“Four is the worst number.”
Oh man, if only y’all knew how many times I had to hear that comment from relatives too, haha.
As a once extroverted child turned introverted teenager and subsequently adult, and as someone who knows that the root of it came from how insecure I grew to be of backlash towards my true feelings and imaginations, I got to say, this hit. Then again, Turning Red isn’t nearly just about that…
The phrase “Pixar magic” has created such an obnoxious set of expectations from fans that it literally sets them up for disappointment when going to see perfectly fine movies like Onward — a socially nuanced effort that offered just the bare minimum of pathos which likely led to its moderate yet finally deserving (for the studio) reception. These days, it seems that whenever Pixar is not trying to drench the absolute crap out of your emotions via some of cinema’s most blatantly contrived manipulation there is known to the modern animation field, it’s automatically disapproved of having that sort of “magic”.
Arguably Pixar’s greatest and, in fact, first feature-length ever made Toy Story rarely did this, and yet, it evokes such a deep offering of humanity to the audience simply from what we observe of Woody and Buzz’s competition for attention and validation that it doesn’t need a third act spelled-out and blown-out emphasis — like Toy Story 3 or Monsters University or Inside Out or Finding Dory or Coco, etc. — to make you tear up. Sure, maybe you need that hero’s journey “all hope is lost” moment in the climax to get you more on hooks, but it isn’t what should completely control the grip. Ratatouille almost does the same thing too: aside from a literal scene involving ratatouille to nicely release this hook, its countless ongoing themes are simply enough to let you emote from your own mind piecing the real life parallels together; you don’t need a plot-banking finale to convince you that this is the kind of story worth emotionally connecting to all of a sudden; it convinces you by simply trusting how personal it already was for the audience the moment it started.
It’s unfortunate to see that Turning Red doesn’t exactly fall into this category of Pixar’s most mature, and once again revels in this over-exaggeration of pathos through plot at the sacrifice of believability just to make sure that it got us on a weeping leash by the credits, even though it had me on there since the first half. So, while newcomer Domee Shi’s writing may have not impressed me in every instance, I did respect her non-Pixar-esc flamboyant style. It’s more so Sony’s The Mitchells vs. Machines-esc if anything, considering it hearkens to internet age animation. It’s not going for super detailed and technical textures, realisms, or masterful action-packed thrills like a handful of Pixar’s work, but the moments regarding visual indicators, transitions, or facial exaggerations are made to be quite outgoing — in a good way given its exuberant characters!
As with a lot of Pixar’s recent efforts though, the plot towards the second half this time features an unreasonable volume of negligent conveniences and ultimatums to stir up conflict and revelation in the narrative that tonally outbalances the first half which prioritizes commentary over loud plot-building. Instead, it would’ve been rather rewarding if that commentary was neatly paced throughout the entire runtime, distracting us from the plot and especially making it feel less crammed next to the movie’s speedy momentum. One intricately connected series of coincidental reveals used to mark the act two disaster, in particular though, was so utterly unimaginable that it jolted me out of the moviegoing experience more than I’ve ever been watching something in a while, which really hammered my investment with the rest of the runtime. While the commentary isn’t that predictable, the plot again certainly is with how formulaic it becomes, and the third act has a lot of ideal resolution happening between characters that I couldn’t possibly envision just occurring out of the blue like it does in this movie, knowing… you know… how real people are with upholding their beliefs.
However, let’s talk about that “commentary” now on the plus side.
From my recollection, this may be the most substance-focused Pixar has been in over a decade. The “panda” represents a lot of things. Puberty given all its awkward body changes and added hormones, wanting to rush childhood but also being afraid to let go of it, and even the misogynistically yet socially unwanted characteristics of women who are free-spirited, which is devastatingly bottled up in traditional Chinese culture. The “panda” is treated by our lead characters as a cultural inconvenience to the family’s new world, and the desire to suppress it with guilt is so heavily felt considering that I too naively had so much shame for my own cultures because of encouraged racist norms forced onto me as a kid.
I think the irony of the mom character is so telling too, where she has a distaste for other cultures — the NSYNC knock-off band — yet is perfectly fine with keeping some of her culture to herself in order to please Toronto norms; this exchange of what we choose to keep and show amongst the many cultures we consume and obsess over is universally relatable, as we all deal with internal racism / sexism. Then there’s also the “drug hustle” part where Mei and her friends literally exploit their culture (the “panda”) for money when it becomes convenient, cause isn’t it nice to brag about what makes you special once people finally start liking that part of you? If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the classic coming-of-age “parent and kid drifting apart as they find new people and cultures to love”, which weighs the central crux of the narrative. Now tell me this isn’t the most socially aware Pixar movie since WALL•E, or at least, the most socially aware Disney movie since Encanto?
In other words, and despite its flaws, where was Turning Red when I needed it? 13-year-old me would’ve really appreciated a movie like this! 13-year-old me also would’ve really appreciated a spin-off about Tyler suppressing his feminine urges too!
“Turning Red” is now playing in theaters and available to stream on Disney+.