Pixar Studio has always pushed the boundaries when it comes to innovation. They were the first studio to produce a full-length computer-generated feature in Toy Story. They developed CG animation into an art form. More recently, they have dealt with subjects that have often been hard to talk about in family cinema (think death in Soul, finding your identity in Luca). So now we have Turning Red, a film that tackles the difficult part of life: puberty. It manages to do this in a bright, breezy, charming and magical way that will make life so much easier to understand for those going through the change.
Mei Lee is a 13-year-old girl who is a grade-A student, will do anything her mother asks of her and has three close friends, all living in Toronto in 2002. Mei Lee, however, has discovered she is changing. She is starting to slip in her academic studies, becoming slightly rebellious, and she notices boys, particularly the pop sensations 4*Town. One morning, she wakes up to find she has turned into a giant Red Panda, a curse passed down from generation to generation, affecting her whenever she suffers from heightened emotions. There is a cure, a ceremony held on the night of the red moon; however, this falls on the same night that her favourite band performs in the city.
Director and co-writer Domee Shi’s feature debut, she made the delightfully weird short Bao, has delivered a tale aimed at family viewing but speaks volumes to young girls finding life hard as they notice their own changes. It is full of ups and downs that come with becoming a woman: the embarrassment when before there wasn’t any, the importance of friends when you believe your mother, who was once your best friend, doesn’t understand you. It also manages to do something that I cannot remember a family movie ever dealing with, let alone mention.
When Mei Lee first discovers she has turned into a panda, she rushes to the bathroom, shocked, scared and embarrassed to share with her mother. Instantly, her mother believes it’s that time, bringing a box including pain killers, a hot water bottle and sanitary towels. This part of growing up has been hidden away in the entertainment world, so it was refreshing that this film shares this moment without ever once feeling forced or sensational. So it’s a massive step forward to a subject that was once taboo.
As for the film itself, this is a beautiful mix of clever animation, with the usual high standard from Pixar and bringing in anime, Ghibli and Asian cinema. So we get a first 15 minutes that comes at you at a breakneck pace yet manages to tell you everything about the lead character and her friends and family before we get to the heart of the story. So what do you do when you keep changing into a giant red panda. Shi’s film explores the difficult decisions a girl has to face at this time of her life with charm and humour while keeping themes like mother/daughter relationships and the importance of friendship bubbling under the main storyline.
Including a boy band is a brilliant idea, as the first crushes a teenage girl has are usually with musicians. The songs, written by Billie Ellish and Finneas, are a hoot, while the score by Ludwig Göransson captures the moods and style brilliantly. The vocal talent also works well, with Rosalie Chiang terrific as Mei Lee and Sandra Oh as her mother.
Turning Red is an utter delight. Funny, visually stunning and brimming with themes and ideas. The final act is an absolute blast, and overall it’s a film that should be enjoyed throughout the years to help with those difficult conversations about growing up. If there is one complaint, it’s a shame this has been released directly to Disney+, as I am sure it would have found an audience in cinemas. A must-see, it’s one of Pixar’s finest.
5 out of 5
Director: Domee Shi
Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, James Hong, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan
Written by: (also story) Domee Shi, Julia Cho and (story) Sarah Streicher.
Running Time: 100 mins
Release date: 11th March 2022 (on Disney+)