Directed by Domee Shi
Written by Sarah Streicher, Julia Cho, and Domee Shi
The animated features of the Disney corporation—and this goes for Walt Disney Animation Studios, obviously, but just as much for their cousins at Pixar—have had a problem, going back several years, at least all the way back to Tangled, of having what feels like uniformly aggravating trailers. It's as if the dictate in every case has been to sell the movie as the least sincere version of itself possible. To this end, gags are removed from their context and sarcastic bits lifted from the flow of the dialogue, and then edited together for intensely annoying two minute experiences. I don't know, maybe they were just as annoying in the 90s and I'm just not twelve anymore. The upshot, anyway, is that Tangled looked annoying; Inside Out looked annoying; Zootopia looked annoying; The Incredibles 2 looked annoying; Soul looked annoying; God help me, even Moana looked kind of annoying. And so I've been well-trained to ignore any trailer for a Disney animated feature as thoroughly unrepresentative of the work itself; and yet over the past few years they've become less a lie told on behalf of snagging sugar-addled youth and more of a window into what the film would in fact be. The trailers for Ralph Breaks the Internet and Raya and the Last Dragon and Luca made those movies look annoying, and lo, they were very annoying. You see where I'm heading: Turning Red, feature debut of director (and co-writer) Domee Shi, formerly of the extravagantly good Pixar short film "Bao," looked real damn annoying, like being annoying was a fundamental part of its narrative weave.
It is, and this is borne out very quickly, so before I get too far, let's concede there's at least an intentionality to how annoying Turning Red is. It's a film about pubescent kids in 2002 and as far as big-budget family animation goes, it's as "naturalistic" about this fact as it could potentially be; accordingly, it's rather high-pitched and wearyingly manic (relax, cop: this would be the case if it was about boys, too, and thankfully it's irritating in rather more useful ways than Luca, which was evidently irritating just to give its characters noises to make). There's the sense that Shi knows this, then, even if she is absolutely too forgiving of it, and both the awareness and the permission she affords her film to just melt your face off in its obnoxiousness are on their fullest display in its very opening gesture, a startling direct address from our heroine, 13 year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), who hypes herself to the heavens as she describes how unbearably rad she is while also appearing to bug most of her classmates at school, as well as nearly every single person on her trips between there and her home in Toronto's Chinatown.
She's found partners in what looks like some overtly dire uncoolness, though they appear to be largely accepted by their peers, in the form of her three color-coded best friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park), and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), whom the Wikipedia summary insists have individuating character traits and not just green, purple, and yellow clothing. (In Abby's case this is fair enough, though if not for exposition to the contrary, your guess from her behavior and character design would be the other three girls had unaccountably befriended an unruly toddler.) Either way, their acceptance is something of a lifeline for Mei, whose home life is, let's say, more narrowly-defined, thanks to her overbearing mom Ming (Sandra Oh) and disengaged dad Jin (Orion Lee). Ming insists on grades and discipline, and is not above employing Mei as uncompensated labor at the Lee family business, a tourist trap Chinese shrine dedicated to their family's apparent mascot, the red panda. But Mei will shortly learn that the legend of her foremother's transmogrification into a red panda should be taken literally, and that, as Ming says, the gift of the gods to the Lee family has become in the centuries afterward "an inconvenience."
So, it's the one where the girl turns into a giant red panda in Hulk-like fashion upon the onset of puberty, do you get it? she's "turning red," wink wink (and also suddenly covered in fur). Implicitly, however, this is a little earlier than her parents expected—the first thing you may narrow your eyes at is that Ming and Jin have never broached this issue despite its paramount importance, though they do appear to have discussed what "periods" are, and assume that's what Mei is losing her shit over. Yet, so far, this ain't bad at all, and there's something appealingly novel to the prospect of an animated film being this direct about periods, so much so that were I a Disney shareholder, I would be furious that they missed an opportunity for some unique product placement. This bold menstrual metaphor is reframed about as soon as the talking point is presented, unfortunately—unless I missed that moment in 2002 when girls all over Canada monetized their menarche for display to select audiences. I assume it would've made the news.
You see, following her initial confusion and fear, once Mei learns to stay steady and bring out the panda only upon command, she embraces the transformation, establishing a brisk business with her classmates to "see the panda" and, like I said, the metaphor has been shifted. Her parents, meanwhile, get things ready for the ritual to dispel the panda, anxiously awaiting the next red moon; but as Mei's feeling her oats, she rebels when the date conflicts with the goal she's been pursuing with her panda show side-hustle: seeing her favorite boy band, 4*Town, when they arrive in Toronto.
Look, a lot of this frankly sucks: I realize that the smallness is the point, for do young teens not pursue frivolous objects with obsessive determination? Sure, but Detroit Rock City would have a different valence if the guys were, like, all skipping scheduled surgeries. The thing is, this is barely enough plot to power a film. It is, in all earnestness, arguably less plot than Teen Wolf, and Teen Wolf is a movie that exists solely because the image of a werewolf playing basketball is briefly hilarious. The rules themselves are awfully gauzy: Mei's triggered by any strong emotion, not any specific strong emotions, which kind of muddles any remaining significance to the metaphor. The stakes are the thinnest a Pixar movie has ever attempted, and what stakes it starts out with more or less dissolve. Mei's transformation becomes so benign so quickly—the transformation process isn't even kid's body horror—that by the time it's been trivialized to the point that she's almost expressly a birthday clown, it's practically a lateral move anyway. (In the same scene, the film takes a step too far, and by attempting to supply a little touch of danger to Mei's transformation, confirms only that there is none.)
I'm almost baffled by her peers' reaction to the transformation; imagine a film—hell, imagine a Teen Wolf—where the werewolf isn't even incipiently scary, just purely a remarkable curio to gawk at. And pet. I'm told that, in this phase of the metaphor, we have completely abandoned "periods" and "pubes," and now it's something-something about commodifying your identity. This is much less intuitive than "puberty made me a beast and put me in a body I no longer understand!!!11one" though of course Mei doesn't merely understand her new body, she's a high-level user, for example having mastered the ability to momentum-cancel by shifting into and out of her human and panda forms. It's a mechanic that feels like an enterprising young superhero comics writer from the 90s came up with it after pondering the implications of her powers as they've been presented for a couple of decades. I absolutely do not mean this as a compliment; I mean it as synonymous with "somebody got bored." (As for the mix-and-matching Mei accomplishes, Shi obviously intended Turning Red as a love letter to tween catgirl enthusiasts, on top of its other, er, niche appeals; and, for other reasons—though for this reason too, even if such things be highly illegal in Canada, last I checked—Shi even more obviously intended it to be a love letter to the erotic fanart community in general.) Shi, or somebody, finally realized what an edgeless scenario this is, albeit only very late in the game, which is why the script imposes a kaiju battle with an unleashed mommy panda onto the third act, in conformity with the Pixar action-adventure formula. The bigness this entails was almost certainly the wrong choice for something that should've been intimate and actually frightening, rather than just overborne and farcical. But credit where it's due: given the overriding goal of being Happy Carrie For Babies, combining the prom scene and attempted filicide scene makes good screenwriting "sense." I would also like to just ask an open question: what the fuck is a "4*Town"? It's a play on "O-Town," but it only makes sense in that context. Almost every boy band made a credible effort toward a cute pun name—even every parody boy band does, for example, "Boys 4 Now"—and this is just indecipherable.
If the foregoing suggests a wacky comedy to you, then that's probably more-or-less an accurate impression, one unfortunately helped along by the design mentality that went into it. It's not entirely unsuccessful as a comedy; though our introduction is almost assaultively unpleasant, Mei winds up a winning heroine, with enough substance to invest in despite her opening attempt to repulse us (and despite a situation that is alarmingly stereotyped in every conceivable place an Asian stereotype could be inserted, though Turning Red is also so nakedly semi-autobiographical that it's hard to object). In any case, Mei herself is a somewhat reliably funny figure, but then, the things that happen to Mei that are "funny" are mostly things that might be funny in retrospect, ten or twenty years down the line, and yoked as we are to her they are not ha-ha funny in the moment, occupying that sort of cringe comedy/reach for a razor blade out of empathetic embarrassment zone that Eighth Grade, to its great success, lived in for its entire runtime; and there are great scenes with Mei, as ambivalent and painful as your emotional reaction might be, that take full advantage of the animated form to dive us into the weird, perilously-horny, constantly-mortified world of a thirteen year old girl. (Somehow it's the period stuff that's driven the conversation, when there's a sequence that is as frank as a Pixar movie could get—and is franker than you would think it could conceivably get—that Mei is literally seconds away from discovering masturbation by means of her self-drafted porno art of a merman, and the cartoon sweat that pours from her brow upon completing her minimalist masterpiece is a shockingly physical touch.)
Mei's basic sympathetic appeal does not extend one micron beyond her person, and it would take all the charity in the world to even describe her friends as "characters" in this movie—I felt put-upon listing their voice actors—and it is through them that the most thoroughgoing weakness of Turning Red is most saliently expressed. That's the film's outright awful character design, representing Pixar's ongoing attempt to translate Cartoon Network beanmouth faces into fully-rendered 3-D animation, and with the studio's last two films pursuing a goal nobody asked for, one has to wonder if it's on track to becoming a house style. (Yet if so, why? The simplest explanation is that animators like Stephen Universe for reasons that might be clearer to me if I could have stomached more than five episodes of Stephen Universe. I may not even be spelling it right.) I can take or leave it, anyway, in 2-D; in 3-D it's just a straight-up failed aesthetic that looks cheap and artless, and has a marked tendency towards turning characters into grotesques, especially as their mouths warp into wide dogbone shapes to reveal enormous individually-rendered teeth that make them look like they've shoved a pair of spinal columns into their maws. Like, really look: their hands are almost smaller than a single tooth. This is on top of particular decisions that are probably going for "quotidian everyteen" but in the combination of stylized caricature and full dimensionality look slightly freakish; and this is on top of personalities that are fully described in single words like "monotone" (Priya) and "ogrish" (Abby), while Miriam gets two words but only because it takes two words to say "not Mei." The adults are much less susceptible, at least, to this kind of bad design, though not to all bad design—past Ming and her own mother, Wu (Wai Ching Ho), to find design that is good you have to start inventorying background characters.
Still, in case I sound too harsh, the humdrum Toronto made ever-so-slightly unreal by the preponderance of pastels represents pretty decent production design, even admirably low-key, insofar as American animated films usually don't go in for such quiet urban impressionism, and when they do, like Luca, it's a mistake; it is, anyway, a refreshing move away from Pixar's usual gambit of fetishistic background photorealism. The even better news is that Shi and her animators found ways to actually use their aesthetic, and there is still a liveliness to even the worst-designed characters' eyes that conjures a bit of the old illusion of life, and while everything good inheres almost exclusively to Mei, as the only character we have any real access to besides Ming, the use of associative editing and broad cartooning (even borderline super-deformation) to essay comedy, along with those overpowering pubescent emotional states, actually does wind up working pretty well—I'm genuinely impressed by the subjective variability of, for example, Mei's pupil size, swinging from giant d'awwing over kitties to pinprick black dots of paralyzed shame.
I have complained, a lot, here, but I'm going to call it good: what it does have is Shi and I'm not sure there has been a filmmaker in all cinema history who has made it clearer in just two films (one of which is only a short) how much they resent one of their parents. Steven Spielberg didn't make it this clear this quickly. That was the theme of "Bao," which had the benefit of running only eight or so minutes and not getting swamped by the filler material of an animated feature; and while Turning Red is never that good as an aggregate, in individual moments it is every bit as affecting and immediate. In both, the mother is a monstrous figure—in "Bao," she is a literal Kronos; as for Ming, she manages to commit acts that should, by rights, get her served with a defamation lawsuit and probably arrested, and this without even referring to her labor law violations or her mere domineering horridness. But in both, the mother is also a figure of pity herself, repeating doomed cycles and visiting her own insecurities upon her child. This dynamic—the very painfulness of it—gives Turning Red an ineradicable emotional core. Like, the movie is barely good, and there is the danger of overrating it on this account—let's just be blunt here, for the larger part of its runtime, Turning Red is just a subpar episode of Bob's Burgers that combines Tina and Louise into one character, substitutes dumb parents with parents who court active despicability, is five times as long and one-fifth as funny, and has somehow picked up a supernatural element that you realize is mostly only a marketing hook and would be better if it weren't here at all. But in its gnarly mother-daughter relationship, there's a rawness and realness that's awfully hard to just dismiss out of hand.