‘Turning Red’ review: A bit hard to bear

13-year-old Meilin Lee is dealing with the awkwardness of being a teenager when a family curse strikes; when she gets too excited, she turns into a giant red panda. Pixar’s latest coming-of-age film (on Disney+ March 11) features the vocal talents of Rosalie Chaing (Meilin Lee), Sandra Oh (Ming), Ava Morse (Miriam) and the directorial talents of Domee Shi, who also directed the Oscar-winning short film Bao.

I would give this movie two out of five stories.

— Luke Nassief

From the opening moments of Turning Red, I could tell this would be a different kind of Pixar film. First-time feature director Domee Shi added a strong anime flare to the film, crafting a world with a visual style not frequently seen in mainstream American animation. This style allows Turning Red’s characters to express themselves physically in ways never before seen from Pixar. When Meilin is excited, her eyes sparkle like Edward Cullen’s skin in the sun. Likewise, when she is sad, her eyes explode in a river of tears, and her face curls to impossible positions. This anime style combined with Pixar’s notoriously sleek flare makes Turning Red impossible to resist visually. 

Turning Red also sets itself apart with the topics it takes on. Pixar has a long history of telling coming-of-age stories, tackling topics from familial belonging to growing past your childhood best friends. Turning Red deals with similar topics, but with added realism in the character writing and struggles. Meilin is confident, smart and undyingly curious. Her group of friends have their own tropes, but feel like real 12-year-old girls you might meet in middle school. Turning Red doesn’t shy away from making them realistically annoying at times, nor does it shy away from involving menstruation and tampons in its central plot. This is a film that knows what it is, and for that, it deserves respect.

Unfortunately, past the visuals and character writing lies what kills most unsuccessful films: the story. Meilin struggles with the titular act of “turning red” throughout the film, but the main conflict is about her friend group’s struggle to raise money to attend an upcoming boy band concert. One of these plot points massively outshines the other. When Turning Red focuses on the group plotting to get into the concert, it’s solid Pixar content. The character writing is more than good enough to carry the film, with plenty of charm to go around. It’s the supernatural panda plot I can’t stand. It adds very little to the story and overall message, and what it does contribute could easily be replaced with more grounded plot points. Pixar has been struggling with this duel-plot mess for several years now; it seems the story gimmicks are finally starting to become distracting. 

If there is one redeeming quality that can be taken from Turning Red, it’s the message. The themes are incredibly on the nose, but hopefully they can be interpreted by some of the young people that watch it. What this film tries to teach, semi-successfully, is that you don’t need to do anything to deserve love; you are enough just as you are. It’s a message that will hopefully bring some relief to many children who may be struggling around the world. 

So, yes, Turning Red failed for me on several levels. It was a structurally confusing mess and at times difficult to watch, but if its messages manage to come across to young people around the world, perhaps it was all worth it.