The released of a new Pixar film, once a major, all-attention-securing event, has received a notable downgrade in recent years, not just because of a considerable dip in quality (arguably just Inside Out and Coco are the only indispensable offerings in the last decade) but because of an inevitable change in release strategy. Just a month before the pandemic truly took hold, the fantasy caper Onward (yet another underwhelming effort) became one of the only 2020 films to get a wide theatrical release and as everything shuttered, Pixar’s next two films – Soul and Luca – leveled down to premieres on Disney+ even though the latter was released at a time when cinemas were fully operational again.
It’s a little odd that their latest, Turning Red, will also follow suit given the healthy state of the box office (a bright and zippy pre-spring Pixar adventure would have surely been a hit), but yet another sign of Disney’s bullish attempt to out-Netflix Netflix by forcing even the vaguest of fans on to its ever-growing streaming service. It’s also, perhaps, a self-aware demotion for another under-par film, one that’s not without merits and the occasional biggish swing, but a far far cry from the partnership’s wildly inventive heyday. What once felt organic has come to feel far too over-calculated from the wacky but-wait-what-if set-up to the but-wait-it’s-actually-really-about allegory and coming out less than a year after Luca, which had a similar transformation narrative, Turning Red feels like factory line Pixar.
But it’s worth stating that in an ever-saturated landscape for children’s animation, factory line Pixar is still much more proficient than most (excusing last year’s thrilling Netflix caper The Mitchells vs the Machines which had a similar “be your weird self” message) and there are enough high-colour highlights here to enrapture younger audiences while keeping elders at least somewhat involved, and at times directly spoken to, at the same time.
Toronto-set Turning Red turns back the clock to 2002 to focus on 13-year-old high-achiever Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), whose close kinship with her three best friends is forever pushed into second place by her demanding yet loving mother (voiced by Sandra Oh). Trying to juggle both sides of her life becomes even more challenging when Mei Lee discovers that one day, any extreme emotional state, otherwise known as having hormones, turns her to a giant red panda. It’s rather awkward given the chaos of her adolescence but initial horror soon turns into something more manageable when she discovers the upsides of her new condition.
There’s an all-too-recent whiff of the aforementioned Luca as well as elements of Disney’s Brave from 2012 and Inside Out three years later; like those films, we’re dealing with the pains of youth and how growing up affects the family dynamic as reflected via an outlandish conception. Playwright Julia Cho and co-writer-director Domee Shi have at least tried to add some specificity to the dog-eared formula as well as bravely, for the territory, confronting the less historically Disney-friendly elements of the experience. When Mei Lee first turns into the red panda, her mother assumes that the behind-the-bathroom-door panic is down to her first period and while it really shouldn’t have to be seen as a big deal, for Disney (a studio still playing coy over the existence of LGBTQ people in their live-action, let alone animated films), it’s a medium-sized step and it’s handled without any expected bashfulness. Mei Lee and her friends de ella are also proud fans of the N * Sync-aping boyband 4 * Town and one of her triggers is the feelings they arouse within her, another step toward realizing the teenage experience has more nuance than the studio has ever been willing to admit.
Like other recent Disney and Disney-Pixar films, Turning Red also does away with both love interest and villain and while the absence of the former remains rewarding (friendship again trumps romance here), there’s a death of genuine conflict. The mother-daughter dynamic is deftly avoidant of broad strokes (it’s far more layered and loving than strictness v rebellion) but it’s not quite enough to power the film as it heads to a big set-piece finale. Like Luca before it, Turning Red also takes a nifty idea and coerces it into a less nifty narrative – the girls must monetize the panda to raise money for a concert – and flashes of ingenuity become dulled by the more plodding main plot. There’s also something a little too box-ticking about the period setting, which is never truly justified as anything other than an attempt to appeal to millennial parents who can point and exclaim “That’s Bootylicious!” when Bootylicious plays, nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. What works far better are the boyband’s songs, crafted by Billie Eilish and Finneas, which are sleek enough to pass as N*Sync-alike earworms.
The journey is slick and diverting, and at times incisive, but Turning Red is yet another Pixar film that coasts rather than glides. Hopefully its next offering can turn into something more.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism