Of late, you really have to feel for the alchemists of animation of who toil and labour under the roof of Pixar in order to produce the next examples of genre busting family films. Due to COVID restrictions relegating their last couple of movies to being mere bargaining chips in order to guarantee that people keep subscribing to Disney + for another year, morale in the house that Woody and Buzz built must be in the frickin’ toilet – especially when the news broke that their newest movie, Turning Red, was due to follow the same fate. It seemed that the studio that once rivaled both Disney and Studio Ghibli at full strength had never been more disposable and this depressing release schedule was only proving it more and more with each streaming premier that bypassed the big screen – but the silver lining to the cloud is this: if nothing else, it meant we all got to see Turning Red that little bit sooner…
Meilin Lee is a 13 year old Chinese-Canadian student who smashes her grades, helps at the temple her family owns in Toronto and works unbelievably hard to please her loving but strict mother, Ming. Her trio of friends, however, wishes that she was a little more impulsive as she actively keeps her personal stuff hidden from her family, such as her over-excited obsession with boy band 4*Town (choice lyric “Girl, I love your jeans”) and they lobby to get her to come to the upcoming concert.
However, when Ming accidently gets wind of “Mei’s” attraction to boys and it leads to a stunningly humiliating indecent that’ll probably nab a psychiatrist a hell of a lot of money in later life, but instead of a lot of teenage brooding, Mei’s release of conflicting emotions unleash a curse that has afflicted her family for generations as she awakes to find herself in the form of a giant, red panda. Before you can say “Teen Wolf”, Mei runs the gauntlet of confusion and horror until her mother explains that the curse can be lifted in a month’s time.
However, by channeling her inner (outer?) panda, Mei finds she actually is liking the freedom and expression her floofy alter ego is giving her and soon she and her best buds are cooking up panda related schemes in order to raise money to get to go see 4*Town live and finally “become women”. Things prove to be tougher than they originally thought when Mei’s grandmother and her numerous aunts turn up to get their house in order, something that triggers Ming’s obsessive helicopter parenting to a new level – you see, Ming had her own issues with the red panda while growing up and her own particular panda wasn’t anything to screw around with. What will the response be when Ming and her family find out exactly what Mei has been using her forbidden curse for?
If I had to be honest, as much as I enjoyed previous Pixar entries such as Onward, Soul and Luca, there was a slight, nagging feeling that something was missing. The concepts were rich, the humour was plentiful and the animation was achingly lush, but it felt that the connection Pixar had with it’s audience wasn’t as strong as it once was – well with Turning Red, the animation giant has delivered their most affecting movie in years.
Directed by Domee Shi – Pixar’s first solo female director and helmer of empty nest inspired short Bao – Turning Red goes straight for the parts of burgeoning womanhood animated family movies usually fear to tread and makes incredible strides by tackling puberty head on. Fusing an incredibly honest, yet tasteful, story about a child’s blossoming, sexual awakening (the scene where Mei frantically scribbles fan art of a boy crush under her bed is resplendent) with broad, fantastical comedy, Turning Red scratches that Pixar itch in ways the studio hasn’t done this well since Inside Out.
The characters are extraordinarily well animated, even for Pixar, with a strong anime influence adding some extra oomph to the usual mouthwatering visuals as the voice cast goes above and beyond to bring the laughs, feels and drama with Sandra Oh’s work as the overprotective Ming being a legitimately amazing balancing act.
Shi’s laser focused tone means that even though the movie involves a female teenager growing up with her chinese-american heritage and I’m a forty-something white dude from England, Turning Red ends up being impressively relatable – even when the insane climax turns itself up to eleven and literally pandas all over the place. Regardless of where we’re from, what gender we identify with or whatever our upbringing, we’ve all felt constrained by our upbringing in one way or another and have tried to rebel in vastly different ways and here it takes the form of poofing into a large, scarlet bear whenever your emotions start to go haywire when your hormones go nuclear. Pixar have made their name over the years tackling interesting and often challenging lessons with their movies and the fact that the studio has finally got into the hairy, smelly bitty gritty of puberty is both groundbreaking and long overdue and the it’s the small, intricate details that make things stick. Be it the the casual minutiae of Mei’s Chinese upbringing to the cheeky absurdity of agressively worshiped boy band 4*Street (another sample lyric: “You’re never not on my mind”) who, despite their name have five members, this world is stunningly personal and yet completely recognisable.
While Disney has depressingly missed a trick by not giving Turning Red it’s bow on the big screen (especially considering that the more “male” orientated Lightyear with be Pixar’s first proper cinematic release since Onward in 2020), hopefully this hilarious and touching ode to the most awkward phases in a child’s life bring an end to an awkward phase in Pixar’s.