“Turning Red” stars Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, and James Hong. Released on Disney+ on March 11, 2022, the film is about a teen who discovers an unexpected family secret.
The film featured the directorial debut of Domee Shi, who’s mainly known for writing and directing the Pixar short “Bao”. We all reached a specific age in our lives where our bodies experience some “changes”. Our voices sound different, we develop unusual affections, and our hair grows in other places than our heads. However, the one change we didn’t realize was far more beastly than preparing for adulthood. Pixar kick-started 2022 last weekend with another animated feature that combines its fantasy elements with cultural representation and a coming-of-age journey filled with the highs and lows of life. The studio’s previous film, “Luca”, represented this element with stellar results. Now, it’s looking to repeat that success with a movie that takes audiences into the world of 2000s Canada. Not as exciting as the Italian Rivera, but it’ll do. This movie was supposed to bring the animation studio back on the big screen after “Soul” and “Luca” debuted exclusively on Disney+. Unfortunately, because of the virus that should not be mentioned again, Disney abandoned the theatrical strategy and sent it to its streaming service. Many people will likely blame this on the studio, but I would highly blame the people for not keeping their kids safe and ruining our chance to finally see a Pixar film in the theater where it always belongs. We better hope things will return to normal by the time “Lightyear” comes out this summer. While I was disappointed with this change like everybody else, it didn’t hinder my excitement towards it. I mean, it’s Pixar. What else can I say about it? With that said, let’s see if this latest animated feature marks another win for the masters of modern animation storytelling.
The story centers on Meilin “Mei” Lee (Chiang), a teenage Chinese-Canadian girl who lives in early 2000s Toronto. Mei works hard to live up to her family’s expectations, mainly her mother Ming (Oh), while living her ordinary life with her best friends. One day, Mei suddenly wakes up to discover that she’s transformed into a giant red panda. Upon learning that she only transforms when she’s highly emotional, Mei must adapt to the change while coming of age. She also discovers that this ability is part of a mystical tradition that has gone on for generations.
At first glance, it’s easy to assume that it looks like Pixar’s kid-friendly version of Marvel’s Hulk, but instead of a raging green beast, it’s a fluffy red panda. Believe it or not, it does sound awesome now that I think about it. However, when you peel off its mockbuster-like cover, you’ll be surprised to see that there’s more to this movie than what we assumed. “Turning Red” offers a narrative that explores the symbolic and fantastical perspective of puberty, mainly for teenage girls. Yes, you read that right. Pixar, the studio behind our favorite classics like “Toy Story”, “The Incredibles”, and “Onward”, has made a family movie about a girl going through some “changes” as she comes of age. I think it’s a bold move for the studio to explore a complicated and mature topic in a kid-friendly movie, let alone puberty in young women. It may not sound appropriate given Disney’s family-friendly brand. Still, if there’s one thing I learned from watching Pixar films, it’s that the studio always knows how to make mature themes accessible for the younger crowd without losing the realistic nature of them. I mean, what else made such films like “Inside Out” and “Soul” incredible masterpieces? “Turning Red” was given the goal to continue Pixar’s winning streak by providing clever storytelling, stellar animation, and cultural representation, and, to the surprise of no one, it managed to conquer that goal with ease.
The storyline in “Turning Red” is a typical coming-of-age tale centering on Mei’s process of becoming an independent young woman while dealing with her being a red panda. While it also deals with Mei and her friends attempting to go to a boy band concert, the real heart of the plot comes from Mei learning to appreciate herself for who she wants to be and her relationship with her mother. It’s important to honor the friends and family who love us, but we must never forget to honor ourselves as well. The film delivers elements that we’ve seen in other movies, like the “overprotecting parent” trope. However, like the previous Pixar films, there’s a considerable amount of charm and heart in these elements that make them unique and thoughtfully riveting. It’s a suitably-crafted and highly entertaining story that’ll delight young kids with its coasting pace and energetic style and impress adults with its relatable messages and great storytelling. The film came very close to being another Pixar masterpiece, but then the third act happened. Without spoilers for those who haven’t watched it yet, there’s a scene in the third act that I believe was a bit too far-fetched compared to the first two acts. Knowing that it’s made by Disney, I shouldn’t be too surprised that it went in that direction to keep the kids entertained. It’s not a terrible third act since it fits well with its themes, emotional weight, and the relationship between Mei and Ming. It’s the fact that compared to the down-to-earth essence of the film’s first two acts, the finale felt too grand for its own good. It gave me a good laugh at how exaggerated it was, so there’s that. Aside from that, the execution is another reason why Pixar is still on top of its quality game, both in animation and family-friendly storytelling.
Domee Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar film by herself, and she earns that title with pride. She took what she learned from her incredible short film “Bao”, such as her allegoric narration and cultural presentation, and expanded them in full-length form. The result is a fantastic debut that sees Shi representing a distinct style and a stirring perspective on life and cultural traditions. The fact that she’s also Chinese-Canadian makes the representation even more impressive. After seeing what she’s done with this movie, I’m pretty excited to see what her next project will be.
The cast was also top-tier with their performances. Newcomer Rosalie Chiang was originally hired as a placeholder for Mei until the team can find another voice actress for the character. But because of how much Shi and producer Lindsey Collins loved Chiang’s scratch vocals, they promoted her to be a permanent cast member. Based on what I’ve seen, I can understand why they kept her. Rosalie Chiang embraces the teenage angst and dynamic liveliness that embodies Mei and maintains the likable and relatable nature of her personality. I can see this newbie going places based on her performance alone. Sandra Oh also did an excellent job with her performance as Ming, as she took the overprotective parent trope and made it enjoyable. Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park were also entertaining in their roles as Mei’s friends. But, of course, if you’re a fan of James Hong, he’s in the film as well, but only in a minor role as a friend of the Lee family.
Regarding the animation, “Turning Red” is the latest attempt from Pixar to be experimental with its traditional style. The team was successful with “Luca”, which took inspiration from stop motion works, Hayao Miyazaki, and Italian movies for its designs and animation. “Turning Red” happens to be influenced by specific anime shows regarding the characters’ facial expressions and animation style. It’s always interesting to see Pixar get creative with its animation because it emphasizes the narrative it wants to present yet still retains the vibrant cinematic quality we usually expect from the studio. “Turning Red” is no exception, as the style constantly pops and sizzles with color palettes and enthusiastic flair. It can be a bit much during some sequences, but as someone who has watched anime more recently than ever, I found it to be a colorful blast from start to finish. I also thought the humor was solid regarding the script and Shi’s direction. It perfectly captures the comedic awkwardness of being a teen and delivers plenty of clever dialogue that’s worth a chuckle or three.
Overall, “Turning Red” is another animated triumph from Pixar that doesn’t feel embarrassed with how it portrays its subject matter to its target audience. It’s a highly zestful yet sublimely heartwarming depiction of puberty and the values of appreciating the changes within one’s self. Regarding Pixar’s presentation of adolescence, I think “Inside Out” still retains that crown because of its storytelling. Regardless, the film is an immense joy to watch thanks to its brilliant story, dynamic cast, thought-provoking themes, and stellar animation. It would’ve been nice to see it on the big screen as it was intended, but again, I get why Disney made that choice to put it on Disney+ instead. Hopefully, this will be the last time they do it and keep “Lightyear” as a theaters-only exclusive, assuming that everyone is safe to go back to the cinemas.