Turning Red, released earlier this year, marks the third time a Pixar movie didn’t receive a full theatrical release (the very good Soul being the first). Despite releasing in March, when most territories in the United States and Canada started opening up again, it received a free Disney+ release anywhere where the streaming service is available. This was also well after both No Time to Die and Spider-Man: No Way Home did very well in theaters. It did receive a couple of premier releases, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, but otherwise it only enjoyed a handful of theatrical showings in North America the same day it released on Disney+. They also cancelled the Russian release in response to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
The result is, Turning Red is the third Pixar movie in a row to bomb, purely because of Disney’s release strategy. It received roughly $20 million in theaters, on a budget of $175 million. That said, after watching it, I’m not entirely sure how profitable it would have been anyway.
Turning Red, like Luca before it, is a coming of age story. But while Luca is a fairly universal look at growing up, and brilliantly used the metaphor of sea monsters becoming human when they leave the ocean, Turning Red is far more limited in scope. It specifically focuses on girls hitting early puberty, and the story is narrowly focused on a Chinese girl growing up in North America. The movie takes place in Toronto, Canada, in 2002.
In 2017, shortly after completing the short Bao (which released along with The Incredibles 2), director Domee Shi pitched three different full-length film ideas. All three were coming-of-age stories revolving around teenage girls. The one they accepted, Turning Red, is based around a girl going through a “magical puberty”. “Mei”, the lead character, turns into a giant red panda any time she feels strong emotions.
“Everyone has been there. Everyone has been 13 and feeling like they’re turning into some wild, hairy, hormonal beast, and I think that’s why Pixar was drawn to it.”
Pixar announced that the movie would be developed under the title Red, and that it would be Pixar’s first full-length feature with a woman as the sole director. The movie began early development in November of 2018. With its March 2022 release, that makes this movie the fastest developed movie in Pixar history … so far.
The casting for the lead role is a bit unconventional. Early in development, Pixar hired Rosalie Chiang, then 12-years-old, to provide scratch vocals. That’s basically a vocal performance for a song or an animated film that the producers can build around. With movies, they’re generally used to help build storyboards. Sometimes if the performance is good enough, or the production is in enough of a rush, these scratch vocals are kept in the final product. Although that didn’t happen with Turning Red, they enjoyed Chiang’s vocals enough that they ended up hiring her for the lead role.
They decided to surprise Chiang by giving her an additional script page during one of these scratch recordings, which also confirmed this casting choice. This also happened to be the last recording session before the virus showed up, and would also be her last in-person recording session for the movie. To help keep production moving, Pixar gave her a bunch of professional audio equipment, and she turned one of the rooms in her parents’ house into a makeshift recording studio.
Most of the rest of the cast is experienced in the industry. You’ve got Asian Canadian Sandra Oh as Mei’s mother. She’s known for a number of TV roles, including Grey’s Anatomy, Killing Eve, and movies that include the 1997 Mr. Bean movie, The Princess Diaries, and a number of Canadian made films including the dramatic superhero film, Defendor. James Hong, who has appeared in over 650 movies and TV shows (making him among the most prolific actors in history) appears as a local elder and shaman who tries to help Mei gain control of the red panda. Wai Ching Ho, a well-known Hong Kong Actress who also appeared in several of Marvel’s Netflix shows, plays Mei’s grandmother.
Besides Sasha Roiz, who plays Mr. Kieslowski (Mei’s teacher), most of the remaining cast is mostly unknown. Well … save for English singer Anne-Marie Rose Nicholson, who plays one of Mei’s classmates in the UK version. Why do they need to differentiate between the UK version and the North American version? I have no idea.
Despite the financial bomb due to the nature of Turning Red’s release, it was watched a lot on the streaming platform. On its opening weekend, it was watched in 2.5 million different households in the US alone, the most ever for the platform. According to Nielsen, it was the most watched program across all streaming services in the US with 1.7 billion minutes watched in its first week. For its second week, it only slowed down to 1.675 billion minutes.
Turning Red also did very well with the critics, earning 95% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 8/10. The Washington Post gave it 4 out of 4, saying “The film delivers a bigger, sand in some ways more universal message; It’s okay to not always be in control.” Not all critics were quite as positive, with The Guardian saying “Turning Red is yet another Pixar movie that coasts rather than glides.” Richard Roeper’s review was harsher, with his 2.5 out of 4 review saying “The problems are mostly with the script, which often requires Meilin (Mei) to be almost irritatingly obnoxious.” CinemaBlend’s review, while positive, calls the focus on a Chinese Canadian girl as “limiting” to its audience.
As for myself, my opinion on this movie is both complex and not. On the one hand, focusing on a Chinese Canadian doesn’t inherently limit the movie’s appeal. A well-written enough movie works better when it’s that specific, because the themes and messages can still be universal. On the other hand, I found the main characters quite annoying through most of the movie. My main issue here; Mei talks way too much.
The basic idea of the plot is that Mei’s family, or at least the women in her family, have always had this red panda emerge around the same point in their lives. It started generations ago when a woman asked to be blessed by the red panda spirit to protect their village while their men were away. Although seen as a gift back then, most of their women these days try to remove the panda spirit and trap it in some sort of talisman. They see it more of a hindrance than anything else. Mei is terrified by the spirit at first, but once she learns that her classmates enjoy it, she decides to embrace it.
Oh, and there’s the whole subplot where Mei and her friends desperately want to go to a concert, but all their parents either say no, or “you’re buying the tickets yourself.” They use this Red Panda as a way to get money out of everyone else in the school to buy their tickets. Mei embracing her red panda does cause a rift between her and her mother, one which eventually causes her mother’s panda spirit to emerge after her talisman breaks.
Saying too much else would spoil the movie, as the main focus is Mei’s changing attitude towards the red panda, her changing relationship with her overly controlling mother, and her soft spoken father who turns out to be more supportive. Most of that aspect of the movie is fairly well done, especially when Mei’s grandmother arrives, and is shown to have a similar contentious relationship with Mei’s mother. The Red Panda side of the plot works decently well as a metaphor for one’s changing body, although not quite as well as the sea monsters in Luca turning into humans.
The entire movie gives off a bit of a hip-hop vibe whenever it’s focusing on the teenagers, matching the boy band that the girls want to see. On the one hand, they sound like the kinds of boy bands who were around at the time. On the other hand, giving the entire movie feel that vibe does limit its appeal to a degree.
But like I said, my main complaint with this movie is that I find its main characters annoying. Mei doesn’t stop talking, two of her friends are obnoxious in their own right, and her friends really only fit basic stereotypes and aren’t developed as characters during the movie … at all. If you’re not into the general hip-hop vibe of the movie, and you tend to be more mellow as a person, you’ll likely find this movie annoying like I did. The acting is fine for all involved, but when I find its style annoying, it doesn’t matter what the quality is.
Turning Red has a lot of things going for it, and it deserved a theatrical release, but it’s really not for me. Also, a coming-of-age story feels like a strange movie to celebrate your 25th feature with.
I’ve said this in my Luca post, but as of now, I have no intention to watch Lightyear any time soon, for a number of reasons. The main one being no Tim Allen.
Next month I’ll be looking at all the pre-MCU Spider-Man movies, in order of release. I haven’t seen the Tobey Maguire movies since the Andrew Garfield movies came out, and haven’t watched Amazing Spider-Man since Amazing Spider-Man 2 ended up being such a disappointment. The fact that No Way Home ended up as well as it did makes me want to go back and watch them all again, so I might as well turn that into a theme month here.