A divisively brilliant animated flick
Remember when studios took risks? Remember the golden age of the 80’s and 90’s when films would come out and challenge our ideals and present something thought provoking or different?
Since Disney started monopolizing the film industry, we’ve seen other big studios shy away from these sort of projects, instead coughing out sequels, prequels and surprisingly off-beat spin-offs (who asked for Puss In Boots 2?) for fear of failing to turn a profit and ending up with a flop.
The result is a stagnant industry that largely plays by the rules and never really delivers anything all that challenging or divisive. At least not on purpose anyway (hello, The Last Jedi!) Thankfully, Pixar have never played by the rules. That may sound a little contradictory, given Pixar are a part of Disney, but out of all the studios working with the House of Mouse, it’s been Pixar that have always tried to push the envelope.
Inside Out gave us the message that it’s okay to embrace sadness; that’s something we rarely see on-screen. Wall-E presented the dangers of AI and climate change without being overly preachy while Toy Story 3 showed you’re never too old to play with toys and embrace your inner-kid.
These are all solid themes and something that many people can resonate with. Turning Red however, is arguably the most daring and bold of any Pixar film to date. Not only is this movie going to be received divisively, it’s also a movie that’s not shy about its subject material, and it presents its allegories and ideas in a way that’s likely to make some conservative parents uncomfortable.
The story here is set in 2002, with 13 year old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chaing) living with her family in a Chinese temple in Toronto, Canada. Mei has always aspired to please her strict mother Ming (Sandro Oh), achieving perfect grades and putting her above her her own interests. One morning, all that changes.
Mei starts to notice boys a lot differently, she has conflicting thoughts and – more noticeably than that – she’s also turned into a red panda. This transformation though is caused by extreme mood swings. There is a solution, and it comes from a family ritual dating back for generations, where the family gather together and on the night of the Red Moon to banish the Panda forever.
Of course, all of this is an allegory for periods and emotional baggage, which the film doesn’t exactly shy away from. In fact, Turning Red lovingly embraces it.
Seeing Ming scramble to pick up pads to help Mei or stuff herbal tea in her lunchbox to help with cramps are great nods toward periods, and there are even some embarrassing moments at school that lean into this idea too. Seeing Mei quite literally run away in embarrassment with her tail tucked between her legs feels indicative of those girls who have their period at school and find themselves completely out of their depth.
Thankfully Mei has a lovable group of girlfriends by her side who help to nurture her uncontrollable changes, and through the movie we see Mei embrace this side of her and actually start to control her emotions.
It’s great stuff and I can’t help but applaud how accessible this movie is to teach young girls that these changes are normal and natural. Of course, there is the added expectation on Mei given her Asian heritage, and the notoriously strict and sometimes overwhelming pressure put on these kids is something that’s going to resonate with a lot of women.
While this isn’t exactly a “chick flick” in the conventional sense, Turning Red has very clearly been designed with females in mind. That’s absolutely fine by the way, although there’s enough here for males to enjoy too. However, it’s quite bold and definitely interesting that Pixar have taken this stance, given most of their films have broad appeal for both kids and adults alike. This one though, feels much more geared toward females.
The story execution is a little messy at times, and the cynic could point at the lack of consequences for Mei’s actions as the panda, especially after assaulting a young boy. However, I like to think that this messiness is intentional. After all, puberty is a confusing, crazy time in your life, so for me it makes sense to have a movie that’s so sporadic and throws in an absolutely crazy final act. Expect giant pandas, fireworks and gyrating, alongside a big boy band number. Yeah, it’s pretty wild!
Turning Red is also pretty emotional too. I won’t lie, I definitely teared up at the end, and there are some big moments here that parents can definitely relate to. While it’s not quite as tear-jerking as that moment with Riley in Inside Out (which still makes me cry every time I watch it!), this is vintage Pixar at its best.
This film will not be for everyone but you know what? Hats off to Pixar. There should be more films like this. Although if Disney’s decision to boot this from theatres and throw it straight on Disney+ is any indication, even they haven’t got full faith in this.
Hopefully though I’m wrong and this is a sign of things to come; more of these sort of stories please Pixar, that would make Disney’s monopolizing of the movie industry that much more bear-able!
Verdict - 8/10