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Turning Red delivers uniquely fun coming-of-age panda-monium

Turning Red

Director Domee Shi’s first feature film is excellent, creative, hilarious, thoughtful, and gloriously distinct.

One of the many things that make Turning Red is such a joy is just how different it feels from other works from PIXAR Animation Studios. Most notably, its pop-culture touchstones shift away from the mid-20th century influences that informed The Incredibles and Up. Instead, Turning Red is molded by late 1990s and early 2000s pop culture. It’s more in tune with N’SYNC than De Stijl. Meanwhile, its comedy feels more of a piece with the rapid-fire wit of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s forays into animated storytelling than past PIXAR titles. 

Rather than render Turning Red an awkward outlier in the PIXAR canon, these unique details cement it as an idiosyncratic delight, one that expands the horizons of what a feature from this studio can look like. After all, what other PIXAR movie has characters dropping words like “stripper” and “perv”? 

Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old residing in Toronto, Canada whose whole life is devoted to being perfect in every which way. Terrified at the prospect of letting down her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), Mei works around the clock to be an A+ student and keep her family’s home in tip-top shape. Sure, she may talk with her three best friends about “trivial” matters like the dreamy boy band 4*Town, but those are just passing schoolyard indulgences. None of that’s important to a proper grown-up. 

Turning Red
Disney

Mei’s delicately balanced life gets thrown into chaos once she awakens one morning to find herself turned into a gigantic red panda. This wild development is something she’s inherited from her mother’s family and is triggered by any strong emotions—negative or positive. Fortunately, there is a way to contain the panda – a ceremony to be performed on the night of the next red moon. However, Mei begins to get used to her panda self and starts to wonder if there’s more to life than just being perfect.

PIXAR short films can often offer up a preview of what themes or visuals directors at this animation studio are enamored with before they move on to helming feature-length projects. For Turning Red director Domee Shi, her 2018 short Bao stands as an interesting precursor to her feature debut. Shi renders complex mother/child dynamics in striking, stylish ways. Whereas Shi’s short film was told through the eyes of a parent, though, Turning Red shifts its focus to the daughter.

This change in perspective makes a major difference since it enables Shi and fellow screenwriter Julia Cho to deploy all kinds of visually creative ways to realize the mindset of a middle school girl. This time in anyone’s life is an utter nightmare, a whirlwind of hormones, uncertainty, and social anxiety. It’s torture to experience and ripe fodder for animation. Only in an artform where imagination is the canvas can you properly capture the limitless turmoil of being trapped between Elementary and High School.

Turning Red’s commitment to emphasizing the humanity of its ensemble cast ensures a perfect tonal balance.

This means that an abundance of over-the-top touches permeate Mei’s life even before she begins regularly transforming into a red panda. Bright beams of light emanate from magazines dedicated to the dreamy members of 4*Town while the clouds and Toronto skyline peppering the background appear to be painted rather than striving for total realism. Meanwhile, once the central panda conceit enters the plot, the animators find endless fun opportunities to have Mei’s human design suddenly sprout a fuzzy red tail and ears.

The character designs are a delight and keep in tune with Turning Red’s affinity for stylization. It’s especially fun to see the varied touches applied to the look of Mei’s best pals, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). Each of them is immediately distinctive from their respective silhouettes, while their outfits, such as Abby’s purple overalls, find delightful yet subtle ways of reinforcing their unique personalities. 

The unapologetically wacky details in the animation are a perfect extension of Turning Red’s confidence on a storytelling level. Some movies think you can have either zaniness or drama. Shi opts to embrace both, a concept that could’ve gone awry. Can a puberty-based coming-of-age story straight out of a Judy Blume novel mix with the wacky animal transformation gags from the climax of The Emperor’s New Groove? Thankfully, Turning Red’s commitment to emphasizing the humanity of its ensemble cast ensures a perfect tonal balance.

Turning Red
Disney

This includes realizing truly authentic interactions between Mei and her friends. They’re loud, imperfect, and change the subject of any given conversation at a moment’s notice. A montage of them just goofing off while trying to raise some money is so low-key yet becomes one of the highlights of the entire movie. 

Additionally, the nuances explored in the central mother/daughter relationship also prove incredibly effective. The care and precision lent to Ming as a character are especially impressive. Mei’s mother isn’t a despicable caricature – the audience can see where her heavy-handed parenting style is coming from, and they can see that it’s suffocating Mei. These intricacies are particularly well-handled by Sandra Oh. As a voice actor, she handles everything from Ming putting the fear of God into a convenience store clerk to expressing terror at the thought of her own mother being on the phone.  First Cow’s Orion Lee also impresses with an understated turn as Mei’s dad.

Turning Red’s animation, performances, and writing make it a compelling feature dissect. It’s also a blast to watch. Its consistently hilarious comedy (many of its best bits owed to scene-stealer Abby) is bound to please viewers young and old. The only downside to Turning Red’s delights is that parents will need to brace themselves and their wallets for their kids’ inevitable desire for Panda-mode Mei plushies. A second mortgage may be in order there.

Turning Red
Disney

Sometimes, a great PIXAR movie leaves one thinking about the ways it builds upon motifs or themes from preceding efforts from the studio. What left me so excited about Turning Red, though, is how it doesn’t immediately conjure up visions of previous motion pictures like WALL-E or Ratatouille. Shi has followed up her excellent short Bao with a  superb motion picture that’s both singular in the studio’s canon and sublime in general. It’s a challenge for Mei to control the red panda within her. It’s almost as challenging for moviegoers not to be charmed by Turning Red and its joys.

Sometimes, a great PIXAR movie leaves one thinking about the ways it builds upon motifs or themes from preceding efforts from the studio. What left me so excited about Turning Red, though, is how it doesn’t immediately conjure up visions of previous motion pictures like WALL-E or Ratatouille. Shi has followed up her excellent short Bao with a  superb motion picture that’s both singular in the studio’s canon and sublime in general. It’s a challenge for Mei to control the red panda within her. It’s almost as challenging for moviegoers not to be charmed by Turning Red and its joys.

Turning Red is now available on Disney Plus.

Turning Red Trailer:

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CategoriesMovies
Douglas Laman

Douglas Laman is a life-long movie fan and writer whose works have appeared in outlets ranging from The Mary Sue to ScreenRant to The Spool to ScarleTeen. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Doug adores pugs, showtunes, Fantastic Mr. Fox and any music by Carly Rae Jepsen. Having already procured a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Dallas, he’s currently pursuing a Master of Visual and Performing Arts degree from the University of Texas at Dallas.

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