Oscars Week: Turning Red

This article is part two of. . .

The Front Page: Oscars Week

Next up on the agenda for this Oscars Week is Turning Red, one of Pixar’s latest foray into the world of animation and another hyped-up nominee for this year’s Best Animated Feature award. Unlike previous years, however, this is the only Disney animated feature to be nominated for Best Animated Feature.

The film’s theatrical poster.

Turning Red may not have made it into physical movie theaters, but it sure made it to the Oscars nomination for Best Animated Feature this year! And what a nomination it is, especially compared to both Disney and Pixar’s animated output from the past few years.

The movie follows 13-year-old Meilin Lee who suddenly discovers she turns into a giant red panda whenever she feels any strong emotion because of a hereditary curse, as if having to deal with being a teenager wasn’t enough! She has to learn to control her emotions to avoid turning into the panda, while also trying to attend a concert with her friends for the hottest boy band in town: 4*Town and deal with her overbearing mother.

Set in Ontario, Canada in 2002, the film wonderfully captures the experiences of tweens in that era. The crushes – whether on the band or the kids at school, feeling like you’re an adult (even though you’re really not), the awkwardness of trying to hide something, the Tamagotchi, trying to go to the concert, and even passing around CD’s is all encapsulated perfectly.

This, like the other animated films nominated this year, largely achieves this through the animation. Though it largely sticks to the typical animation style Disney has utilized in recent years, it still experiments a bit. Mostly seen with Meilin, the film uses anime elements such as a character pausing in the air to show excitement. This creates quite a delight for those who are into anime, and it brings the subject of the film to another level.

That is, of course, not trying to discount the general style of animation on display here. The cartoony details are genuinely nice to look at and sink into, but that is just on the human level. When you look on the red panda level, you immediately understand why Pixar is still such a highly regarded studio. 

The detailed fur on Meilin’s red panda form makes it look like a stuffed animal, and a giant one at that. It makes me personally react like a group of girls in the movie does when they accidentally see Meilin in her panda form in the girls’ bathroom towards the start of the film.

Meilin Lee in the first shot of the film.

Of course, the animation is not the only thing worth praising here! The voice acting, fronted by Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh, makes the characters on screen really pop, with their realistic portrayals. Chiang very much pulls off Meilin’s bubbly and energetic vibes, and Sandra Oh is a perfect contrast to her as Meilin’s controlling mother, Ming.

Sometimes, comedy can hurt the pacing and overall story and themes of a movie if it is used too much. However, in Turning Red, the comedy never becomes too much for the viewer to take and never gets in the way of the story or themes. Actually, it is connected to the story, primarily to acknowledge the awkwardness of tween and teenhood, becoming insanely funny as a result. For example, there is a fantastic running gag where Meilin’s mom spies on her to make sure she is okay. We’ve all heard of that overprotective mom, which only makes the gag that much funnier!

The film hardly lets off of the brakes when it begins: it truly has a breakneck pace. It slows down for the final act, but its contagious energy keeps the audience hooked throughout the entire film even when the pace slows down for said final act.

Ming, Meilin’s mother, looks at Meilin’s notebook.

The Asian representation is more in-depth here, even over something like Everything Everywhere All At Once, and it makes it feel so much more genuine and heartfelt. Several characters, for example, speak Cantonese. The music even represents this, using cues that evoke Chinese classical music, to create a score that emotionally anchors the film and contributes to its genuineness.

Unfortunately, I do have some problems with the film. The use of the overprotective mother (the “tiger mom”) leans a bit too much into Asian stereotypes, and the biggest let down of the film is how the dad is hardly a character throughout. He is pretty much only used as a set piece for a joke, and has little to do in the film.

The other major let-down is in how safe Disney plays the pubertal aspects of the film: very little is explored and, outside of Meilin and her red panda form (an obvious metaphor for puberty), it hardly feels like anyone else is navigating the challenges of this stage in life. This is something I think is an especially odd choice in my opinion because the movie never acknowledges this, going only as far as to Meilin and her friends’ obsession with boys. Meilin learning to control her panda form quickly also puts little stakes on the dangers of it. The film also uses plot points that are in just about every other Disney movie, which makes it disappointing to see those points played out once again.

Still, even with these criticisms, Pixar manages to have a winner on their hands with Turning Red. As I said before, it grabs you and almost never lets go. Because she focuses on her own tweenhood, Domee Shi, the director of this film, creates something truly unique and touching at the end of the day. Paired with her short film she made for Pixar a few years ago, Bao, she is definitely someone to look out for! My final rating for this film is a 7 out of 10.

Meilin, in red panda form, and her friends

Turning Red stars Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. As the film is a Disney+ original, it is available to stream there, but it is also available to purchase on home media. This film is rated PG.

This film is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

This article is part two of. . .

The Front Page: Oscars Week

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