I never imagined there would be talk about menstruation in a Pixar film, but so goes the studio’s latest, Turning Red, the most hyper-stylized Pixar movie to date. It’s also the only one to feature a fictional boy band and has a soundtrack appearance by Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious.” As Pixar’s Cars became John Lasseter’s passion project, reminiscing about the heyday of Route 66 and Americana in the 1950s, Turning Red does the same for first-time feature director Domee Shi (who also helmed the Pixar short Bao) and the early 2000s pop culture she grew up with.
An opening montage features our main character, Mei (Rosalie Chiang), describing her life growing up in Toronto in 2002, while introducing us to some of her classmates via Mean Girls-esque fourth-wall breaks. She also describes her family. As an only child, her relationship with her parents is…complicated. On one hand, she’s extremely close with her aggressively overbearing mother (Sandra Oh) and meek father (Orion Lee).
She’s terrified of disappointing them – partially because of the blurry friendship line that comes with most only-child dynamics, but also because of the built-in respect for elders that stems from Mei’s Chinese culture.
Mei is starting to discover boys, yet hides her budding hormonal fervor from her mom, who would disapprove. But after being embarrassed by her in front of her crush, Mei’s emotions get out of hand and – owing to a family curse – turns into a red panda bear.
She and her three best friends are obsessed with a boy band called 4-Town, and try to get their parents to let them go see them in concert. Of course, the parents all say no, and so they’re forced to raise the money themselves and find a way of getting in. The patter between the friends features that sort of cringe-worthy colloquialism that recent films like Eighth Grade and The Fallout have made an actual stylistic choice. Although, rather than celebrating modern millennial culture like its forerunners, Turning Red embraces a different era altogether.
Turning Red perfectly captures the only-child dynamic, where the line between best friend and parent is constantly confusing; one minute laughing along with them at a soap opera, but the next being criticized for your grades. But then, the film gets away from itself and turns into an allegory for social expression that’s either too on-the-nose or completely muddled, but hardly ever spot-on. It’s this oversimplification of self-liberation no matter what the cost that ignores the potentially harmful baggage that could also come with those choices.
While Mei’s mother is unrealistically obnoxious, Shi’s sympathy for her only stretches so far. Compared to Disney’s Encanto, where an emotionally-destructive grandmother turns out to be “not the villain” and completely misunderstood by the main character, Turning Red allows its protagonist to disrespectfully gyrate in her own mother’s face and plays it for laughs. The film snubs its nose at authority and, perhaps because this is Pixar, a studio that makes films for families, it rubbed me the wrong way.
Luckily, Turning Red is very funny, albeit a tier below some of Pixar’s latest below-par offerings. The songs by the boy band feature intentionally bad lyrics that will be spot-on for anyone who’s ever gone back to actually listen and analyze music from NSYNC or Backstreet Boys. Also, the comedic timing is ever present in the physicality of Mei and her friends, from the way they react to one another to the timing of their pratfalls.
Where a slice-of-life story like Luca can find its tension from having its hero run away from home and pretend he’s not a sea monster, Turning Red opts for its protagonist to reveal that she’s a panda bear and sneak off to go to a concert. More SpongeBob than Brave, Domee Shi’s debut feature can still barely justify its own existence beyond a high concept that might be a better fit for television, with a shoehorned mixed message that befuddles as much as it underwhelms.