Director: Domee Shi | 1h 40mins | Animation, Comedy, Family
Overachieving 13-year-old Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) has her life turned upside down when she begins turning into a giant red panda every time she gets excited.
Over the years, Pixar has evolved their themes and taken a much more contemporary approach. They’ve matured, understanding that the stories they tell are able to teach valuable lessons of adolescence while also asking bigger questions of the world. Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi who directed Pixar short Bao (2018), is another wonderful example of representation by the studio – finding individuality and importance in a story about pubescence and parental pressure.
Set in Toronto in the early 2000’s, the film is based loosely on the director’s experience growing up in an Asian-American household. This already gives the film a personal edge, something that is very often missing from Pixar films, allowing an individual experience to shine through while never losing the “film for all ages” mantra Pixar have worked so hard to cultivate. Its uniqueness stems from the fantastical allegory the film is telling, using ancient curses and ceremonial rituals as a metaphor for female change.
You’d be lucky not to be smashed over the head with the film’s metaphor but like many Pixar films, Turning Red fully understands who it’s trying to reach with its message. When introduced to main character Mei Lee’s red panda, her parents quickly dash in panic at the thought of their daughter experiencing her period. It’s turned into a refreshingly light joke which eventually turns into the film’s biggest plus, being able to channel the teenage experience through light and playful storytelling.
The film finds solace in a shared experience, giving itself an element of sisterhood between the women of Mei Lee’s family.
As Mei Lee discovers that her entire ancestry has suffered from the same issue, her family plan to purge her of this power in order to stop her losing control. But, as Mei Lee becomes more confident, more exciting to her friends and much more interested in boys thanks to the fictional boy band ‘4 Town’, the film quickly becomes more about Mei Lee’s ability to accept her changes as a person. After all, being a teenager is much more than the physical changes we face, but about the emotional maturity we develop as we discover who we are. It’s clear Domee Shi balances fantasy with reality wonderfully, which is why the message is so universal.
Domee Shi’s Oscar-winning short film Bao was a wonderful take on motherhood, and how difficult it is to see the child you’ve moulded and raised change and grow up. Turning Red takes that idea and flips it to the child’s perspective, as Mei Lee’s Mother (voiced by Sandra Oh) takes an obsessive route to stop her daughter from ‘giving in’ to the red panda inside her. As we discover more about her Mother’s upbringing and the panda inside of her, the film finds solace in a shared experience, giving itself an element of sisterhood between the women of Mei Lee’s family.
Turning Red oozes noughties nostalgia, draws from animation outside of the modern computer animation Pixar pioneered and tells a wonderful story of adolescence. It’s individuality in the Pixar catalogue will not go unnoticed and while some of the final act doesn’t quite hit it’s emotional punch in the same fashion as Soul (2020) or Coco (2017), it’s balance of universality and individuality makes the film as warm and fuzzy as it’s furry main character.