Animation studio Pixar has a knack for making stories with a grand scope feel personal and relatable, while also making relatively small, personal stories feel powerful and important in ways you don’t expect. The studio’s latest film, Turning Red, is a wonderful example of the latter that also manages to break new ground for the studio in some wonderful ways.
Directed by Domee Shi and co-written by Shi and Julia Cho, Turning Red follows 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee, a Chinese-Canadian girl living in Toronto who discovers that her newfound teenager status isn’t quite the ticket to adulthood she hoped for when she begins to transform into a giant red panda every time she gets excited. Now, in order to attend the concert of her dreams with her best friends, she’ll have to hide her big, furry alter ego — or learn how to live with it.
Part funny-cute fantasy adventure, part thoughtful coming-of-age allegory, Turning Red is the sort of film that’s easy to relate to even if you’re not a teenage girl because it taps into the array of emotions we all experience at one point or another as we awkwardly try to find our place in the world.
Turning Red does a lot of things well, but one of the most pleasant surprises is Shi’s decision to keep the focus on Mei’s very human experiences, rather than the magical fantasy of her predicament.
It would’ve made for easy laughs to structure the entire narrative around the crazy hijinks Mei gets into while trying to hide her panda persona, but instead Shi centers the story on Mei’s relationship to her friends, her family, and the world around her. That decision proves to be a good one, because her story feels authentic, funny, and compelling on its own, full of moments that will resonate with audiences of all ages and genders (assigned or otherwise). That she’s also dealing with a mystical inconvenience that turns her into a giant red panda occasionally feels secondary to an adventure overflowing with non-magical elements we can all relate to.
And yet, while there’s a lot that’s universal about Mei’s adventure, mothers and daughters will likely get the biggest reward out of watching the film together.
Mei’s relationship to both her overprotective mother and to her own body are explored with plenty of heart and humor in Turning Red, and it’s no accident that the film’s title alludes to the onset of puberty and everything that goes with it. While the film doesn’t tackle topics like menstruation head-on, it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the big changes puberty brings and how we process them. That it’s able to do so in a way that opens the door for conversations without pushing the audience through it is a testament to Shi’s nuanced storytelling talents with both the medium and the subject matter.
While there are plenty of entertaining moments to be found on the screen in Turning Red, they wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding without the film’s talented cast of voice actors.
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As Mei, Rosalie Chiang is pitch-perfect as a newly minted teenager brimming with a potent mix of awkwardness and overconfidence. Her performance fills Mei with the familiarity of a kid everyone grew up with — or grew up as, possibly — and it quickly becomes hard to imagine the character voiced by anyone else.
The cast is rounded out by Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) as Mei’s mother and Wai Ching Ho (Daredevil) as Mei’s grandmother, as well as the trio of Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park as Mei’s three best friends. There’s a wonderful chemistry between the four friends that comes through in their dialogue and the way they communicate visually via animation, and their friendship delivers some of the film’s most memorable moments.
To its immense credit (and likely to many parents’ relief), Turning Red also opts against the usual dead, departed, or destined-to-die character (or characters) that have become a fixture in animated features lately.
It might seem like a strange thing to deem noteworthy, but at a time when nearly every animated family feature finds the need to include a tragic death or abandonment, it’s a rare — and welcome — exception for an all-ages film to not feel the need to add that particular level of trauma (and the processing of heavy emotions that goes along with it) to the list of things the film’s protagonist is dealing with at any given point. Turning Red smartly takes aim at a particular set of emotions and relationships, and that focus yields thoughtful, heartwarming moments that resonate in authentic ways without ever feeling emotionally manipulative.
Offering a clever script, relatable characters, a positive message, and just enough magic to make Mei’s experience feel big, bright, and bold on the screen, Turning Red is, ultimately, a story about becoming comfortable with yourself — and that’s a lesson we can all benefit from learning a bit more about.
Pixar’s Turning Red premieres March 11 on the Disney+ streaming service.
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