The best Pixar films don’t smuggle their metaphors in subtly, but find fantastical and funny ways to dress up broad emotional arcs and universal human experiences. WALL-E’s dim view of the future finds optimism in the unlikely love between robots. Toy Story’s putting away of childish things devastated us with the bittersweetness of aging, pristinely packaged inside the odd couple act of Woody and Buzz. The straight-to-streaming Turning Red follows this formula to its biggest, fuzziest and most wide-ranging conclusion. Filmmaker Domee Shi (who delivered the best short Pixar’s ever made in Bao) becomes the first woman to direct a Pixar movie alone, and her floofy red panda’s coming-of-age story stretches the strengths of the company’s legacy. Turning Red is a hyper-cute whirlwind of figurative layers and literal loveliness, dense with meaning and meaningful even to the most dense among us. An exceptional puberty comedy by way of Sanrio-branded Kafka, Turning Red’s truthful transformations are strikingly charming, surprisingly complex and satisfyingly heartfelt. And yes, so cute you might scream until you’re red in the face.
Hyperactive 13-year-old overachiever Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) likes to think she runs Toronto with her weirdo friends, partitioning her life into boy band obsession, extracurricular exceptionalism and deference to intense mom Ming (Sandra Oh) and soft-spoken dad Jin (Orion Lee). She’s got it all balanced, embodying the multiple identities we develop as we become our own people with the overwhelming energy of someone discovering this exciting new freedom for the first time. Chiang’s crackling vocal performance and a blistering visual pace right out the gate make it clear that Mei’s a ridiculous little goober who knows exactly who she is. That is, until she’s “visited by the red panda.”
No, it’s not one of the weirder euphemisms for a first period. It’s real. (That said, Turning Red is one of the only Western animated movies to talk explicitly about menstruation—and make plenty of squirmy, specific jokes about it thanks to the overbearing Ming—since another Disney movie, The Story of Menstruation, in 1946.) Mei has a nightmare featuring some crimson images freakier than Dumbo’s drunken dream and wakes as a massive red panda. Ah, the changing bodies of adolescence. Unrecognizable shapes, unpredictable energies and lots of unexpected hair.
What initially seems like a fairly straightforward allegory for the bodily betrayal and raging emotions of puberty starts scooping up more and more relatable elements into its impressive, finely detailed bear hug. Shi and co-writer Julia Cho weave an ambitious amount of themes into a narrative that’s main plot engine is boy band concert lust. Its love-hate bout with puberty is obvious, but self-actualization, filial piety and intergenerational trauma keep its romping red wonder from feeling one-note or derivative of underwhelming transformation tales like Brave or Luca. Turning Red’s oddball characters and well-rooted fantasy inject personality into the common plot device.
Mei’s inherited this matrilineal affliction, passed down from a devout ancestor looking to protect her family, poofing into a big squishy red panda—sized more like the character’s inevitable mascot soon to be traipsing around the Pixar Promenade than the real animal—whenever she’s overwhelmed by strong emotions. Her mom had it. Her grandmother had it. All her aunties had it. Whether she’s angry at her rich-kid bully or secretly pining after an oblivious convenience store clerk, her shape shifts either all at once or one feature at a time (sometimes coming off like a Neko-ish catgirl).
It’s weird, but not in an unappealing way. Mei hates what her body can become, but is also able to control it (read: repress it) thanks to a visualization exercise where she imagines her supportive, loving friends: Bone-dry Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), loudmouth Abby (Hyein Park) and balanced bestie Miriam (Ava Morse). But unlike her family, the trio literally embrace their friend’s cuddly alter-ego, chibified eyes sparkling. Her parents are more keen to explain that this particular genetic anomaly can be ritualed away in a month’s time with a touch of magic, forever trapping that pesky red panda spirit in a piece of jewelry. With the stage fully set, the intersecting plotlines can feel a bit contrived, as the story’s progression becomes even clearer than the acknowledged period analogy. Mei’s going to eventually embrace this unruly part of herself, overcoming self-loathing thanks to those that love her. She’ll go through typical teen movie beats, like sneaking out to a party and weathering friction with parents who just don’t understand (but, of course, understand more deeply than she’ll ever know). It’ll all come to a head in an overblown confrontation ripped from a AAA blockbuster.
But the steps getting there remain honest and realistic for the age of the characters. A burgeoning, confused crush instigates the story while an overwillingness to exploit one’s gifts and/or culture (Mei sells photos of herself in panda form, as well as pro-panda merch, to raise money for tickets) is ripe for interpretation. Turning Red blazes through the strange silliness with the same madcap breathlessness that sucked me into The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It’s easy to get on the same level as its protagonist, into the melodramatic mind of a freshly anointed teenager, thanks to rambunctious editing and a masterfully understated visual style.
Turning Red is stunning, which is extra impressive because it’s mostly about an eighth grade girl’s grounded life. Aside from a few moments, like a city-spanning slapstick freakout and a kaiju-level showdown, there’s little fantastical for the animation to lean on. It races through Chinatown, school and Mei’s family temple with a cartoony energy derived not from distorted visuals (though Panda Mei is truly endearing as a hyper-expressive plushie), but character-based tempo. Mei’s a bundle of energy, which makes her whole life buzz around her. That can mean the colors look brighter and the world moves faster (or lurches into slo-mo when the horny little spitfire spies a cutie), or that her field of vision narrows with a hyperventilating anxiety when her mom inevitably embarrasses her in front of everyone…again. Nuanced character animation also emphasizes this over-the-top dedication to emotional realism: While Mei goes a mile a minute, whipping around the screen, her dad’s thoughtful nods and mom’s multifaceted gazes equally embody their characters. We know the Lees, we know Mei’s Toronto and we even know what it’s like to be an Animorph with high-def fur, all thanks to this thoughtful and immersive design. Without needing to overthink the kinetic joy of what our eyes are seeing, our minds are allowed to work overtime on the film’s adora-bildungsroman.
Not only one of Pixar’s best efforts from the last half-decade, Turning Red is one that overcomes some of the animation giant’s weaknesses. It’s original and human-centric; it’s not particularly beholden to messages more weepy for adults than enjoyable for children. It’s funny without being overly witty and smart without being overly heady. Shi displays a fantastic ability for integrating the specific and personal into the broad beats of a magical cartoon, all done sweetly and endearingly enough to become an instant favorite among modern kids and those who’ll recognize their past selves.
Director: Domee Shi
Writers: Julia Cho, Domee Shi
Stars: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
Release Date: March 11, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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