I have incredibly complicated feelings about Disney which is the nicest anyone should feel. They’re the most monopolistic corporation in the history of media. They hold back progressive art through this monopoly while feinting towards progressive stances. They bought Fox only to destroy it and withdraw most of their films from the public. They’re also the owners of so much I love including Marvel and Star Wars. They’ve made great work through their myriad studios. I couldn’t ever truly boycott them because I’d deny myself what I love. It’s complicated indeed.
Last week it got worse. The company bungled its response to the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida. It’s come out the studio has suppressed LGBTQ content in its films. They tried to apologize but the discontent is out there. And it should be. This is a dark moment on that front and the biggest corporation can’t be neutral let alone hostile.
All of this puts a shadow over a film that does not need it. Turning Red, directed and cowritten by Domee Shi, already suffered the indignity of being denied a theatrical release, a fate that befell the previous two Pixar films. It then had to come out amidst the controversy of its distributor shooting itself in the foot.
Here’s the good news. The film is proving an immediate hit. I’m approaching 40 and my twitter feed is nothing but raves for the film. It’s received strong reviews and struck a chord with audiences. It will survive the troubled release and most likely be a film that matters to people for a long time to come. And it deserves to.
Turning Red tells the story of Meilin (Rosalie Chiang), an overachieving 13-year-old living in Toronto in spring 2002. She’s striving to be the best at everything, a mission fated to fall apart when she falls victim to the family curse and turns into a giant red panda. It’s a curse that impacts all the women in her line but it can be stopped with a ceremony the next month. The problem? It falls on the night of a concert from her favorite boy band and even more, Meilin starts to like being the panda. Will she get cured or is there anything to cure?
Much was made of a reviewer who boasted they found the film unrelatable, a review that annoyingly also ate up a lot of the discourse. This is patently ridiculous. Turning Red is one of the most relatable films yet from Pixar. I may not have been a Chinese-Canadian girl in 2002 but I was a teenager and the movie nails what being an academic overachiever seeking to succeed feels like. The characters in this film are inherently relatable, richly etched and highly specific. I watched it and I remembered geeking with my friends.I honestly am talking around her friends because you need to meet them blind then live in their world.
The movie also benefits strongly from a potent central metaphor. The easy one to connect it with is menstruation but I think there’s an even clearer one in trying to live up to expectations. Meilin is pushed to be the best in everything to make everyone happy. She snaps, in this case becoming a giant adorable kaiju. It’s not as ugly as a meltdown but it sure is familiar.
Given that it’s Pixar, quality animation can rightly be assumed. The company has been playing with more cartoonish styles in recent years and it looks great for it. This is proudly a cartoon. It even has an intense anime influence, especially in the eyes. Color is great here.
The movie is strong on the voice front. Chiang is a likable heroine while Sandra Oh does her usual phenomenal work as Meilin’s empathetic but stern mother. Supporting voices are great. This is the kind of film I expected to hear James Hong in and smiled when he showed up. The film also has remarkably strong boy band music that’s a spot-on pastiche from writers Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.
If the film has a weakness, it’s that it’s fairly predictable. Pretty much every plot point is broadcast from a mile away and I admit there were times I was waiting for the film to catch up. It’s not a bad thing given that I am a good 20+ years above the target audience, but I do have to note it.
What I’m ultimately left with on this film is a deep frustration that the film didn’t get the release it deserves. This is a phenomenal debut for Shi who establishes herself as an important voice. It deserves better than to be reduced to content for the service that threatens to be forgotten in a week. This doesn’t deserve to be seen just at home on TV. It should play on a big screen where the gorgeous animation can be soaked in.
This deserves the best. It’s a genuine triumph from an individual filmmaker and a top-notch studio that crafted something special. Put the politics and absurd reactions aside. Turning Red is gold.