Puberty, PMS, and Pixar collide in Turning Red, the studio’s horniest and most chaotic film to date.
Like a 13-year-old who realizes they’re starting to smell funny and experience a flood of emotion, Turning Red has a lot on its plate. Its busy visuals and sometimes scatterbrained narrative reflect that. When it slows to the right speed, it’s a captivating, even emotional story about a young girl fighting the seemingly winless battle of staying true to tradition and being her own person. That doesn’t get old, and it only feels fresher in such capable hands.
Those hands belong to Domee Shi, a Chinese-Canadian animator whose first credit with Pixar goes back to Inside Out in 2015. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, you might remember her short film Bao, which preceded Incredibles 2 in theaters. It was a brief but winsome short about a mother acclimating to being an empty nester; she winds up getting another opportunity at motherhood by raising a sentient dumpling. I saw that short two weeks before moving out of my parents’ house; my reaction wasn’t pretty.
It’s likely Pixar’s finest director, Pete Docter, saw something in Shi when she worked as a story artist on Inside Out, for he serves as an executive producer on her debut. Turning Red follows 13-year-old Meilin, who goes by “Mei” (voiced by Rosalie Chiang). She’s our spunky, overachieving heroine who is growing up way too fast, fighting hormones and a changing body. Her Chinese-Canadian family resides in Toronto circa 2002 (delightfully nuanced, and sometimes striking in its deft illustration of a simpler era). Mei might be a little dorky and an accomplished student, but she’s beginning to gravitate towards cute boys and loud music, much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother Ming (Sandra Oh).
All hell breaks loose when mom discovers Mei’s notebook of suggestive doodlings involving a local store clerk and immediately loses it. The gravity of embarrassment overwhelms Mei to the point where she transforms into a big, red, furry panda. After a lot of panic, she realizes she turns into the creature whenever she feels a rush of intense emotions. The transformation itself is something her mother knows all too well, although Ming initially fears it’s something else. “Has the red peony blossomed?” she asks Mei when her (now-panda-fied) daughter is hiding in the bathroom — up there with one of the most radical sentences ever uttered in a Disney-branded property.
Here Pixar goes once again making a completely accessible metaphor out of something completely normal yet ordinarily difficult to put into words (playing a similar tune to that of Inside Out). Mei is caught in the precarious position of trying to adhere to her ancestral tradition while grappling with natural feelings in becoming a woman. Early into the film, she claims that at 13, she’s basically an adult and has everything figured out. She’s at that awkward age where she’s self-sufficient, but still needs her parents in ways she’d rather not recognize. Not to be neglected is her much quieter yet understanding father Jin (Orion Lee), who ironically is relegated to the kitchen for much of the first half of the movie.
So much of Shi’s debut works that you might be surprised at yourself for getting wrapped up in the climax, which, without spoilers, involves a world-bending battle between a mother and daughter. It begins at a boy band concert and somehow ends with various members of Mei’s family coming to grips with their looser side. The fact that the entire sequence is mostly sound narratively and emotionally is a testament to the great work of writers Shi and Julia Cho, who keep the themes of one owning their messiest side in check regardless of the sound and lights.
Turning Red‘s blends a lot of traditionalist fiction, appropriately hormonal under/overtones, and anime influence into a film that’s sure to resonate with young girls. It’s fresh because the material is so commonly underexplored or completely overlooked. It’s fitting we got this story from Pixar. The real surprise is it getting relegated to Disney+ as opposed to seeing a theatrical release, which presents a concerning trend for the studio whose last three major releases all skipped theaters (Inside Out enjoyed about two weeks of engagement before the pandemic hit the US). Without the previously implemented $30 surcharge, I don’t remotely understand how this could be profitable. In a way, I’m just glad it exists.
NOTE: Turning Red is now available to stream on Disney+.
Voiced by: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Orion Lee, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Directed by: Domee Shi.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!