After 15 minutes, I was ready to celebrate Turning Red, which begins streaming Friday on the Disney+ service. When was the last time you saw a kid-focused cartoon about a 13-year-old having her first period? Answer: You haven’t.
When was the last time you saw an animated film that centered on female friendship? Answer: OK, you’re thinking Frozen, but that’s family.
On top of its thematic boldness, those opening scenes are funny, in-your-face and wonderfully awkward – which makes sense for a film about a precocious, perfectionist 13-year-old who seems like she’d fit right in with the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
That’s Meilin “Mei” Lee, an overachiever used to being in control thanks in large part to her ultra-controlling mother. Unlike many others of her cinematic type, she has a strong group of friends who bring joy to each others’ lives. But then something happens — that biological change, here personified by her transformation into a giant red panda.
If Turning Red kept up this level of freshness, I’d be all in. But then something happens. Well, a lot happens. And the magical metaphor is largely abandoned in favor of exaggerated family conflict, inconsistent nostalgia for the days of Tamagotchi, a bit of kaiju and a plotline that recalls that episode of The Cosby Show where Vanessa Huxtable sneaks out to see the Wretched in concert — all of which combine to make the latest from Pixar magical, achingly original, annoyingly lazy, bold, brash, funny and frustrating.
I appreciate Mei’s awkwardness and am glad the writers and animators allowed her to sometimes go beyond just lovably misunderstood into cringe-worthiness. Entering teen time isn’t easy, after all. And while the animation style seems less Pixar and more The Peanuts Movie (albeit with exaggerated Wallace & Gromit mouths), it feels visually fresh.
But once the characters are set up and the Big-like transformation occurs, the writing bogs down. From there, it’s an overstuffed three-way battle for screen time, none of which is as sharp as the opening.
First, there’s the wildly exaggerated, domineering mother who ends up taking violent action that even your average Disney stepmother might not consider. Then there’s the confusing overloaded mythology and random rules that dictate when and how and how long of the panda transformations.
Finally, there’s the concert. Some key action in the film hinges on the quartet of guy-crazy gals scheming their way to a concert by their favorite boy band. Their brilliant idea to achieve that goal: Make money by selling panda-related stuff to their peers.
The concert ticket price: $200. Each.
Now, while that may be common today for prime seats, in prime boy-band times, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC tickets were selling for under $50. OK, scalpers charged more but come on.
Why does that leap of historical logic bother me so much? Because A) it displays a lack of care on the part of the writers, B) it’s absurd that they would be able to raise that money from their classmates, especially without any adult wondering what’s going on, and, most importantly, C) it makes the young ladies seem obnoxiously privileged, thus diminishing our rooting for them to succeed in their venture.
Rather than take Mei and company to any sort of revelation about value, these elements lead to a would-be epic scene that the film doesn’t need. If you told me five minutes in that there would be a giant creature fight and an arena destroyed, I would not have believed you.
Thankfully, there are small pleasures along the way. Mei’s pals have some fun moments. There’s a little background detail courtesy of her largely silent father that I’m still smiling about when I think about it. And there’s some gorgeously animated food.
But its wrong turns come close to turning Turning Red turgid, and that’s a shame. Mei and her friends deserve better.