VOD film review: Turning Red
Written by Arthur
A character drama powered by a big idea, Pixar’s rare and intimate tale of puberty is terrific and deeply resonant.
Director: Domee Shi Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Orion Lee Certificate: PG
Turning Red feels at first to be quite a small film for the animation powerhouse of Pixar to be releasing. It’s a deceptively simple story about a 13-year old girl turning into a giant red panda as a metaphor for puberty and womanhood. While it is still powered by an exciting central idea, this is a family drama more in the vein of Studio Ghibli than, say, The Incredibles. Following on from last year’s similarly gentle Luca, some fans have been wondering: have Pixar lost their ambition? This fear is misplaced. There is undeniably a sea change in the house of the bouncing lamp, but Turning Red is a terrific film and, on this evidence, Pixar is in better health than it has been for years.
Pixar once made its name with high-concept ideas, cutting-edge animation and a big, beating heart, seen in films such as Monsters Inc, Wall-E and, of course, Toy Story. The studio blazed a trail into the relatively unknown world of computer animated feature films and no one could compete critically, even if Dreamworks’ lazier offerings sometimes had equally strong box office numbers. In the 2020s, however, big ideas and pioneering animation are no longer the sole territory of Pixar; Sony Animation’s The Mitchells vs the Machines and Into the Spiderverse were game-changingly good, while Disney Animation Studios continues to churn out the kind of mega-hits that dominate the cultural conversation.
Pixar’s response has been to go big on that third quality: when it comes to heart, Pixar remains supreme in the world of American animation.
Enter Turning Red, a film that puts its themes of family, tradition, growing up and friendship right at its centre. Alongside Luca, this thoughtful, low-key entry into the canon marks a new era for Pixar, one that should be welcomed with open arms. By putting their prestigious craftsmanship to work in service of more intimate character dramas, Pixar are finding some of their deepest emotional resonance yet.
Luca and Turning Red share lots in common; both are about children whose bodies change, resulting in rebellion against their parents and, ultimately, reconciliation. Both are stories told in a quieter register and reminiscent of Studio Ghibli in tone. Whereas Luca echoed films such as Ponyo and Porco Rosso, Turning Red reflects the honesty of Only Yesterday. These films still have the gloss and style of a major American animation studio, but also have a gentleness and intimacy.
One aspect that really makes this story take off is the specificity of the setting. This is a tale rooted in a time and a place. Asian-Canadian life in Toronto is not an exercise in diversity box-ticking; it’s the fibre that makes up the entire tapestry of the film. You don’t have to have the same background as 13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) to appreciate the level of detail depicted in her world. Toronto in 2002 is so lovingly rendered that it becomes as immersive a world as Monstropolis, the inside of a girl’s brain or the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a lived-in, tangible world and it makes Mei’s story really sing.
This vividly realised setting is brought to life by gorgeous, colourful animation. Here, it seems that Pixar has maybe learned something from its rivals, as the film’s hyperactivity and anime-influenced style have been lovingly borrowed from Sony Animation’s comic-book aesthetic. When hyper-real textures and lush lighting are a given – which they are by now with Pixar – such playfulness is a welcome addition to the studio’s palette.
The film wrestles with some surprisingly weighty topics as Mei balances a sense of duty and tradition with her youthful passions in the 21st century. To the film’s credit, this tension is held delicately, not making her parents – Ming (Sandra Oh) and Jin Orion Lee) – faith or tradition the villains. Instead they are factors in Mei’s journey to womanhood. Such rich complexity means that Turning Red transcends beyond the clichés of a coming-of-age tale, even if the outcome of this conflict is fumbled at the final hurdle by feeling like a trite, studio-enforced resolution.
That’s a small gripe, however, in a film that otherwise allows for thoughtful, emotionally satisfying storytelling. Pixar’s latest is a rare, intimate film and hopefully marks an ongoing evolution for the studio. It’s a character drama powered by a big idea, and it succeeds marvellously. Pixar may have competition these days, but it’s still the heaviest hitter out there.