plot turns, from Meilin frantically hiding her transformation to her decision to selfishly use the panda to win her popularity. Just like Teen Wolf did.
Throughout Turning Red, Domee Shi and her co-screenwriter Julia Cho pepper in jokes and references that will speak directly to teenage girls, be it their bonds over sappy pop songs, or their heated lust for older teen dudes. Without question, Turning Red is the horniest movie in Pixar history, which parents no doubt will find surprising. I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is fine… but also, a tad limiting in its scope.
Turning Red has a frantic energy and a manic pace that wears you out after a few minutes.
Again, the protagonist is a hormone-soaked teenager who is trying desperately to quell every emotional fit, so as to prevent herself from turning into an actual panda. So by design, Turning Red needs to ramp up its nervous system and plug directly into the mindset of a young woman. It’s … a lot. It demands Turning Red to ramp up to an “11” and stay there. It wore me out.
When Turning Red tries to lose itself in Meilin’s creative process, celebrating her drawings and exploding with visual flairs inspired by her work, it just reminded me of the far superior The Mitchells vs. The Machines, another film that focused on a female character experiencing a major life change (but one that also remembered that a broader audience will be checking the film out, so it bothered to include plot elements everyone could find engaging). As someone who appreciates the guilty-pleasure joy of a good Boy Band track, these elements of Turning Red are never as amusing as the movie wants them to be. But the thematic split that tears Turning Red to shreds is the mystical red panda bit, which is radically different from the grounded “teenage girl faces fears of growing up,” and often makes Domee Shi’s movie feel like two stories working in opposition of each other.
There’s an audience out there for Turning Red. And when that audience finds the movie, I’ve no doubt they will celebrate it for the unique animal that it is. In my opinion, however, that audience is relatively small, and I’m not part of it.