In Review: 'Turning Red'
The latest from Pixar is a wonder that honors the studio's tradition while exploring territory all its own.
Dir. Domee Shi
Pixar secured its place in history with its first feature, 1995 ‘s Toy Story, the industry-changing film that proved not just that computer animation could work at feature length but that it could be just as effective at emotionally resonant storytelling as hand-drawn animation. The studio’s films looked like nothing else, but they also felt different, thanks in large part to the tight connection between the stories they told, the visuals used to tell them, and the metaphors that serve as the engine that powers everything along. The practice of never favoring narrative over symbolism or vice versa is as much a part of the Pixar tradition as the list of production babies in the credits. Turning Red is one of its finest pieces of metaphorical machinery to date.
Directed by Domee Shi, from a screenplay co-written with Julia Cho and a story conceived by Shi, Cho, and Sarah Streicher, Turning Red opens in 2002 Toronto, home to Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a bright, spirited, overachieving 13-year-old who lives to please her father Jin (Orion Lee) and especially her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who expects perfection of her daughter and, as the story begins, has never been disappointed. Mei excels at school, seeks out extracurricular pursuits with Max Fischer-like enthusiasm, and still finds time to help run the family’s Chinatown temple. It’s a perfectly harmonious situation that — as Mei starts to develop her own interests and a sense of independence, both of which arrive accompanied by a rush of hormones — begins rattling with teen dissonance.
Also: Mei occasionally turns into a big, fluffy, red panda.
This doesn’t happen at random, however. It’s the result of strong emotions, any strong emotion: anger, desire, excitement — basically the whole spectrum of feelings both pleasant and unpleasant that can short circuit the human psyche. Left uncontrolled, panda Mei can wreak havoc. But, after consulting her family and discovering this is part of an ancient curse (or blessing, depending on how you look at it), Mei learns that, with some focus and emotional support, she can control it, which her family expects their most well-behaved of daughts to continue doing until they can perform a ritual to contain the red panda spirit. The only problem: Mei discovers there are upsides to turning red, Maybe she doesn’t want to give it up after all.
Shi partly based the film on her own experiences growing up in Canada in the early ’00s, and she packs it with details specific to the era, from a Tamagotchi-like virtual pet to mix CDs to 4*Town, the dreamy boy band into which Mei and her three closest friends channel all their new emotions and mysterious stirrings. She also brings some of the cultural specificity evident in “Bao,” her Academy Award-winning 2015 short. From Ming and, less directly, from her grandmother Wu (Wai Ching Ho), Mei feels the expectations to achieve and succeed within boundaries that, per tradition, she’s not supposed to cross. Red pandas, however, aren’t great at respecting boundaries.
Like the best Pixar films, Turning Red uses a light touch to stir deep emotions as it explores what it means to grow up and let go, but it’s also a bouncy delight thanks to knowing gags about the messiness of adolescence and thanks to Mei herself, who’s made instantly winning — both in panda and human form — by her expressive eyes, big, Aardman-like grin, and Chiang’s vocal work. Shi’s 34, which makes her part of a generation that grew up on the classics of Pixar’s golden age. Her feature debut can proudly stand beside them. —Keith Phipps
Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+ (though it would have looked great on the big screen, especially that finale. You’ll know why when you get to it.)
I was surprised not to see a star rating at the bottom. Is that going away?
This was literally the Hulk movie I'd been waiting for. I always thought Hulk had way more potential as a female especially in regards to hormones and non-anger emotions. She-Hulk always seemed pretty obviously created by men.