FYC: ‘Turning Red’ for Best Animated Feature

While the winner for this year’s Best Animated Feature seems all but set, 2022 was a great year for animated films. I’d like to think in another season, Turning Red would be the awards darling of the year. Or, at the very least, in another season, I’d like to think Turning Red got the theatrical distribution and marketing campaign it deserved. 

Released for streaming on Disney+ on March 11, 2022, Turning Red tells the story of thirteen-year-old Merlin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She finds herself in the unique situation of being cursed into turning into a giant red panda whenever her emotions run a little too high. When coupled with her overbearing mother’s (Sandra Oh) mounting pressure to make Mei the “perfect daughter,” the result is a tipping point in pretty much all facets of Mei’s life. 

Turning Red was initially supposed to receive a theatrical run. However, due to rising cases of COVID-19 in early 2022, Disney opted to release the film on streaming only, as it had done previously with other Pixar films, such as Soul (2020) and Luca (2021). Yet, Turning Red was not the only Pixar film to be released in 2022. Just three months later (almost to the day), Disney/Pixar released Lightyear in theaters. While Lightyear’s box office numbers were relatively flat (it made $226 million on a $220 million budget), it became Disney+’s most watched film in the summer of 2022, holding the number one spot for 35 consecutive days.

While Turning Red broke Disney+ streaming records upon its release, it did not hold the steam that Lightyear did, most likely due to the fact that Lightyear’s intended audience seems to at least appear to be younger- i.e. families with children who may not want to sit through an entire movie. Turning Red, while not inappropriate for young children, certainly resonates with older children, teenagers, and even adults. 

However, that is not the only pitfall Turning Red had to face upon its release. While reviews for the film were generally positive, there seemed to be an outcry from viewers who were either upset that this film forced them to view the experiences of a 13-year-old girl in an honest perspective (including a brief mention of menstruation), or that they could not “relate” to the story of a 13-year-old Chinese girl who must wrestle with the universally shared experience of the frustration of puberty with the added layer of cultural aspects.

To that, I say: does it really bother you that you can’t relate? Or do you just not want to try to be empathetic? Must a film be “relatable” in order to be enjoyed? I can’t personally attest to what it’s like to be stuck on an island with a bunch of genetically engineered dinosaurs running loose, and yet, I still love Jurassic Park. The issue isn’t relatability. The issue is closed mindedness. 

It seemed, from my perspective at least, that these were the only conversations anyone wanted to have upon Turning Red’s release. Not the fact that this is Domee Shi’s directorial debut (making her the first woman to have a solo directorial credit on a Pixar film!). Not the fact that this film allows a myriad of representation amongst cultures and genders. Not the fact that this film has may be the best use of a boy band in any film ever made. No, instead, this film gets a Fox News story about how an innocent representation of adolescence is the Devil’s work – a grave disservice to the film. 

But, controversy aside, Turning Red is a brilliant film. The animation styles are gorgeous, straying a bit from the Pixar norm but in the best way. The voice cast is well stacked, with Sandra Oh in particular giving a brilliant performance that perfectly balances sternness, humor, and vulnerability. The soundtrack for this film, written primarily by Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, perfectly represents the bubblegum sugary goodness of early 2000s pop music.

And furthermore, the message of this film can strike a chord in anyone who’s willing to stop looking for reasons to not like this movie and just listen. While the cultural aspects of Mei’s struggles are ever apparent, complex dynamics amongst parents and children, the awkwardness of growing up, and the strange transition between childhood and teenage years are all experiences that are universally shared. So really, the argument that the film is not “relatable” is moot. 

While the odds of Turning Red taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature seem slim, it is certainly a worthy contender. Perhaps in another season it would have fared better. Then again, maybe it’s just that wooden puppets are more relatable. 

You can read our review of Turning Red here.

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