‘Turning Red’ Review

To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Turning Red is an animated coming-of-age fantasy comedy film directed by Domee Shi (in her feature directorial debut) from a screenplay written by Shi and Julia Cho. Featuring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, and James Hong, Turning Red is Pixar’s 25th feature film, the first Pixar film solely directed by a woman and the second to feature an Asian lead character after Up. The story follows Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian student who wakes up one morning to find that she has transformed into a giant red panda.

Opening in Toronto, we hear Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) narrating about her life. Family photos flash across the screen as she talks about the importance of honoring her parents. She currently has a great relationship with them, but she’s practically an adult – at least according to the Toronto Transit Commission.  Meilin arrives at her middle school and introduces the audience to her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) before showing off how she excels in math, French, and music while also being terribly bad at basketball. We are also treated to what other students and staff think of Meilin à la The Office, to which Meilin embraces – the good and the bad.

After hanging with her friends, Meilin heads to work in Chinatown at her family’s temple. It is here we learn about her ancestor Sun Yee’s devotion to the red panda from Meilin’s mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). After a hard day’s work, the two head home for dinner with Meilin’s father Jin (Orion Lee). After dinner, Ming has an altercation with Devon (Addie Chandler), a clerk at the local Daisy Mart, over some pictures her daughter drew of him. This embarrasses Meilin in front of him and some of her classmates. That night Meilin has a crazy nightmare filled with visions of Devon, 4*Town, Sun Yee, and red pandas.

The movie’s title is a bit on the nose as Turning Red is an allegory to a girl having her first period. Only Pixar can create something so bold as puberty can be a confusing time for anyone. The body is changing, hormones are raging, and you’re trying to figure out how to manage your life during this odd time. Meilin’s feelings of angst, ugliness, tension with her parents, and mood swings are things that most young girls and boys go through when they enter their early teenage years. There are also touches of generational trauma, expectations, and not wanting to become your parents. They make a special point in showing the differences and similarities between Meilin and her mother. So later, when they meet in the spiritual realm, Ming expressing her issues about her mom becomes a touching, more relatable moment.

Domee Shi does a fantastic job directing this film off the heels of her successful 2018 short Bao. You can tell the story felt very personal to her. Shi even stated that she took inspiration from her own experiences growing up in Toronto. Turning Red feels very much like a spiritual sequel to Inside Out. Which, interestingly enough, was the first feature Shi worked on with Pixar, where she served as a storyboard artist. The story could be viewed as what would have happened if Disgust had pushed Riley’s “puberty button” on the updated control console. The flick has clear influences from Japanese film and anime to late ‘90s early 2000s hip-hop and boy bands. The way Meilin assembles her friends is very similar to Sailor Moon. There’s a long shot of Jin cooking delicious Asian cuisine – complete with glowing glasses, and when Ming becomes a colossal red panda its very similar to the Kaiju from Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Meilin’s hybrid form can even be compared to Inuyasha, an anime character known for his bright red robe. 4*Town is a clear parody of boy bands like *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and O-Town. Meilin’s classmate Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen) even wears a jersey and Band-Aid on his cheek like the rapper Nelly did in the early 2000s.

The look of the picture is quite different from your typical Pixar animation. Shades of red can be seen everywhere, from Meilin’s hair, eyes, and fur, to the street lights, blankets, and the Canadian maple leaf appearing on clothes. This was obviously intentional by the animators to tie into the theme of the story. Like Luca, the animation is more stylized making the finished product look more unique than your average Pixar film. The architecture and vehicles are more realistic as opposed to your typical exaggerated look. Drawing inspiration from the real Toronto as the CN Tower can be seen in the skyline and the 4*Town concert takes place at the SkyDome. The people however do have some exaggerated features and body shapes you normally get in animation. The design was also inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s hand-drawn style featured in Studio Ghibli films with Meilin’s cuddly red panda form being inspired by Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro.

While Turning Red might be unapologetically aimed towards preteen girls there are parts that anyone of any age can enjoy. Certainly, a film that should have premiered in theaters and not on Disney+. I give a Turning Red a Decent 8.1/10. Once again, Pixar proves they have a leg up on Walt Disney Animation Studios with an understanding of making a fun animated story that is more than just catchy songs.

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