Director Domee Shi isn’t a household name in animated film like Brad Bird, creator of the Incredibles films or Pete Doctor of Inside Out and Soul, are synonymous with Pixar movies.
But the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker has developed a career out of making animated movies pulling from her heritage, first with the Oscar-winning short film Bao in 2018 and now with her major feature Turning Red, which forgone theaters and moved immediately to the Disney+ streaming service this weekend.
The film is the second straight Pixar release to premiere exclusively on Disney’s online streaming platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic following Luca last year and while this allows the film to reach a wider audience more easily, Turning Red suffers from lack of studio support and almost feels like an afterthought from a studio whose most successful film in recent memory, “Encanto,” is likely to win multiple Academy Awards later this month.
Shi’s film follows 13-year-old Meilin, an introverted, academic-oriented eighth grader with a small group of close friends who bond over a mutual love for boy band “4Town.” They plan to attend an upcoming concert in their hometown of Toronto, only to be waylaid by Meilin, who turns into a giant red panda when overly excited.
Rosalie Chiang provides a bright cheer to Meilin, especially when narrating in the first act of the film. When Meilin turns into the panda, Chiang adds a slight panic to her cadence that accentuates Meilin’s frantic excitability.
Sandra Oh is exceptional as Meilin’s overbearing mother Ming and her line readings of Ming’s frequent screeches instantly transport audiences back to their own childhoods during those moments where their own parents unintentionally embarrass them.
The best animated portions of the film are when Meilin is in panda form as Turning Red becomes more visually dynamic with a better character model than Meilin in human form.
Parents of younger children should probably watch Turning Red on their own before deciding whether to allow their kids to watch the film. Some of its rebellious themes, sexual innuendos and allusions to menstruation may not be subjects parents would approve of.
Pixar’s animation is largely sharp throughout and Shi integrates Japanese anime style often into the design of the film when characters get excited, representing this glee with bulging eyes on the verge of tears that comes from the anime influence.
The contrast in light and shadow Pixar’s animators are able to develop create a genuine three-dimensional element to the film that also is among the visual highlights.
Though the film is set in the early 2000s, the only real signpost of the setting comes in the form of the boy band “4Town” that the girls try to see in concert from the opening moments of the film. In that way, Turning Red feels instantly dated as if it should have come out over a decade ago and not in 2022.
Billie Eilish and Finneas, likely to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for their theme to the James Bond film No Time To Die, craft several catchy yet unmemorable tunes for “4Town” and it’s in the moments where Turning Red leans into its cultural roots that the film becomes something beyond a strange PG-13 coming-of-age dramedy.
Because it’s a Pixar film and released in limited theatrical markets to maintain eligibility, Turning Red is a likely contender for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Academy Awards, although the much more anticipated Lightyear spinoff of the Toy Story franchise this summer could push it out of contention.
Not nearly on the level of Disney’s far superior family magic film Encanto, Turning Red may not be an ideal choice for younger audiences nor as much of a wide-spread crowd pleaser although catching the film on Disney+ offers a great opportunity for families to try the largely entertaining movie at low cost.