Given its abundance of laugh-out-loud and/or cheer-out-loud moments, it’s a shame Turning Red won’t get a big theatrical distribution. While Pixar’s recent output has welcomed adults with open arms — people who likely grew up watching the studio’s original films — the studio’s latest feels unapologetically in tune with younger audiences, both narratively and aesthetically, without sacrificing the heart and humor that makes these films shine. It’s a fast-paced adventure set in Toronto in the early aughts, directed by Domee Shi, whose short film Bao preceded Incredibles 2. It’s about a young Chinese Canadian teenager whose puberty brings about personal, cultural, and magical issues. They also result in an appealing and pleasant story about family and friendship, with parables for growing up that are fairly on-the-nose (as they should be for a children’s film), but that arrive in the kind of brilliant creative packaging that Pixar has needed for a long time.
The year is 2002, and Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chang) is a 13-year-old girl who has just about managed to strike a balance between excelling in school, spending time with her close-knit friend group, and assisting her protective mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), in overseeing Toronto’s oldest Chinese temple. Even before we meet our sprightly young protagonist, her opening voiceover exudes a confident demeanor — a confidence that is put to the test when she wakes up changed into a gigantic red panda one morning. She tiptoes around Ming and her father, Jin (Orion Lee), feeling like a bloated monster, drowning in neurotic self-consciousness as she tries to negotiate her shifting physique. What appears to be a clear menstrual metaphor, however, becomes wonderfully difficult when Ming is unsurprised by Meilin’s transitions, which appear to be prompted by deep emotions. This particular affliction, it turns out, runs in the family.
Turning Red’s stakes are both lower and more intimate than you may think. Meilin’s predicament is undoubtedly the source of family strife, as her mother tries to assist her keep it hidden (and keep her feelings bottled up, lest she Hulk out). However, this tension is soon entwined with a story about Meilin and her three best friends trying to see their favorite boy band perform live in concert, a scenario that both clashes with Meilin’s unpredictable changes and ties a neat bow on themes that get rightfully messy, such as navigating a mother-daughter relationship (at a time when it’s sure to become more fraught), and being conditioned to keep your emotions in check as a tiger.
Meilin’s red panda alter persona comes to embody all of these things and more over time, but the film never feels overburdened by its plethora of allegories. This is due in great part to the film’s crystal-clear visual approach, which makes each scene (and metaphor) delightfully enjoyable. Whereas recent Pixar films like The Good Dinosaur, Soul, and Toy Story 4 have leaned toward more realistic environments and tactile direction that imitates physical camera work, Turning Red combines the studio’s usual computer-generated aesthetic with a hyper-charged anime approach, with crash-zooms that heighten emotions — at a time in the characters’ lives when each new feeling of anger or attraction feels like an uncontrollable rush — and sparkling eyes teasing the audience
The character details are equally as enjoyable. Meilin’s circle of friends is diverse, not only in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of aesthetics and personality. Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a sardonic South Asian buddy, conveys more with her body language than her words. Abby (Hyein Park), her short, hyperactive Korean pal, almost bounces off the walls. Then there’s Miriam (Ava Morse), her lanky white best friend, who has a longer parental leash than her three Asian pals but appears to understand Meilin just a smidge better than the others (as with any buddy dynamic, you have your best friends, but you also have your “best” best friend). They’re all awkward for a narrative about 13-year-old girls with widely diverse heights and body types, but they fit together nicely as a group, and their insecurities appear to fade away when they’re together.
They also wear distinct, brilliant, primary colors that make them stick out in most scenes, making them resemble the many anthropomorphic emotions in Inside Out (on which Shi worked as a narrative illustrator), but this similarity may not be coincidental. Not only do Meilin’s friends calm her down (and occasionally enrage her), but Turning Red shares a key thematic resemblance with Pete Docter’s 2015 film: it’s as much about reconciling and making room for complicated, contradictory, and unpleasant emotions as it is about physical pressures of growing up.
Meilin’s familial dynamics are just as detailed as her friend circle. Ming wants to keep Meilin’s panda problem under wraps, given its cultural origins and the way it might be perceived by non-Chinese characters (she rarely seems to give Meilin’s friends enough credit). Her understanding (and understated) father Jin has a slightly stronger Chinese accent than Ming, who appears to be more concerned with assimilating than he is. The nuances of their mother-daughter relationship, on the other hand, may stand out the most. Although the two characters have obviously distinct designs (Ming is considerably more prim and proper), their conversations and even body motions resemble each other when the film begins. As they finally go out of rhythm, and Meilin encounters problems her mother faced, they become each other’s reflections in both overt and subtle ways, setting up a scenario in which they become each other’s reflections in both overt and subtle ways. Another moving aspect is Ming’s nickname for Meilin, “Mei Mei,” which is also a Chinese honorific for a younger sister; while their parent-child relationship is undoubtedly challenged, their friendship and sense of loving, mutual support is also tested.
All of this would be conventional fare, both as a family film and as a story of immigrant-first-generation cultural clash, if it weren’t for the fact that every scene appears to aim for the moon. While the film’s more muted and realistic scenes are saved for a few achingly quiet sad moments, the majority of it moves along with a slapstick, Looney Tune energy that is periodically drenched in the vibrant hues of a ’90s Disney dream (or nightmare) sequence. The score by Ludwig Göransson is lively and playful, even telling its own tale by weaving together western pop and traditional Chinese influences in surprising ways throughout Turning Red’s rowdy, humorous, and throbbing climax.
Every dramatic change has its own snazzy lighting cue, making for a hilarious ride, but the visual gags always serve to heighten the tension and emotions rather than detract from them. The attractive boy band sensation 4-Town — a reflection of early 2000s pop with a Korean member to place them in today’s zeitgeist — are practically angels accompanied by divine sunlight, while a group of Meilin’s aunts who enter the story at a pivotal point arrive like Hollywood movie stars drenched in floodlights. Even Meilin’s outbursts wreak havoc on the film’s fabric, as she begins to regard herself as a monstrous nuisance undeserving of taking up space, until her friends and family persuade her otherwise.
All of this would be ordinary if it weren’t for the fact that every moment seemed to aim for the moon.
Most importantly, it’s a film that’s honest about puberty’s most difficult moments, from humiliation over budding sexuality to inexplicable fury to dealing with bodily insecurities, all of which are turned into colorful and innovative situations at every turn. There’s never a dull moment in Turning Red, thanks to Shi and co-writer Julia Cho’s layers of meaning in each beat and interaction, as well as the cartoon inspirations that prioritize expressiveness above reality, which is something modern Hollywood animation sometimes forgets.
Turning Red (from Bao director Domee Shi) is Pixar’s funniest and most innovative picture in years, telling the story of magical transformation as a metaphor for personal and cultural change. It captures adolescent angst, uses pop artists as a timeless window into puberty, and delivers a story about friendship and family in the most deliciously kid-friendly way possible.
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