Turning Red is Pixar Studio’s whopping 25th film of their historic run – a quarter quell as some may call it, and it’s an interesting change of pace for the company that has mostly dominated this medium for the better part of 20 years in film animation. They don’t need much of an introduction at this point, but I think it’s important to note that for most of this run, they’ve been at the forefront of genre-pushing adventures within this very lane.
The original Toy Story set the precedent for storytelling in this vein and films like Wall-E and Up showed the potential for using visual animation to show emotion and story, even if dialogue and voiceover wasn’t present. Movies like Coco and Ratatouille proved that recreating culture was possible through an animated lens and Toy Story 4 was possibly the most polished version of visual excellence and depth ever established in an animated film.
This is all to say that things have changed in this space over the last few years. The competition has gotten stiffer due to the innovative story structures and writing styles that various other studios have conceived of in releases spanning from the end of the 2010s. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller most notably come to mind with their work on The Lego Movie and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – two films that focused on energy and quick editing to create a euphoric effect on the viewer. Lord and Miller also worked on the film that, quite frankly, used this technique the best and ushered in a new era of storytelling in animated films.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse still feels like a watershed film in this style of filmmaking. It’s chaotic, comic-booky visual flare blew audiences away and immediately cemented itself in the pantheon of great animated features. It didn’t necessarily signal the end of an era for the kingpin Pixar Studios, but it did ground them. They now had to compete.
This is probably for the better, given that most of Pixar’s latest works have been safer original stories that don’t mark much “new” for the studio (most notably Onward and Luca), but I was hoping that Turning Red would offer something novel and invigorating that would point them in a new direction – a feeling that I got from Soul, but wound up merely being a singular moment from the company.
And for the most part, Turning Red delivers on that. Its visual style is a step forward for the studio with its bright purple and red color palette that washes over the city of Toronto and the cartoonishly clean character models for Mei and her friends and family. It draws a bit from Luca on that end, but ultimately feels more polished and precise.
Turning Red doesn’t have the rich quality that Toy Story 4 was jaw-dropping for in its animation, but this feels distinct. It immediately sets itself apart from the safer and formulaic style that Pixar, and Disney animated films in general, can fall into from movie to movie. They pushed themselves with this one, and it shows in the leaps and risks that they took.
There’s a heaping amount of work that’ll be written about the topics and subject matter that Turning Red hopes to convey through its runtime. The ideas of finding yourself and balancing friends and family through a time of personal and physical change are potent and deep (the specific decision to use a red panda to signify puberty certainly is bold and one that I thought worked particularly well in the film).
Turning Red thematically and narratively calls back to a few of Pixar’s other recent efforts like Soul and Inside Out – ones that kids will find entertaining and colorful, but adults will more closely grasp onto for their stories about finding your passion and controlling your feelings. It fits itself snug into the two of these camps quite well.
While it does all these things and pulls together a coherent and endearing story, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to other studio animated films lately and feel like Pixar is playing catch-up a bit on this one.
Turning Red acts and talks like The Mitchells vs The Machines. It’s family-driven narratives about the main character not being understood by her parents are nearly identical. The pace and constant jittering nature of characters rings true for both films and the tone of them is the same as well. For once, Pixar isn’t acting like they hold the heavyweight belt – it feels like they’re chasing it.
Combine that with a second act that feels muddied and Turning Red doesn’t quite hit a grand slam. It uses the same story beat that Ralph Breaks the Internet and Free Guy used where the main character must rack up points or dollars for a specific reward and then they break into a long montage of them achieving the goal that I despise so deeply.
It has a subplot of characters raising money by selling pictures and engagement, which I thought was quite strange in the center of a movie targeted for kids. At best, it could be equated to fan services like Patreon, but it also could be equated to services way too mature to even mention in a film like this.
But overall, I dug what Pixar delivered with this story. Turning Red isn’t the broadest appealing film they have delivered, and it isn’t very consistent in its pacing, but its charming as hell and never hits the brake pedal in its comedy. I could see this film being polarizing for its subject matter, but I couldn’t help but find Turning Red extremely engaging and sweet.
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