'Turning Red' review: Growing up is a beast in Pixar charmer
Courtesy of Pixar/Disney+
Nobody does it quite like Pixar.
As if anyone needed to hear those words to understand the quality, be it aesthetically or creativity, of the Pixar brand, but their latest gem “Turning Red” shows that growing up is a beast. Literally. From “Inside Out” tackling children’s complex emotions (in which “Turning Red” could be considered a spiritual sequel) to “Soul” contemplating several existential crisis,’ Pixar has shown time and again that no topic is off limits and that’s vital to young children who might be struggling with some of the themes in their films. Sure, we love Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but films like “Turning Red” showcase why Pixar remains the gold standard.
Though it may take a page or two from the “Teen Wolf” playbook, the premise of “Turning Red” is a more thoughtful repackaging of that narrative. Directed by Domee Shi (who helmed the Oscar winning short “Bao”), “Turning Red” showcases the pratfalls, worries, and anxiety of becoming a teenager. Evident by 13-year-old honor roll studio Mei (voiced by peppy newcomer Rosalie Chiang) who is dealing with a variety of changes both hormonal and physical. The film is set in Toronto, circa 2002 where cell phones are bricks, boy bands are the rage, and CD players are a hot commodity. We follow Mei as she goes to extreme lengths to keep her uptight mother Ming (Sandra Oh) at ease.
Not only does she maintain her studies, but she also works for the family business: a Chinatown temple that acts as a shrine to an ancestor named Sun Yee, a woman who has the ability to transform into a magical beast in times of peril. Cut to Mei having internal thoughts about boys, and drawing doodles of her crush and favorite band, a One Direction/Backstreet Boys crossover squad named 4-Town. After a particularly embarrassing situation with her mother, Mei wakes up the next morning not herself but an 8-foot-tall furry red panda and naturally goes into an absolute panic, but she quickly learns that mediation and doing various calming rituals tames the beast, albeit temporarily.
As is typical in Pixar movies, the animation is stunning and pops with vibrant colors and energy (the 2002 Toronto aesthetic emulates with such precise detail, you can see the dust on the streets as cars drive by). Not to mention Mei’s internal Panda looks so fluffy and freakin’ adorable, you want to reach into the screen and give her a hug. It’s these sequences which make you wonder why Disney opted to send this beautiful and daring film straight to streaming. Sure, there are worse things in the world than giving access to one of the best films of the year immediately in your home, but I couldn’t help but wonder how this would’ve played on the big screen.
“Turning Red” definitely leans into its teenage roots with several nods to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and textbook cliches: The main driving force of the plot, are you ready, is about Mei and her tween friends securing tickets to a 4-Town concert in Toronto. Mom, of course, says no, leaving Mei and her friends to try and scrounge up funds by exploiting her inner Panda (reminder: this movie takes place before the days of TikTok which would have made their efforts far easier) through merchandise, selfies, and so on. The bubbly personality that crackles in these montages can become dizzying as the animation style gets rammed up to near hypercaffeinated levels, “Turning Red” always brings it back down to earth with its relatable messaging. If you feel seen, then that’s the point.
The screenplay by Shi and Julia Cho is ripe with zingers (“My panda. My choice” is a real winner) and the 4-Town songs (written by Grammy sensations Billie Elish and brother Finneas O’Connell) are likely to bump “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from her child’s playlist as the songs are infectious and catchy. But what’s important is how “Turning Red” recontextualizes what some would consider “taboo” topics, specifically female puberty and estranged mother/daughter relationships. At the end of the day, it’s okay to have these conversations (It’s a part of life!) and “Turning Red” isn’t afraid to give children the confidence to let their inner beast out of the cage every once in a while and be themselves.
TURNING RED debuts on Disney+ Friday, March 11th.