Turning Red captures that vintage Pixar vibe while telling a story that feels unique to the company’s legendary canon. Think The Incredible Hulk mashed up with Teen Wolf and High School Musical, and you start to get the picture.
Director Domee Shi’s Turning Red wears its heart – and its many influences – on its sleeve. Shi’s touching animated adventure is a joyous coming-of-age fantasy and a glowing love letter to Toronto.
It’s 2002, and Meilin ‘Mei’ Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl living in Toronto Canada with her parents Jin (Orion Lee) and Ming (Sandra Oh). Life is good for the spunky young overachiever. Mei brings home straight A’s from school while also taking part in extracurriculars – she plays a mean jazz flute. But more than anything, Mei loves spending time with her three best friends, Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Miriam (Ava Morse), and Abby (Hyein Park).
Mei has life all figured out until her hormones kick in and boys show up on her radar. She develops a lost in the desert for 40 days-level thirst for the boy band 4*Town. Now, Mei spends evenings drawing her hunky crushes in a secret diary she stashes under her bed.
Ming finds her daughter’s new behaviour appalling, and she goes from a supportive mother to an overbearing helicopter parent. Ming embarrasses her daughter in front of her classmates, and all Mei’s shame and pent-up frustration activate a mystical power inside of her.
Whenever Mei loses control of her emotions, she transforms into a giant, stinky, pot-bellied red panda. As she learns to embrace her wild side, Mei’s behaviour fractures the relationship with her mother. Ultimately, Mei must choose between obeying Ming’s orders and becoming her own person.
I’ve lost count of how many films I’ve seen use the puberty-as-a-monster metaphor. Fortunately, Shi puts the story device to excellent use. She pulls aspects from her own childhood to chronicle what happens when kids stop being their parents’ sweet little child.
Puberty is the most turbulent time in a child’s young life, and Shi expertly mines humour and drama from the hormone-driven chaos. No one has ever turned into an actual hormone monster, but we’ve all been in Mei’s metaphorical shoes. Her struggle is our struggle, making each emotional beat hit that much harder. I won’t spoil how Mei learns to deal with her inner-beast, but I promise you that it’s sweet, believable, and grounded in real-life experiences.
Turning Red’s off-kilter vibe stands out from other Pixar movies. Despite its fantastic premise, it feels more grounded in the real world than films like Toy Story and Ratatouille. However, it has a madcap energy that sets it apart from its predecessors.
At times Turning Red feels custom made for the TikTok generation. There’s the rapid-fire jump cuts, characters’ exaggerated facial animations, and even Mei breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience. Shi borrows elements from Edgar Wright flicks, Sailor Moon episodes, and Miyazaki movies to craft a kinetic cinematic concoction that stops just shy of sensory overload.
Turning Red showcases Pixar’s eye candy A-game. The film looks stunning. Shi and her team of animators breathed life into Mei’s world through a style they coined “chunky cute.” They render characters with thick, awkward proportions that emphasize quirks and idiosyncrasies.
The animation team renders Mei’s world in soft, luscious pastels, giving the movie a dreamy, rose-coloured tint – it looks the way we recall our fondest childhood memories. The animators chose bolder primary colours for the movie’s characters, making them really pop out from their environments.
Sadly, the pandemic steamrolled Turning Red’s theatrical run, and now it’s heading straight to Disney+. I can only imagine how good this film would look on a giant movie screen.
No theatrical run stings even harder for me because I’m from Toronto, and I was thrilled to see my city receive such loving Pixar treatment. Keen-eyed locals will appreciate small details like bags of milk, a Daisy Mart, and a kid rocking an era-appropriate Vince Carter jersey.
Ludwig Göransson once again outdoes himself with a score that blends a variety of musical styles. A beautiful orchestral score accentuates the film’s earnest emotional sequences. Character themes incorporate traditional Chinese instruments like the dizi (bamboo flute) and guzheng (a plucked string instrument).
But it’s the sinisterly catchy pop ballads that stand out from the pack.
A plot centred on a wolrd famous boy band has to bring the heat, sonically. And rest assured, Göransson hits us with an authentic pop banger. 4*Town’s New Jack Swing-tinged track sounds ripped straight out of the late 90s.
Turning Red explores how living your best life often demands defying your loved ones’ expectations. You can’t be your most authentic self when you let others tell you who you are and what you need. It’s a tough lesson to incorporate at any age, but especially at 13.
At 13, my self-worth was still tied to my parent’s love and approval. To act out was to obliterate their image of me, their good son. Even thinking about disappointing them would cause me to have an an existential crisis. If only there was a Turning Red, and a Meilin Lee in my life to reveal the truths I couldn’t see: parents can empower you, but they can also stunt your growth.
Turning Red‘s themes are as old as time, but Shi revitalizes this coming-of-age story by infusing the tale with modern dimensions. The film’s vibrant characters and cultural specificities bring this world to life in spectacular detail.
Like all the great Pixar titles, Turning Red works its magic on two fronts. It’s a whimsical animated adventure and a soulful meditation on family, friendship, and self-expression.