The one thing that a Pixar production always had over other animation studios was the companies commitment to quality storytelling that touched an emotional core. From the humble beginnings of Toy Story to the musical and spiritual journey of Soul, Pixar (review) has always maintained a standard of excellence. Well, it looks like that track record has finally come to an end, as do all good things. The latest effort Turning Red is not only horribly unentertaining but at moments infuriatingly racist, that I’m surprised that no one nipped this idea in the bud. As an ethnic Chinese person, I am uniquely positioned in my understanding of Chinese culture. It also doe not help that the animation is unbelievably ugly following in other CalArts style features such as Steven Universe and the thousands of other animated shows and films out there. There isn’t a single unique bone in the film and it clearly shows.
Turning Red tells the tale of Mei Lee, a Canadian Chinese girl who turns into a giant red panda when she’s emotionally perturbed. She is surrounded by her ‘diverse’ group of friends, each of who are as stereotyped as it gets. She’s also hounded by her over-protective tiger mom (oh wow, another angry Chinese mother) and kind of, sort of there, father. The entire plot of the film revolves around Mei Lee and her ‘diverse’ friends planning on attending a boy band concert. Yep, that’s about as deep as it gets. Sure, there’s the tired trope of growing up and accepting who you are and how as an immigrant you need to assimilate etc, etc, etc. it’s all so trite and uninspired that it was a slog to sit through most of this mess. And again, the laughably bad animation just piles on to the misery. The characters are so overdesigned and the colours so unnaturally bright that the film was giving me a headache. It’s very clear that the filmmakers have no idea of subtly. The “LOL so random” humour was also a big miss. I’m not sure who this film was aimed at but if kids find this funny, then it’s a sad day for future generations. Did I mention that the animation is nightmare-inducing?
My main issue with the film is its portrayal of Chinese culture. The film and most ‘Asian’ films produced in North America tend to have a very myopic view of Asian culture. It’s this dying need to be as authentic as possible because these people are actually Canadian or American and truly have zero ties to the original culture they came from, and they miss what being an immigrant is all about. In hopes of getting in touch with ‘their culture’ they go overboard and depict them as racist, over the top characters. They have no idea what being actual Chinese is really like. My family immigrated to India in the late 1800s and we’ve assimilated without any earth-shattering issues like the ones that seem to be present in Turning Red. The character of the mother is so cringe-inducing that it truly is a racist caricature of what the average Chinese mother is actually like. It’s this ‘Western’ approach to Chinese culture that truly destroys what little credibility this film had left. Turning Red best personifies the statement, no style and no substance. It delivers its message with the subtlety of a jackhammer with no nuance to storytelling.
Turning Red wants to be a film that tackles issues like growing up and finding one’s place in the world but it ends up being an unfunny, ugly, unfocused mess that serves only to drive The Message than actually telling a good story. Directed by Domee Shi, who also directed the awful short Bao, Turning Red is supposed to be a metaphor for puberty and the trials and tribulations of growing up but all it ends up being is an ego boost for the director and painful try-hard film. At best it’s a one time watch, at worst it’s a racist caricature from someone who should know better.
Turning Red will stream on Disney+Hotstar on March 11