Director: Domee Shi
Starring: (voices of) Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, James Hong
Run Time: 100 mins
Turning Red is the latest in the Disney Pixar canon and like Soul and Luca last year, it has released straight on Disney+. Whilst the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t gone away, this seems a strange decision, especially considering Disney films such as Encanto and Spider-Man: No Way Home have performed very well in cinemas. The film is directed by Domee Shi, the Oscar-winning director of Pixar short Bao.
Set in 2002, Turning Red’s central character is a thirteen year old Chinese-Canadian girl called Meilin ‘Mei’ Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She lives with her parents in Toronto – her father, Jin (Orion Lee) is relaxed and easygoing but her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), is authoritative and overprotective. Mei walks a fine line between trying to please her mother and trying to fit in with her peers at school, although she’s part of a small circle of girls who are fans of a boyband called ‘4*Town’. Her mother disapproves and outside of school, Mei helps to look after her family’s temple dedicated to their ancestor, Sun Yee.
Mei gets increasingly stressed with having to walk the tightrope between her mother and her own personal choices and one morning, Mei wakes up and finds that she has transformed into a giant red panda. Mei discovers that she transforms whenever she gets into a strong state of emotion, evocative of growing up and the film doesn’t shy away from topics such as menstruation and puberty.
Turning Red is to be commended for its sheer ambition of dealing with what is a relatively taboo subject matter for a mainstream film, especially one that also has to appeal to younger audiences. It represents a very different affair for a Pixar film and as is typical for the animation studio, it is moving in parts. It is clearly inspired by anime with its transformative element and colour scheme, down to the extreme facial expressions of its characters.
The script, co-written by Shi and Julia Cho, is smart and its characters bursting with personality. Mei is a very well written lead and is endlessly empathetic. She simply wants to carve her own life and is intelligent and funny, although crucially not perfect. Her friends – Miriam, Priya and Abby are also delightful and the topics they discuss and aspirations they share are typical of teenagers in an early 2000’s society.
The toxic relationship between Mei and her mother is well-handled and once we start to learn more about the extended family that the Lee’s belong to, some of the extreme measures Ming takes to protect her daughter make more sense. It’s a shame that Jin is sidelined as a character, reduced to a quiet though thoroughly comedic presence. The film wears its distinctly female voice with pride on its sleeve but a more fleshed-out role for Jin would have been more satisfying to balance the drama.
Turning Red takes some adjusting to get into, as its first fifteen minutes or so comes across as obnoxious. However, this is by design as Shi conveys the eclectic teenage lifestyle and once its characters have been introduced, the film is much easier to get on board with. The score by Ludwig Göransson, his first animation effort, is similarly eclectic but the themes aren’t particularly memorable and simply put, it doesn’t always work in the context of the scene it accompanies.
Overall, Turning Red is an innovative and thoroughly original Pixar film and is respectful though unashamed in its presentation of its subject matter. Once you settle into its tone, it’s a very satisfying journey to watch unfold bolstered by its strongly written female characters. It’s not quite top-tier Pixar for me, as it isn’t quite as effortlessly charming and poignant as its best entries such as Up or Coco, but I’m very glad it exists. The film is sure to launch Domee Shi’s career and I can’t wait to see what she does next.