Turning Red review: A refreshing puberty movie that can’t be separated from the Disney machine
Dir: Domee Shi. With: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse. PG certified, 100 minutes
turn red is a charming coming-of-age story with lovely imaginative touches and a refreshing lack of unease when it comes to its themes of puberty and teenage sexuality. But it does not exist in a vacuum, and it is difficult to separate it from the context in which it is published.
Much of the film’s early press bragged about its incremental victories: director Domee Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar film on her own, it’s the first Pixar film to revolve around a female character Asian, and the first to be guided to the screen by an all-female crew. Rather than toeing the corporate line, shouldn’t we be asking bigger questions? Particularly in a week where the Pixar overlords at Disney have repeatedly defended their funding of American politicians backing the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” The bill aims to prevent schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, with Disney CEO Bob Chapek arguing in a statement that the company’s “diverse stories” such as Black Panther, Soul and modern family are “more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort”.
Disney/Pixar are naturally proud of this turn red represents, but questions remain. Why did it take Pixar 25 films to get here? Isn’t it depressing that Shi became Pixar’s first female director only credited because Brenda Chapman was unceremoniously dumped from her 2012 film Brave halfway through its production? And isn’t it strange that turn red was transferred to Disney+ rather than getting a theatrical release?
It’s too bad, because turn red is often striking. It revolves around Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), an enthusiastic 13-year-old teenager living in Toronto in 2002, who is suddenly beset by hormonal urges and physical changes that she cannot control. “Has the red peony bloomed?” asks her concerned mother (Sandra Oh). In a sense, yes. Whenever Mei gets too excited or fantasizes a little too much about dreamy boy band 4*Town, she transforms into a huge red panda.
As metaphors go, it’s appropriate. Puberty is a beast, a painful mix of unbearable and embarrassing. Chi dramatizes it with rich empathy, acknowledging the awkward fantasy of early crushes and shy rebellion, but never scoffs. It’s a level of care that extends to the animation, which pulls from the east and west – there’s the stretchy faces and moonlit rooftop anime dashes, and the typical Pixar furry details. The colors often dazzle too, from Mei’s panda members appearing in flumes of pink smoke, to the boy band members so pretty they seem to sparkle.
The actual plot mechanics, however, are less interesting. Mei and her friends monetize her own panda to raise money for concert tickets, and the film’s finale is a kaiju-style brawl involving giant red pandas crashing into each other. The film also loses sight of its central metaphor, the parallels of puberty giving way to an elaborate family mythology dating back centuries. It sometimes feels like Shi came up with an ingenious allegory, but then worked backwards, leaving the final third of his film feeling blurry and far grander than necessary.
In its early stages, turn red is incredibly different and filled with heartfelt warmth when it comes to themes of youth and the panicky weirdness of the human body. That it becomes a loud, action-oriented spectacle unfortunately seems inevitable for a Disney film. But it also serves as a helpful reminder not to get too carried away with the progressive optics of corporate products. Yes, turn red is a positive company in many ways, but these things still warrant a degree of skepticism.