Whatever happened to Pixar? Once the animation giant’s success dwarfed Disney; in 2022, they seem to be the straight-to-home-entertainment arm of the Mousehouse, providing exclusive content for their streaming channel rather than cinema releases. With Sing 2 recently bringing in $360+ million to date, it seems a shame that Domee Shee’s family movie is following Soul and Luca in barely seeing the inside of cinemas at all; virus or not, dropping the $175 million movie directly onto the Disney+ channel suggests a lack of confidence in the material.
Which is a shame, because Shee’s movie is aiming for something different from the norm; it’s a film specifically about puberty, but not the usual boys and their toys. Back in 2002, Toronto teenager Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a Chinese/American girl who discovers that her increasing emotional outbursts cause her to metamorphose into a giant furry red panda. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) recognises this as being a family trait that both she and Mei’s grandmother shared, and tries to minimise her daughter’s discomfort. But Mei just wants to have fun, and a mates-trip to see boy-band 4*Town at the Skydome happens to coincide with a family ritual, leaving Mei with a dilemma…
‘I like boys, I like loud music and I like gyrating,’ says Mei; by tapping into familiar traits, Turning Red aims to locate a drama firmly within the balance of peer pressure vs listening to your family, although a sub-plot about monitising your internet presence doesn’t seem right for the 2002 setting. ‘This isn’t about going to a concert, this is about taking your first steps towards woman-hood,’ another character bluntly points out in case we haven’t got the point. Even a sunny Pixar movie needs conflict, and once we discover that Mei’s family all share her abilities, it’s clear what the moral lessons are likely to be; the opening scene underlines the message ‘honour your ancestors’ several times with one cynical eye on finding the sweet-spot for a potential Chinese release.
Turning Red doesn’t have much politics; the title might suggest leaning into communism, but there’s no geo-political content here. Instead, there’s some very 2022 wokeness; Mei’s first public transformation is caused by seeing her mother at the classroom window with a set of menstrual pads, an event that shames her into combusting and reassembling in hormonal panda form. “My panda, my choice,’ is the final takeaway here; owning who you are and your responsibilities is the moral, and Turning Red just about gets that message across. It’s a breezy, original movie, but something of a shame that this won’t be pitched to the adult audience who enjoyed Up or Inside Out; Pixar seem to have been on Disney’s naughty step for some time, and unlike it’s likeable heroine, Turning Red seems to have limited options for finding success.