Is “Turning Red” a Turning Point for Pixar?

The thing that I find myself thinking about after having just watched Turning Red is that the movie is deeply ironic- Pixar’s best movie in years is great because it subverts Pixar’s commitment to subverting animated movies.

Since its very beginning, Pixar has made highly inventive movies.  They disrupt animation, in the parlance of Silicon Valley.  From the very beginning they anthropomorphized things and created creatures.  In the 24 films preceding Turning Red, they made only eight movies in which the lead character was human.  And by “human”, I use that pretty loosely.  Two of those eight movies are The Incredibles and Incredibles II, which center on people gifted with extraordinary powers from birth.  Soul has two main characters, one of whom is a recently deceased human who over the course of the movie spends time as a disembodied soul and a cat, while the other is a preborn soul who spends part of the running time disembodied, and part in the body of the other character.  Luca follows a sea monster.  If we’re being strict, the only movies with human protagonists are Up, Brave, and Coco.  Up is set in a fictional South American jungle.  Brave is set in Medieval Scotland.  Coco begins in Mexico but quickly moves to the Land of the Dead. Pixar loves creating new creatures and worlds so much that a Chinese Canadian girl in 2002 Toronto is now revolutionary.

Another Pixar novelty that’s already become standard is the appearance of death and grief in kids movies, as if presenting such a serious topic should instantly impress the Academy.  (In their defense, it totally does.  Every movie I’m about to list won best animated picture.)  Up famously featured a heartbreaking opening.  Finding Nemo features the loss of the main character’s wife, and The Good Dinosaur features the death of the main character’s father.  (Despite what I said a moment ago, The Good Dinosaur didn’t win Best Animated Picture, but the wins of Big Hero Six and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse definitely confirm that the Academy loves when people die in kids movies).  Inside Out features the death of Joy’s friend, Bing Bong.  Coco center’s on the land of the dead, Onward centers on the main characters’ unresolved grief over the death of their father, and Soul really reaches the logical conclusion of this obsession by having an entire movie about a recently deceased man having an existential crisis as he contemplates his own mortality, which takes the form of him debating with a never-born soul who questions the value of life itself.   I don’t dispute that Up got me choked up and Bing Bong’s death produced actual tears, but by the time I saw Soul I wasn’t drying my eyes, I was rolling them.

Speaking of Soul, I found the message of the movie to be ironically soulless.  The movie sets up an existential crisis (literally), but doesn’t arrive at a conclusion more profound than “living is good”.  Guess what, anyone questioning the merits of reality?  Pizza tastes good, and only exists in The Universe.  The abyss of nothingness doesn’t seem so cool anymore, now does it?  Checkmate, Atheists.

Oh, also, 22 chooses not to enter reality because they don’t see its appeal, and can’t find their spark.  But as soon as happenstance forces them to experience life, they instantly discover reality is good because goodness itself, like all things, literally only exists in existence.  Oh, and that “spark” 22 couldn’t find?  Turns out that by “spark”, god did not mean a singular passion that gives life meaning and purpose.  God just meant “the will to live”.  In hindsight god can see how having famous figures tutor you on the various pursuits to which their importance is ascribed could contribute to that misconception.  Sorry for the simple misunderstanding that apparently lasted FOR 200 THOUSAND YEARS.

And as long as we’re talking about Pixar’s most overrated movies, we shouldn’t forget The Incredibles and its sequel.  These movies might not be novel in their examination of superheroes, but what is unique is the totally insane argument they make in favor of why we should allow masked vigilantes to fight crime- namely that it’s super fun, and it would really suck for them if they couldn’t.  Amazingly, the heroes of these movies aren’t motivated by a desire to help anyone- it’s because fighting in public places is a huge thrill.  Would you, a non-powered bystander, really be so selfish as to deny them their fun?  Why doesn’t society cut those with power some slack for a change?  Do you realize that your refusal to allow their unregulated anonymous violence has condemned them to the utter hell of… *checks notes* uh, working a job?  Within the movie’s super liberatrian worldview (literally populated with super libertarians) power belongs to those who were simply born better than everyone else, and exceptional people can be trusted with zero oversight because they always do the right thing.  In both movies 100% of people with superpowers are good guys, while literally every villain is an unpowered human (usually motivated by resentment toward their betters).  Why are there no superpowered villains?  Because that would instantly undermine the argument that exceptional people should have zero restriction placed on them.  What should we do to prevent abuses of power?  Nothing, because it will never happen.  Looking back with the knowledge that John Lasseter sexually assaulted employees for decades with total impunity because his power made him untouchable, the ideas in these movies go from dumb to frankly chilling.

Which brings me back to Turning Red. This movie raises the possibility that Pixar might not only survive without Lasseter, but may in fact produce better movies now that it’s able to explore beyond the limits of his personal taste.  This is a movie that departs from Pixar’s conventions more than any I’ve seen in years.  The actual look of the movie is distinctly different than other Pixar movies, with character designs that remind me a little of of Aardman Animations (of Wallace and Gromit fame).  It also features cartoony stylistic flourishes- eyes turning to dollar signs at the prospect of money, and rainbow colored Lisa Frank style daydreams.  This is something I’ve found conspicuously absent in both Pixar and Disney movies.  When I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, I was blown away by the pantone dots, comic book frames, and vivid burst of color (to say nothing of the movie’s subliminal tweaks to frame rate that I couldn’t directly notice).  The Mitchells vs. the Machines continued this practice, further establishing Sony’s appreciation for visuals that go beyond a simple objective representation of the in-world universe.  Meanwhile Luca seemed to double down on Pixar’s preferred style- rendering incredibly sharp and admittedly beautiful vistas with comparatively little artistic flair.

Beyond the look of the movie, the story reminds me a little of Lilo and Stitch, another movie that follows a human kid living in a recognizable world whose life is turned upside down when something fantastic invades the ordinary.  And both represent a girl’s relatable problems metaphorically with an incredibly cute monster.  It hardly seems surprising that this movie wasn’t made until now- John Lasseter allegedly disliked Lilo and Stitch.  That seems very believable considering that neither Disney nor Pixar ever made anything like it in all the time that he helmed both studios.  For most of his tenure, there was also a conspicuous lack of diversity in the movies he made, and even less diversity in the people he allowed to make them.

Returning to the thesis of this review, Pixar has spent so long faithfully following their own formula for subverting expectations that their form of subversion has become predictable.  Their recipe for breaking the mold has become the mold.  As a result, a movie about a girl in Toronto with a single magical element to the story and no existential crises is now incredibly fresh and original.  If this represents the future of Pixar, then the studio has a very bright future ahead.

By the way, for anyone interested, my friend Tony has a blog post that is relevant to this: How The Incredibles II Could Have Been Incredible, Too

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