Pixar’s new animated feature Turning Red, now on DisneyPlus, is an absolute delight from start to finish. The studio’s 25th feature is a celebration of so many things, including female friendship, self esteem, personal growth, the millennial experience, motherhood, and Chinese culture, all while bringing both mom and dorky teenaged-girl realness. Helmed and co-written by Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi, the Oscar-winning director of the 2016 short Bao, Turning Red also the first Pixar film officially solo directed by a woman. When Shi took her idea for the movie to Pixar, her pitch was “it’s a girl going through magical puberty and turns into a giant red panda”. It might not sound particularly complex or nuanced, but Shi and her team have brought a tremendous amount of meaning and depth to what is a funny, wild cinematic ride. It also allows girls and women, especially those of Asian descent, to be fully seen onscreen.
The story, which takes place in 2002, follows 13-year-old Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), an overachiever who loves school, her friends, and her family with a passion. Mei is having new, burgeoning feelings of boy-craziness, and the intense emotions anyone who has gone through puberty will recognize. In this way, the film’s name is an intentional double entendre, referencing menstruation. Are all you boys and men running for the hills yet? Well, you shouldn’t, particularly if you are or ever want to be a parent. It might be a cartoon, but Turning Red is an invaluable and realistic peek into what girls who are growing up and growing into themselves are going through.
Mei has a tight-knit group of pals, Abby, Miriam, and Priya. They love her unconditionally, and when the intense emotions she feels over a neighborhood boy, and a subsequent misunderstanding with her mom magically turn her into a red panda, they stand by her without question. Overprotective, loving mom Ming (Sandra Oh) stands by her too, in part because she’s been through the same thing. This metamorphosis is matrilineal magic, something handed down to all the women in the family through their ancestors. Lots happens between the time Mei’s inner panda reveals itself and the story’s conclusion. There’s a (misguided and ultra-capitalist) money drive Mei and her besties put on so they can go to a concert with their fave boy band 4*Town. There’s also a ritual that brings Ming’s own mom, with whom Ming has complicated feelings, and various well-meaning aunties into town, all determined to banish Mei’s red panda back to the spirit realm. So much love from so many sources is bound to push Mei into figuring out who and what she wants to be, and it does, all in funny and touching ways.
It’s worth mentioning that the songs by 4*Town are written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, who also voices Jesse, one of the cute members of the early aught and ’N Sync/Backstreet Boys/Jonas Brothers-inspired band. These teen crooners are a great salute and an intentional throwback to the teen experience circa 2002, which is when writer/director Shi herself was 13. In writing about what she knew, be it the specificity of a Canada upbringing, the comfort and safety of teen friendship, (Abby, Miriam, and Priya are based on her own childhood friends), a life centered in a culturally Chinese family, or the millennial experience of being a new teen in 2002, Shi has created something everyone can relate to, whatever your culture, age or gender. Transition from child to adult has always been and will always be hard and full of emotion. Surprising and badly-timed beasts show up that sometimes need to be tamed, sometimes banished, sometimes embraced. That’s true for everyone. Turning Red is proof that the more specific the story, the more universal it is to its audience.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars