“Turning Red” is the newest Pixar film and was co-written & directed by Domee Shi. It stars Rosalie Chiang as Meilin “Mei-Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old who starts turning into a giant red panda whenever she gets too emotional. The film co-stars Sandra Oh as Mei-Mei’s overbearing mother Ming.
Obviously, this movie is one giant allegory for puberty. That’s a perfectly acceptable subject matter to put in an animated family film, but only if it’s done intelligently and discreetly. If it’s the entire, overbearing basis of the film, then you have a problem — hence “Turning Red.”
I’m not a parent, but I can see how parents would be horrified to show this film to 5-year-olds, who are the actual target demographic of Pixar, no matter how widely their films appeal. There’s pads, abortion references, and a whole lot of red. Young children shouldn’t be watching this. Not only is it too direct, but it’s also likely to bore them since they won’t understand the references and terminology being thrown in their faces. However, as someone who’s outside Pixar’s target age demographic, I’m not that bothered by the themes in theory; I’m just paranoid that’s its poor execution will have negative impacts on young children.
But the main reason why I didn’t enjoy this film is that not a single character is likeable. In fact, I thought every character was painfully annoying.
Firstly, Mei-Mei’s friend group were some of the most obnoxious, migraine-inducing characters I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The three of them are loud, overly quirky, stereotypical, and nasty influences on our lead. They keep pouncing down Mei-Mei’s throat, endlessly raving about this stupid boy band that I’m too lazy to look up the name of. They’re like a group of Jar-Jar Binks’.
Now, let’s talk about the movie’s absolute worst character: Mei-Mei. The Hero’s Journey is timeless; it’s always satisfying to see an initially unlikeable person struggle and transform into the lovable hero (e.g. Luke Skywalker and Tony Stark). The key to the Hero’s Journey, however, is to make sure that the protagonist actually becomes a better person by the end. On the surface, Mei-Mei’s arc in “Turning Red” seems to follow the Hero’s Journey, but the narrative fails to execute it properly. Technically, she does change, but the arc just makes her unlikeable in a new way rather than redeemable. Mei-Mei starts the film as a cocky, competitive, and smug middle schooler. She ends the film as an obnoxious, self-absorbed, rebellious, and smug middle schooler.
The movie tries to have this heartfelt message about being your true self and not blindly following what your parents demand of you, but it fails because it instead promotes a gross ideology. At the start of the film, Mei-Mei’s mom forces her be the perfect scholar, and by the end she’s a reckless teen who cares more about partying with her toxic friends than supporting her family. Mei-Mei even defies her mother at the end by twerking in her face! Wow, what a great message to send to children, Pixar.
I also want to do a mini rant on the stupid boy band (I’ll call it SBB for the rest of this review). First of all, the entire plot revolves around these 14-year-old Justin Biebers-in-training, so nobody in their right mind would look at these people favorably. But of course, our awful protagonist does, so we have to spend the entire movie hearing her and the Jar-Jar’s talk about how pretty these SBB members are. Another gripe I have with the SBB is that the film only has them play ONE song, called Nobody Like U, which contains about 25 words in total. I guess the filmmakers went over budget and couldn’t pay for Billie Eilish and the other artists to write more songs, so they just hedged their bets and hoped nobody would notice. But my cynical brain did.
The film also has a massive plot hole: Mei-Mei’s identity as the Red Panda is never hidden. By the end of the first act, every single character knows what should be Mei-Mei’s secret. Therefore, when she runs around as the Red Panda and destroys millions of dollars worth of private property, it makes no sense that the police wouldn’t go after her. She’s left alone and never really challenged by anyone in a significant way. This makes the Hero’s Journey less satisfying and diminishes any credibility that the film had.
“Turning Red” is a deeply flawed movie that fails to live up to what could be an interesting premise due to its on-the-nose themes, unbearable characters, and lazy writing. Of course, it has the breathtaking, gorgeous animation that you’d expect of Pixar, but besides that, there’s very few redeeming qualities here. I genuinely don’t understand how this has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a parent; just don’t watch this movie.
Click here to read my review of “Soul,” one of Pixar’s most recent films and my favorite movie of 2020.