Turning Red (2022) Review

WE’VE ALL GOT AN INNER BEAST


 

Pixar Studios has become the premiere powerhouse animated studio for nearly the past twenty-five years; producing some of the more memorable and beloved animated feature films that have seeing a theatrical release. While other studios have indeed produced hits (i.e. DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment, Blu Sky, Warner Bros Animation, etc.), Pixar, a subsidiary company underneath the Walt Disney Studios banner, has capitalized on being the leading studio of children’s animated feature films; utilizing the bright and color world of cartoon storytelling to be made for the young audience, but finds a way into the hearts of older viewers; sparking strong themes of family, childhood, love, life, and difference of opinions. Some of their films, including Toy StoryFinding NemoMonsters Inc., Up, Inside Out, Coco, and Soul have certainly demonstrated this notion as well as strong family friendly films of quality stock such as Cars and The Incredibles. Now, following their previous release of 2021’s Luca, Pixar Animation Studios (as well as Walt Disney Studios) and director Domee Shi presents the 25th Pixar animated feature film with the release of Turning Red. Does this latest film find its place amongst Pixar’s illustrious animated library of memorable endeavors, or does it fail to meet the high expectations from the studio’s signature of endearing children’s entertainment?

THE STORY


Living in Toronto, Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) Ais your typical thirteen-year-old girl, enjoying a happy life with her close best friends, Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Miriam (Ava Morse), and Abby (Hyein Park), while shinning at school. The downside, however, is that Mei is obedient to her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), her overprotective parental figure that keeps a close eye on her daughter, refusing to let her experience anything that she finds doesn’t approve of. Mei and her friends are superfans of the popular boy band called “4-Town”, with the group making a tour stop in Canada. Unfortunately, Mei’s fandom for 4-Town is soon cut short as she soon finds out that her family has a curse, with young teenager feeling new emotions for the first time, triggering a full body transformation change into a giant red panda. Unsure and unfamiliar of what initial is gone on, Mei panics, learning that peace of mind makes transformation revert back to her normal self, while the young girl uncovers more of the history behind the curse, which can be reversed with a ritual occurring during a red moon. Waiting for such an event to occur for several weeks, Mei must try to learn how to control her emotions, navigating school and friendship with her newfound secret, while the concert for 4-Town happens to be on the night of the ritual.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Sorry if the opening paragraphs sounds quite familiar from what I wrote in my review for Onward, Soul, and Luca. It’s not because my lazy or just “cut and copy” everything, but it definitely fits all three reviews in what I want to say. So….it goes without saying that when a Pixar movie gets released, there is reason to the excited for. As mentioned, (but it’s almost common knowledge), Pixar Studios have certainly become the “leading” animation studio for a better part more of two decades. I certainly grew up with their movies, with the original 1995 Toy Story capturing my ten-year-old attention with its then state-of-the-art CGI animation and memorable characters. After that, I remember seeing the change in Disney’s releases (the latter half of their “Renaissance Era”) and the rise of Pixar’s animated features, with Pixar becoming the more dominant powerhouse than its parent company. Much like how Disney had their signature style of princesses, musical songs, and colorful animal sidekicks, I love how Pixar has their own personal signature; mixing ever stunning 3D animation and wholesome storytelling together in way that never undermines their quality of cinematic filmmaking as well as well-rounded entertainment for all. Plus, the tender themes and message that many of their theatrical releases promote are highly valuable and indeed more memorable than any other children’s cartoon movies out there. Some of my personal favorite Pixar releases have Toy Story 3Monsters IncInside OutIncrediblesCoco, and Finding Nemo. That being said, Pixar certainly has had one or two missteps along the way, with such movies like Cars 2 in 2011 and The Good Dinosaur in 2015, which are, more or less, considered the “black sheep” of the Pixar category. In addition, I personally think that Pixar relies too heavily on trying to expand upon its already established as brand / series (i.e., Toy StoryCarsIncredibles, etc.) and needs to focus a bit more creating original content. However, that’s a minor quibble. In the end, Pixar Animation Studios still continues to be one of the premiere animated studios out there and has no sign of stopping anytime soon. And that’s a good thing!

Of course, this brings me back to talking about Turning Red, a 2022 animated film and the 25th feature from Pixar Animation Studios. After the release of Luca, which had some mixed opinions from critics and moviegoers (It wasn’t the best of the studio had to offer, but was still quite an endearing and charming to watch), I was interested to see what Pixar had to offer for their next upcoming project. With 2022 having two new releases, I was quite excited when it was announced that a Buzz Lightyear (aka Lightyear) was coming out, especially for the summertime release. The other release (i.e., Turning Red) …. well…. I was less excited to see. I wasn’t completely sold on the film’s premise and the movie trailer for the animated endeavor looked like something that Illumination Entertainment would do. From the trailer alone, it didn’t feel like a Pixar and kind of lacked that immediate signature quality that the studio is known for. That being said, the movie trailers / marketing campaign got better as the film’s release date came closer, so I was just a bit intrigued to see it, yet still harbor some lingering doubts on the project. For better or worse, I was pleased that Pixar choosing to make a new movie (i.e., new story, new characters) instead of choosing to continue with a previous installment for another sequel. Thus, I would into seeing Turning Red, with a fresh look on the feature and hope that my lingering doubts don’t bleed into my viewing experience. Interestingly, due to the multiple variants of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pixar (under Disney’s banner) decided not to release the film as a theatrical release, which was set for March 11th, 2022. Instead, Turning Red was switched over to be released on Disney+; a move that still seems quite peculiar to me and has add a somewhat negative effect stigma on the Disney. Still, for better or worse, Turning Red was released on March 11th, 2022, as I watched it (on Disney+) the day after its release. And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few problems within its undertaking, Turning Red is actually a refreshing narrative from Pixar by ways and means of exploring puberty, friendship, culture and parenting in the guise of wonderfully animated production. It may not be Pixar’s absolute best, but it’s definitely of the studio’s quality of releases….and that’s good thing!

Turning Red is directed by Domee Shi, whose previous directorial the animated Pixar short Bao as well as being a storyboard artist for several Pixar film endeavors such as Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Incredibles 2. Given her background with the animation company and seeing how she had created an emotional storytelling connection with Bao, Shi seems like the logical choice for Pixar’s latest film, with the movie being her first directorial feature film. In this regard, I think that Shi does a great job in the director’s chair and makes quite an interesting and emotionally charged animated feature that both speaks to the modern audiences of viewers (both young and old) as well as speaking to Pixar’s endearing signature of comedy and heart. Approaching the animated material through her personal experiences, Shi shapes Turning Red into a “coming of age” endeavor with the usage of a teenage girl that goes through a sort of “magical puberty”; transforming into a giant red panda when her feelings and hormones heat up and come to surface. It’s a universal thing…. something that all of us have experience during our former youthful years of being teenagers and, much like Inside Out, Turning Red gives this particular platform about growing up. I’ll explain more about this a little bit below, but Shi embraces this idea in the movie and makes it a part of the feature’s narrative. It definitely works and is handles, for the most part, quite well.

Of course, I can’t overstate the importance of Turning Red’s cultural aspect with the movie showcasing the Asian culture (front and center) in the movie’s narrative. Much like Soul and Coco, Shi makes the movie speak and adhere to the importance of cultural representation in today’s modern storytelling by utilizing Asian people and their cultural beliefs to make up the main plot / narrative of the story. Thus, Mei’s family and her spiritual respect for their ancestor is present in the movie and do like how the movie handles those particular moments. Additionally, the movie has a lot of comedy, with many humorous moments and jokes coming off as spot on and great levity bits that is intermingled throughout the movie’s more heavy-hitting dramatic moments. This, of course, is similar to a lot of Disney / Pixar endeavors and Turning Red is no different and gets more right than wrong. There might be one or two jokes that fly over everyone’s head, but I found the comedy in the film to be great and funny in the moments that they are presented. All in all, while there might be a few bumps in the movie’s undertaking, I think that Shi did an exceptionally job in making Turning Red her animated feature film directorial debut; providing the right amount of comedy and heart to the picture as well as making her mark on the studio legacy of endearing cartoon movies.

As to be expected, the film’s thematic messages and understanding are in fully throttle, with Turning Red being another high bench point for Pixar as it carries the same type of signature pedigree that the studio is quite known for. Of course, the full dramatic points are there with the movie following Mei’s journey as a “coming of age” tale; following a sequence of events as undergoes a puberty through transformation and growing up by discovering hidden secrets about her family. What definitely goes hand-in-hand with this Mei’s relationship with her mother, Ming; finding the pair to have a certain struggle and relationship over what’s best for them and for each other. This particular scenario echoes back to Pixar’s Brave, which (again) focused on the relationship between a daughter and mother. Turning Red does this, but puts its own spin on the situation rather than trying to mimic (carbon copy) it, with Mei and Ming’s journey exploring different facets of each having personal demons within everyone. It’s a fundamental meaning and one that I like how the studio has embraced this ideology, which does come a bit heavy-handed at times (more on that below), but still manages to have emotional depth throughout the animated movie. Thus, Turning Red, whether one loves it or hates it, can’t deny that the themes and messages are quite universal and sweetly presented in the movie…. a lesson to learned by all.

The overall presentation of Turning Red is quite beautifully and wonderful throughout, which helps the movie stand out and have its own swagger compared to other recent animated films. Right from the get-go, the film has a very unique style and creates something quite different (in a very good way) from its competitors and Shi embraces that notion full heartedly. The movie doesn’t have the realistic proportion characters and / or life-like photorealism, but actually takes cues and aspects from Japanese anime by utilizing various facial expression as well as character style animation. Again, definitely quite unique and different, especially from a Pixar studio release, but it definitely works, with Shin giving the movie (the story, the characters, etc.) its own animation stamp / mark on the industry, which provides plenty of colorful style and identity rather than just a generic-looking computer-generated animated endeavor. Thus, the anime style works for Turning Red and makes the film have a greater understand of life and culture within its audience. In addition, I to have to admit that I love how Mei’s giant red panda looks in the movie, with the face having multiple facial expression that emote what the young girl is feeling and…well…just being so gosh darn adorable. Plus, as I mentioned before, I do find that the film’s setting of Toronto, Canada to be different and quite interesting to set the feature in…. something that I didn’t expect, but I liked it, especially with the art style utilizes to bring this suburban area to life. In addition, I do have to mention that the cinematography by Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko is great throughout the movie, which adds some visual cinematic flair to the proceedings in several dramatic moments as well as some emotional ones as well. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Ludwig Goransson, is solid across the board, with the musical composition bring the right type of energy and colorfulness one would expect from an animated film. That being said, the movie’s score does have some great musical notes that have some Asian-style influences that works great. All in all, Goransson’s work on the project is great. In addition, the film’s musical soundtrack of songs also provided plenty of context to the feature, especially the songs from 4-Town.

While enjoyable, Turning Red does a have a few areas where the film gets a couple of rough patches that the whole animated endeavor can’t overcome, with a few points of criticisms scattered throughout. Perhaps the most prevalent one that occurs throughout the feature is the heavy-handedness that the movie has on its narrative. As mentioned above, the film’s themes and message are quite palpable and very universal to growing up (something everyone can emulate / relate to). That being said, the film’s narrative just feels a bit heavy at times, leaning towards “driving it home” a bit too much in a few areas that don’t feel natural. This is something how I felt while I watched Pixar’s 2015 film The Good Dinosaur, which takes a very simplistic style story and drives the point (the message) a bit too hard than it need to be. Thus, the movie itself becomes a bit tedious a many areas; lacking the necessary balance that a movie like Inside Out or Coco were able to achieve. Plus, there are a few areas that feel wonky with the story of Turning Red playing “fast and loose” with its mechanics of what can work and shouldn’t work. Yes, I do understand that this is a kid’s animated feature and these projects usually do lean towards being “vague” it certain areas, but Turning Red is a Pixar releases and the standards are usually a bit a high in the moviegoer public eye. Basically, I think that the movie relies too heavy on its laurels and themes and lacks (or well partial lacks) that special “X” factor to becoming something truly magical.

In addition to this point, Turning Red does have a feeling that the film is lacking the sense of adventure throughout. Of course, the story of the movie is indeed one that (again) everyone can relate to, but it lacks the sense of something bigger than what the animated cartoon needs to be. Don’t get me wrong, the movie has a lot going on, but there are several pieces that are missing that could’ve easily been expanded upon to create both a more well-rounded film as well as a “bigger” adventure. Personally, I think that Turning Red is presented more as a drama animated feature than an adventure animated endeavor, with the project just missing out on a few important narrative pieces that could’ve helped out flesh the story a bit more. Perhaps all of this stems from the film’s script, which was penned by Shi as well as Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher, with Turning Red’s story, while indeed paramount and wholesome, seems a bit clunky with too much heavy reliance on its themes and not much on the adventure. To me, I would’ve made the movie have more of the adventurous aspect, with the character of Mei going on a personal self-discovery journey / adventure of undergoing her family’s secret giant red panda curse. There is a little bit towards the latter half, but just not enough. There’s a lot to like about the movie, but it needed something more, especially during the second act and could’ve been more refined in the script / story shaping.

Another problem that I noticed with Turning Red is that the film lacks a sense of a large threat or villain in the proceedings. While Disney (and even some of Pixar) has produced some memorable and almost “love-to-hate” antagonist cartoon villains, Turning Red goes with the current / modern tradition of bad guys of being more “misunderstood” problems. While something like this isn’t truly bad or terrible, it just seems a slightly tiresome coming from the Disney / Pixar’s recent releases from Frozen, Encanto, Soul, and a few others. Turning Red is another prime example of this, which makes the film lacking the classic “Disney villain” that the studio (and even Pixar on occasion) is quite known for….and that’s a point of criticism for me.

The cast in Turning Red is actually really good, with the collective acting talent involved on this project bring their energy and vocal performances to make the film’s animated characters to life. While not everyone mentioned below are super famous and / or A-listers of actors, literally almost all talents in the film are fantastic and make their mark on the feature. Perhaps the one who actually shines the most in the movie is the main protagonist of Meilin “Mei” Lee, who is voiced by actress Rosalie Chiang. Known for her roles in Clique Wars, The Interns, and Soiled, Chiang is considered a somewhat “unknown” acting talent, with Turning Red acting as one of her most ambiguous projects to date. That, in turn, makes for a wonderful platform to spring off of, with Chiang delivering a very dynamic / animated character that has a wide range of emotions from joyous and happy to sad and anger. It definitely works for the what the feature needs and Chiang gives a solid performance as Mei. Naturally, the character is the main protagonist in the film and does go on a fully story arc journey throughout. As mentioned above, I did notice that some narrative pieces in Mei’s story could’ve been easily expanded upon or presented slightly different, but (on the whole) I felt that the character was a great fit for the feature, with Chiang projecting a very energetic performance for a young teenage girl that goes through some changes (both physically and mentally).

Behind Chiang’s Mei, I would say that actress Sandra Oh does quite an impressive job as her overbearing mother, Ming Lee. Known for her roles in Killing Eve, Sideways, and Grey’s Anatomy, Oh has certainly been around the Hollywood circuit (both big and small screen variety) and acts as the “seasoned acting talent” in Turning Red. For her part, Oh does a great job and captures a very memorable performance in the movie, with her character of Ming acting as the sympathetic antagonist in the movie. Again, this is sort of kind of a problem for me as it’s not a strong Disney villain, but Oh still manages to make the character of Ming relatable, with her character having the classic overbearing / overprotective mother. She also has a few humorous lines in the movie that Oh handles quite well. In the end, while the narrative trajectory for Ming isn’t the most innovated or creative, Oh still manages to turn a solid performance in the character. In addition, I think that both Oh and Chiang do play off one another with gleeful easy, which makes the character / relationship between Ming and Mei that much more palatable and paramount to the film. As a sidenote, actor Orion Lee (First Cow and Skyfall) does provide an effective voicework as Mei’s quiet / supportive father, Jin Lee.

Who actually are just as important as the characters mentioned above in Turning Red are actually Mei’s friends, which consists of tomboy Miram Mendelsohn, who is voiced by actress Morse (Ron’s Gone Wrong and Somebody Somewhere), deadpan Priya Mangal, who is voiced by actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Never Have I Ever and My Little Pony: Tell Your Tale), and hyperactive Abby Park, who is voiced by art department / storyboard artist Hyein Park (Dragons: Race to the Edge and Toy Story 4). Like Mei, these four teenager girls have their own distinct personalities and show off the various multi-façades that showcases the different sides of young teenage girls. While decidedly more “supporting” players in Turning Red, Miram, Priya, and Abby are a important part of the film’s narration, especially when circling around Mei, with the film presenting the close-knit bond between the four of them. Personally, my favorite one is Abby as she (her character and Park) has some of the best lines in the movie.

The rest of the cast, including actor James Hong (Kung Fu Panda and Big Trouble in Little China) as Mr. Gao, actor Sasha Roiz (16 Blocks and Land of the Dead) as Mei’s teacher Mr. Kieslowski, actor Addison Chandler (Harvey Beaks and Barbie Dreamtopia) as Mei’s secret crush Devon, actresses Lori Tan Chinn (South Pacific and Orange is the New Black), Lillian Lim (Meditation Park and Birth of the Dragon), Sherry Cola (Good Trouble and Claws) and Mia Tagano (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) provide the voices for Mei’s aunt (Chen, Ping, Helen, and Lilly), and the members of the 4-Town boy band (Robaire, Jesse, Aaron Z, Aaron T, and Tae Young) are voiced by Jordan Fisher (The Flash and Liv and Maddie), Finneas O’Connell (Modern Family and Glee), Topher Ngo (making his debut with this movie), and Grayson Villanueva (Modern Family) respectfully. Of course, some of these minor supporting characters get more chance to shine than others, but all of these acting talents involved are solid across the board.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Growing up is a beast as Meilin soon finds out when a family curse starts to affect her daily life and messy up her normal life in the film Turning Red. Director Domee Shi’s directorial debut feature film showcases plenty of promise and heartfelt messages; shaping a Pixar film that has a plethora to say about family, relationships, and a “coming of age” tale that’s wrapped within an anime guise. While a few certain elements and execution are a bit wonky in the overall mechanics of the feature, a great majority of the movie works wonderfully, especially thanks to Shi’s direction, a universal message about growing up, an anime fusion style animation / presentation, a solid score, humorous / emotional narrative beats, and a terrific voice cast within these colorful and energetic characters. Personally, I liked this movie. It does feel certain areas could’ve been expanded upon and it doesn’t quite reach the same type of caliber as a few personal fan-favorite Pixar releases of the past, but the movie still has a lot going for it and I do embrace a lot of the motifs and theme that is being presented, which makes Turning Red stand out in a really good way. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “highly recommended” one as the film is fine example that the studio hasn’t lost its touch in being one of the forerunners of children’s entertainment, which is good for their fanbase and target demographics viewers. In the end, while it may not be out the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or Coco, Turning Red is a solid animated from Pixar; providing plenty of cuteness, humor, laughs, and most importantly the studio’s signature style of heart and emotion to tap into in a way that many kids’ movie fail to do.

4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: March 11th, 2022
Reviewed On: April 27th, 2022

Turning Red  is 100 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content, and language

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