REVIEW – ‘Turning Red’ is one of Pixar’s most daring films thus far

In their illustrious 27-year history, Pixar Animation Studios has intelligently covered many pertinent topics. From mental health and grief to environmentalism and the meaning of life, their bravery in tackling themes other animation studios wouldn’t dare touch has always been one of their greatest strengths. It should come as no surprise to learn their latest effort, Turning Red offers a portrait of something we’ve never seen in animation before; the perils of puberty.

Shrewdly utilising an ancient curse as a smart metaphor for the uncontrollable changes one’s body experiences in their teenage years, Turning Red is another major slam dunk for Pixar and one of their most daring films thus far. Tremendously heartwarming and wildly funny, it’s a nuanced take on both the chaos of puberty and the weight of familial expectation. From the wild anime influences in its designs to the gorgeous pastel colour palette, it’s visually unlike anything else in their back catalogue. Yes, folks. Pixar has done it again.

Set in Chinatown, Toronto in 2002, the film centres on 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a self-confessed overachieving dork who lives next to the city’s oldest Chinese temple turned tourist spot, operated by her overprotective parents, Ming (Sandra Oh) and Jin (Orion Lee). Mei is a typically rebellious pubescent teenager who wears what she wants and claims to “do what she wants,” yet still knows better than to defy the strict rule of her helicopter parent mother.

The only ones who truly understand Mei are her best gal pals, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abbey (Hyein Park), who equally share Mei’s undying obsession with the biggest boy band in the world, 4*Town. While dealing with the typical challenges of teenage life, Mei’s life is flipped upside down when she awakens one morning to discover she’s somehow turned into a giant red panda.

Unable to hide her mysterious metamorphosis from her parents, Mei is finally told of the curse that has plagued Ming’s family for generations. Centuries ago, the family’s most revered ancestor, Sun Yee was blessed by the gods with the power to morph into a towering red panda to defend her village from invading marauders. That “gift” was then inherited by the women of Mei’s family including her mother and grandmother (Wai Ching Ho). And Mei only has one chance to cure this ancient hex before she’s trapped with it forever.

Co-written and directed by Academy Award winner Domee Shi (who holds the honour of being the first solo female director responsible for a Pixar film), Turning Red is clearly a deeply personal film for the filmmaker and co-writer Julia Cho. Just the fact the story is set in 2002 when Shi was 13 herself highlights how much of her own life she’s injected into this project. What Shi and Cho have crafted feels like a curious combination of Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age drama Lady Bird (ironically, also set in 2002), Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, and The Incredible Hulk. On paper, that sounds rather ridiculous. In Shi’s capable hands, it’s entirely remarkable.

The allegory of a teenager having an unpredictable, hormone-charged beast inside them is hardly subtle, particularly for those of us who’ve been there and those currently dealing with pubescent change. While Inside Out quietly dabbled in similar themes with its emotion-charged main character, Turning Red makes no secret its teenage female protagonist is becoming a young woman. There’s even a surprisingly frank discussion between Mei and Ming regarding menstrual care products when the mother mistakingly believes the “the red peony” has arrived. It’s not explicit enough to alarm or confuse younger viewers, but it’s sufficiently honest to ring true with its intended female teenage audience.

At the core of Shi and Cho’s narrative is Mei’s complicated journey from childhood to young adulthood; a path that’s only made more difficult by your body sprouting hair and smelling weird and your emotions constantly riding a wild rollercoaster. That’s why the red panda allegory is so deceptively intelligent. The creature’s random appearances are something Mei cannot control. It’s only when she learns to master the beast and embrace her true identity that she can truly be at peace. It’s quite literally the personification of everything we experience during this turbulent time in our lives.

But Turning Red delves even deeper with its mother-daughter subplot that taps into the crushing weight of familial expectation that Mei is struggling to uphold. She’s constantly trying to live up to the image of perfection she believes her mother demands of her. Ming is well-intentioned and nurturing, but her stubbornness is ultimately creating a disconnect between mother and daughter. Her bullish methods of demanding her daughter suppress who she really is feed into the generational trauma passed down by her own oppressive mother. It’s only when these different generations of women see they’re following the same path of cultural pressures can they move beyond the pain they’ve inadvertently caused each other.

There’s an immense level of emotional depth to Turning Red that’s perfectly balanced by a good dose of fun and a hefty barrel of laughs. Mei’s red panda persona naturally creates numerous opportunities for delicious slapstick humour that will delight young audiences. The scenes involving the girls’ adoration for 4*Town cleverly exploit the silliness of boyband culture; something most of us likely remember from our own childhoods. And the outrageously entertaining finale is a brilliant parade of kaiju-infused spectacle that soon gives way to the typically moving Pixar ending that will likely leave you reaching for the tissues.

Taking inspiration from anime and moving away from Pixar’s usual photorealistic style, the visual aesthetic is distinctive and fresh with a candy-coloured pastel colour palette that perfectly compliments Shi and Cho’s narrative. The cartoonish character designs may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the occasional use of exaggerated emoji-esque expressions and swift movements perfectly encapsulates the heightened mindset of a teenage girl. The background designs give Toronto a sparkling gloss that may shift away from realism, but when the end result is this gorgeous, it’s hard to care.

In her feature film debut, Chiang shines as the instantly loveable Mei. She’s precocious and spunky with hidden layers of vulnerability and doubt that Chiang effortlessly conveys with her impressive voiceover work. Oh is perfectly cast as the domineering mother whose intentions could be seen as cruel in the hands of a lesser performer. Oh wisely finds the pathos in this complicated woman and elicits your empathy with a traumatic backstory of her own. Ramakrishnan snatches focus as the hilariously deadpan Priya, but it’s the stoic and intimidating Gao who enters late in this film and practically steals the whole thing.

While the middle portion of Turning Red lags slightly, it’s elevated by the two acts that bookend it. This is a beautiful tale of self-acceptance that will no doubt strike a deep chord with young audiences. It’s a grand fable showcasing different generations of Asian women finding common ground despite their vast differences. It’s a sweet and goofy comedy that earnestly earns its laughs. It’s a brilliantly written metaphor for the confusion and disarray of our puberty years. It’s a universal story of claiming your own identity outside of expectations. And it’s one of the best Pixar movies to date.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
Director: Domee Shi
Producers: Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Julia Cho, Domee Shi
Cinematography: Mahyar Abousaeedi, Jonathan Pytko
Production Design: Rona Liu
Music: Ludwig Göransson
Editors: Nicholas C. Smith, Steve Bloom
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: 11th March 2022 (Disney+)