Turning Red is a Bold, Welcome Deviation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Critics are fast running out of superlatives to describe the filmography of Pixar Animation Studios. Every release by the company, especially of late, has possessed a rousing soundtrack, heartfelt screenplay, top-notch voice-acting and of course, computer-generated illustrations beyond compare, almost to the point of conformity. That all changes with this production, and for the better.

Toronto resident Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is on the verge of adolescence, lusting after boys she ordinarily wouldn’t and engaging in activities that draw the disapproval of her otherwise doting mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). But puberty is not the only drastic change the youngster is having to contend with – now that she’s a teenager, Mei finds herself transforming into a giant red panda whenever her emotions are heightened, a source of embarrassment greater than any other in her life.

The driving force behind Turning Red (2022) is writer-director Domee Shi who, just like Mei, is a proud Torontonian with Chinese heritage. Shi’s career trajectory is more interesting than most, having joined Pixar as an intern before garnering widespread acclaim with her allegorical short film Bao (2018). After this success, Shi was promoted to Pixar’s “Brain Trust” and given the opportunity to craft her own feature-length production; in turn, the film-maker has concocted the most energetic, inimitable Pixar film yet.

The most distinguishing element of Turning Red is the art-style. While there are shades of Pixar’s influence in the design of the characters and settings, the look of the film is distinct from any of the studio’s previous feature-length productions, a change that is most welcome. Soft colours dominate the architecture of Toronto, and clothing of those who inhabit its surroundings; humans of all sizes and body types interact with one-another, while their faces are adorned with large teeth and pupils that comically dilate or contract depending on their mood.

The animation, too, is a point of difference from other Pixar films. Where in the past, a character would move smoothly and gracefully (one could even say “realistically”), in Turning Red, the movement of the protagonists is quick and frenzied, welcomely leading to some well-timed physical gags that border on slapstick. Adding to this witty and frantic vibe is the editing, which occasionally employs some Edgar Wright-style quick cuts to further discern the picture from its contemporaries. Yet the differences go even deeper than that.

Ming Lee and daughter Meilin are often at odds in Turning Red.

Further distinctions are found in the screenwriting, which matches the vibrancy of Turning Red’s visuals. The plot is narrated in the first-person by a self-aware figure who frequently breaks the fourth wall and wears her geekiness with pride, forgoing the usual stereotype of an introverted, awkward teenager. Likewise, her friends are eccentric, outgoing and unashamedly nerdy, offering the perfect social and moral support – another rarity in coming-of-age tales. Additionally, it’s a tale that feels quite timeless, despite the film’s early-2000s setting.

Yet for all the freshness this script provides, it is stymied by the occasional flaw. One such example is the antagonistic Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), who is underwritten and poorly developed – efforts made by the film to complexify and soften his character are tame at best and confusing at worst. Another letdown is the third act, relinquishing the vim and momentum present elsewhere in Turning Red, slowing events to an underwhelming conclusion, and providing a left-field revelation about Tyler that bears no relevance to the conflict.

The one upside to these blemishes is that they aren’t a common sight in Pixar’s filmography, offering further proof that the team at Emeryville are no longer adhering to a formula or norm. Between this flick and Luca (2021), it looks as though Pixar is shying away from being a safe, comfortable brand and instead following the route of its fellow CGI powerhouses, DreamWorks and Sony in taking risks -– they’re hiring new people, toying with different art-styles and telling more diverse stories.

Turning Red heralds a promising future for Pixar Animation Studios, providing the medium with a fresh and distinctive voice in Domee Shi. Viewers will find themselves drawn to the quirky characters, original story, lively animation and bright illustrations of a stylised Toronto, making for an entertaining and resonant experience regardless of one’s background.

Turning Red is now available on home-video and on-demand services, and streaming on Disney+.

The Bow is Strung in Marvel’s Hawkeye, Now’s the Time to Shoot

We’re a couple of years down the track in Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off series, Hawkeye — set in the bustling and Christmassy New York City in the years post-snap. It’s a fitting setting given the opening sequence of episode one takes audiences back to the alien infested, war-torn New York City of 2012’s Avengers in order to establish the character of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld).

That opening sequence quickly introduces audiences to Kate in her adolescent years as she experiences the fateful events of the Avengers battle with evil, from the ravaged apartment she and her family reside in. In the distance on the roof of another building, the shows eponymous hero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) tusks it out with the aliens before eventually saving and inspiring Kate through a swift shot from his bow — changing the course of her life forever.   

We eventually fast forward to present day (which is a few years ahead of 2021) where Kate is now 22, living in her own apartment, and her mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) has become acquainted with Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) following the death of her husband all those years ago. On the flip side we have Clint Barton who is living a more steady life with his family as he seemingly still struggles internally to come to terms with the aftermath of Thanos’ wrath. It isn’t until a gala auction event goes sideways, that the story begins to pick up. A Russian street gang known as the Tracksuit Mafia infiltrate the auction where among many items, a Ronin suit from one of the Avengers is present. Kate nabs the suit and legs it, unaware that her actions will bring her face-to-face with Barton, the Tracksuit Mafia, and further trouble.

These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvels other shows from earlier this year like Loki and WandaVision. Director Rhys Thomas takes a much more playful approach to the storytelling here, never really subjecting viewers to a myriad of complex information (timekeepers and worlds-within-worlds) and instead opting to focus on the banter and push-pull dynamic between Steinfeld and Renner.

To much surprise, that approach works in the shows favour as Thomas lays all his cards on the table from the outset and builds on Steinfeld’s energy and Renner’s reluctance to help her beyond the amount he requires. It makes for some amusing back-and-forths and on-the-nose one liners.

Hailee Steinfeld in Hawkeye

The plotting feels a bit inadequate in comparison to the actors chemistry as it’s almost built on a ‘as you go’ basis rather than as something worth stimulating an audience members curiosity. Essentially, not much happens that couldn’t be predicted by casual audiences and not much is left to an audience members imagination. For those that have read the comic, perhaps that approach works, but hopefully the episodes that follow will provide a little more intrigue, albeit not to the extent that Loki did (especially with the sublime Florence Pugh scheduled to make an appearance).

It has to be said that Renner is side-lined by Steinfeld who channels her teen charisma from Bumblebee (2018) & The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She injects the show with a Tom Holland-esque charm seen in the Spider-Man films, as she brings a likeable on-screen presence that is hard not to buy into. Renner plays that more reserved, subduedness that he carried with him in the Avengers films and it makes me realise how my desires for him to take the forefront in this show wouldn’t have worked to the shows advantage judging by these two episodes.

Both episodes keep you engaged through Steinfeld’s performance and the consistent humorous tone that has become a staple of Marvel, but rarely hits home. The fact that Thomas leans into that tone from the get-go while building our engagement with this peaceful, yet disrupted New York setting through the leads, means that the occasional comical comment from a Mafia henchmen for instance, doesn’t feel out of place. Too often a Marvel production will fluctuate tonally from episode to episode which can work given that no two directors are the same if multiple directors are directing, but Thomas has set a sound, but somewhat tilted foundation to build on from these two episodes.  

Marvel has always looked to the future with its work and for ways to pass the torch onto its new recruits, and Hawkeye will be no different in that regard. With Steinfeld playing the protagonist in a show about Hawkeye, it’ll be interesting to see whether that sentiment will carry true to its entirety or whether Hawkeye himself begins to play a more active role as the events of the show unravel. Either way, there’s plenty to look forward to in Hawkeye over the coming weeks.

Hawkeye is now streaming on Disney+