Turning Red (2022)
Growing up is a beast.
After 36 years in the business, Turning Red, once again, proves why Pixar is still the best animation studio in the world. Even though the landscape and the way that movies are being distributed is changing, Pixar clearly hasn’t let down their game as Turning Red (which is being released exclusively on Disney+ at no extra cost) may very well be the best animated film you’ll see this year.
Similar to how Pete Docter sophisticatedly explored the way the mind worked in Pixar’s Inside Out (2018) and made it accessible to children, Turning Red is a mature, complex look at the unpredictability and turbulence of going through adolescence, surveyed through a thirteen-year-old girl who’s transition to teenager is represented when she transforms into a big red panda. Additionally, the film tackles other themes of familial relationships and the importance of surrounding oneself with genuine, supportive friends. This one, however, is probably better suited towards teens, unless you’re okay with under-elevens asking some pretty tough questions about puberty afterward.
The story follows Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), who lives in Toronto (the Canadian backdrop is a breath of fresh air) in 2002. When we meet Mei, she’s spirited, confident, dorky, passionate, and a little bit weird. An only child, Mei is thriving academically, keeping her parents happy – chiefly her controlling mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), who doesn’t want her daughter partaking in anything she disapproves of. Mei helps her folks out at the ancestral temple in Chinatown, where they work and live. The shrine honors the clan’s ancestors, mainly their matriarch who had a profound bond with red pandas.
When Mei’s not doing her duties around the temple (which includes dressing up in a cardboard red panda costume to appease tourists), she lives another life with her three best friends, the tomboyish Miriam (Ava Morse), the deadpan Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and the tiny-but-ferocious Abby (Hyein Park). They’re all obsessed with the hottest boyband of all time, 4*Town — an early 2000s sounding pop group in the vein of *NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys, and 5ive. Mei has managed to keep most of her social life a secret from her overprotective mom who doesn’t really approve of Mei’s friendship circle and knows nothing of her obsession with 4*Town or budding attraction to the male species.
Alas, after Ming stumbles on her daughter’s private diary, which is filled with hormonal drawings of young boys, Mei’s exasperation gets the better of her, and she wakes up the next morning covered in red fur, discovering that she’s morphed into a giant red panda. Although Mei tries to hide her transformation from her parents at first, they eventually realize what’s happened and explain that it’s part of an age-old family ‘blessing’ (considered more of a curse these days, really), with Mei’s new explosive emotions triggering the panda.
The good news is that the panda can go ‘poof’ whenever Mei calms down; Mei returns to her usual self whenever she’s in a state of relaxation — when she’s back in her human body, however, Mei’s black hair remains a bright red, which she hides under a beanie. Ming goes on to reveal that the curse can thankfully be reversed with a ritual that must take place at the next red moon so long as Mei pacifies the panda until then by remaining calm through the chaos of middle school. Things become more complicated when Mei and her BFFs realize that 4*Town are coming to Toronto for a one-night-only concert, which at $200 a ticket, the girls can’t afford. So, Mei and her pals devise a way to raise money for the tickets and attend the show without their parents knowing about it, all whilst trying to stop the red panda from breaking loose and terrorizing the town. Of course, panda-monium ensues.
Helmed by filmmaker Domee Shi, who directed Pixar’s Oscar-winning short Bao (2018), and written by Shi and Julia Cho, Turning Red basically explores Mei’s ‘awakening’ — her first real steps into growing up and becoming her own person. While the panda might be an allegory for a girl’s first menstrual period or puberty in general, it also works as a symbol of change and those key transitional moments in life. While change can be tough, Shi shows that we can adapt to it if surrounded by the right people. Mei is initially mortified by her new body but becomes comfortable in her furry skin thanks to the care and support of her loving friends; Mei eventually decides to use the situation to make money by giving her classmates the chance to take a picture with the cute giant panda that’s been spotted around the city. Shi also explores the bonds between parents and their growing children; Mei wants to forge her own identity but still remain close with her mother despite their differences. With that said, Shi makes Ming’s fears clear in that she doesn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes that she did while growing up.
Raised as a Chinese Canadian in Toronto, Shi’s fondness for her hometown is evident in every single frame — from Mei’s Canadian pajama t-shirt and a bobblehead moose on Ming’s car’s dashboard to the multicultural folks that inhabit the city, one can almost feel the place itself (we even get shots of the iconic CN Tower). As one would expect, the art and animation is beautiful, joyous, and stunning. The whole film has a kawaii anime type of vibe mixed with your traditional Pixar style of artwork, animators referencing filmmakers such as Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. There’s also an affection towards all things early 2000s, with shots of old school computers, CD players, and lines of VHS tapes in the Lee household.
Besides being a movie about ‘growing pains,’ Turning Red works as a jubilant tribute to the rampant, irresistible magic of pop music and how it can lift the spirits of an entire room. I’m not afraid to say that I was a pop music junkie circa 2002 and was a sucker for groups such as S Club 7, 5ive, and *NSYNC. So, seeing 4*Town here was a nostalgic treat, the group coming off as a legitimate boyband. The five(?) members of 4*Town have dreamy names like Robaire (Jordan Fisher), Jesse (Finneas O’Connell), Tae Young (Grayson Villanueva), Aaron T. (Topher Ngo), and Aaron Z. (Josh Levi), each complete with a distinct ‘personality trait’ — heck, one of the guys can even heal injured doves! All of 4*Town’s tracks (written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell) are instant hits, every song imbued with a catchy K-Pop energy. I found myself searching for the film’s soundtrack on Spotify on the ride home from the media screening — 4*Town’s Y2K-sounding single “Nobody Like U” is a blast!
The voice work is ‘stu-panda-ous’ all around, with newcomer Rosalie Chiang leading the diverse cast as the spirited, confident, and emotional Mei. The film’s biggest name, Sandra Oh, Killing Eve (2018-22), is terrific as Mei’s hard-working mother Ming, who may seem somewhat overbearing at first, but is always motivated by her love for her daughter. Even Orion Lee, First Cow (2019), impresses despite his limited dialogue as Mei’s quiet father Jin, who may be softly spoken but stands as the rock of the family, and is the only person in the clan that can soothe his ‘ferocious’ wife and pull her back down to Earth. Finally, Tristan Allerick Chen is fun as Tyler, an aggressive and annoying classmate who always seems to pop up at the worst time imaginable.
Turning Red gets more fantastical the further it goes along with the final act taking place at a packed concert in Toronto’s SkyDome and the astral plane, pushing the movie into wildly unexpected places. Ultimately, though, Turning Red is another winner from Pixar, proving that filmmaker Domee Shi is a talent worth keeping an eye on. I may not be a Chinese girl, nor am I thirteen-years-old, but this didn’t stop me one iota from feeling deeply connected with the material. If you grew up feeling like you didn’t belong, felt uncomfortable in your own body, or struggled to please your parents/peers, this one’s for you. Celebrate the teen fervor and click over to Disney+ for Turning Red now!
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)