Premise: A 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
When it comes to Pixar, the childhood coming of age story is an immensely deep well from which to mine emotional catharsis. The height of this particular brand of storytelling came with 2015’s Inside Out. In the studio’s latest film, Turning Red, they’re returning to that well. But unlike Inside Out, Turning Red isn’t about the complex emotional internal struggle of a girl going through a major life change and fighting to acclimate to her new daily life. No. Turning Red is about a girl who literally turns into a giant red panda whenever her emotions red line and she starts to lose control of herself. It’s an uncharacteristically straightforward plot device for Pixar and, while it does yield some solid emotional catharsis here and there, on the whole it’s a bit unsatisfying.
Turning Red does some things quite well. The story is set in 2002 and the humor within it is strong enough to stand on its own. The awkwardness of lead character Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is endlessly relatable with just the right amount of cringe inducing circumstances thrust upon her. Situations such as the public humiliation that comes from Mei’s mother Ming (Sandra Oh) mistakenly confronting a young man on Mei’s behalf land as jokes without going over the line into second-hand embarrassment territory. And the young girl’s obsession with a boy band represents peak early aughts pop culture that’s ripe for satirical plucking.
However, the plot’s main thrust isn’t so much dictated by Mei’s struggle to contain the Panda transformations as it is about her emotional and social status among her peers. Instead of making it about Mei trying to stop the transforming, the film employs a “wait it out” plot where she must keep her emotions in check until she can take part in a ritual to rid herself of the Red Panda burden. As Mei waits for the ritual’s timing, she uses her magical transformation powers to help her friends and herself score tickets to a concert.
The recklessness of Mei’s actions is communicated by the threat that frequent transformations runs the risk of having the change become irreversible. Mei’s disregard for this warning brings about most of the conflict of the film and would work well with the story that’s being presented if there was more focus on the danger inherent to her actions. Instead, Turning Red turns to montages for the sake of comedy while slightly downplaying the danger of the transformations and playing up the social aspect of Mei’s story. There are morals and commentary to be mined from this narrative choice but without heavy stakes to the drama, they become a little less important than they should be in the overall scheme of things.
Mei’s sudden transformation into a giant Red Panda is a clear metaphor for the confusion and stress that dominates the life of an adolescent. As a narrative vessel, this time in a kid’s life is perfectly suited for unique storytelling devises that can work wonders in the film or television mediums. For example, Hulu’s PEN15 is an absurdist look at teen awkwardness that features co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing middle school aged versions of themselves amidst a cast of age-appropriate middle school characters. There’s a level of catharsis that comes with exploring the formative years where pain hurts twice as bad and emotions run three times as high. Finding a unique hook with which to tell a story in a person’s formative years can really elevate the film or show.
While there is some of that to be found in Turning Red, the film doesn’t leave a lasting impression with its take on what it’s like to experience what is, for a lot of people, the years in which a person is at their most vulnerable. The film works fine as a comedy with a high-concept plot that will surely be enjoyable for its target audience. But its core concept of a girl trying to control her newfound ability (or curse) and channel it for her and her friends’ benefit simply lacks the impactful emotional catharsis that is a signature of so much of Pixar’s previous work.
Turning Red premieres March 11th exclusively on Disney+.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.