At this point, the “Pixar movie” stereotype has become a meme: People go into the animation studio’s projects expecting a family-friendly story focused on nonhuman protagonists given surprising depth and powerful emotions. There are exceptions, but historically, Pixar has carved out this channel of storytelling for itself, then perfected it. But with a new wave of filmmakers stepping up, Pixar is breaking its own mold. 2021’s Luca is the perfect example, as a lower-key film built around subtle, understated interactions, instead of constructing big drama on the way to an emotionally shattering climax.
Turning Red, which bypasses theaters in the U.S. for Disney Plus, continues the trend. Domee Shi, who directed Pixar’s short film Bao in 2018, creates something special with this project, a deeply personal film that speaks to universal themes. With Turning Red, Shi gleefully celebrates early adolescence, a time of life often portrayed as awkward and cringey, and she revels in extensive cultural specificities that enrich the story. With a bright visual style and specific, evocative storytelling, Turning Red is an incredibly special addition to the Pixar canon, and one of its best films.
[Ed. note: This review contains minor setup spoilers for Turning Red.]
Turning Red follows 13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a spunky Chinese-Canadian middle-schooler living in Toronto in the early 2000s, juggling her devotion to her mother and her duties at the family temple with her budding sense of self. After one particularly turbulent day, she wakes up and discovers that she has transformed into a giant red panda. As it turns out, every woman in her family shares this quirk — they turn into pandas when their emotions run high. Mei’s stern mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), tells her she needs to permanently contain the panda with a magical ritual, which Mei dutifully agrees to — but with a new perspective from her close friends, she begins to see the panda not as a source of embarrassment, but a source of joy. As the date of the ritual approaches, Mei is torn between what her mother wants and what she herself desires.
The triumph of Turning Red is in the way it unabashedly embraces adolescent girlhood, particularly the powerful friendships made in this time of life. Mei’s friends — deadpan Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), passionate Abby (Hyein Park), and ringleader Miriam (Ava Morse) — are all given unique and expressive designs. All-ages animation, including Pixar’s, has historically focused most on male narratives, only leaving room for one or two girls, who are often pitted against each other. It’s refreshing to see a whole cast of supportive female characters who enthusiastically lift each other up and share the same passions. Mei and her friends are superfans of the in-universe boy band 4*Town, and instead of being a focus of deprecating jokes, as boy-band fandom so often is, their enthusiasm becomes a central part of Mei forging her own identity, a source of empowerment and most of all, joy.
At the same time, Shi doesn’t depict Mei’s relationship with her mother and her ties to her family’s culture as burdens. Though Mei does feel restricted by the way her mother turns her nose up at 4*Town and embarrasses Mei in front of her crush, she still clearly loves her mom and her family. Shi renders the cultural specificities in Turning Red with such love and care (for instance, the group of older aunties who visit for the panda-control ritual, dressed in the tracksuits and brooch pins that many children of Chinese immigrants will recognize). These details extend to the emotional ties painted in Turning Red. Mei loves her mother and her family’s temple, the way she knows she’s supposed to. But she also wants to be her own person. As she’s torn between the Western values of independence and the Chinese expectations of filial piety, Mei’s inner conflict hits hard.
Much like Luca, Turning Red takes a step to the left of Pixar’s usual realistic style. The backgrounds are supersaturated in pastel colors, emulating what Shi dubs the “Asian Tween Fever Dream” visual style of the movie. The character designs are also pushed to be more cartoonish than typical Pixar fare, with exaggerated expressions and slapstick movement. Mei’s eyes blossom with anime-esque gigantic pupils and sparkles at various points in the movie. She and her gaggle of friends move as one unit, like the bear stack in We Bare Bears. Their personalities and interactions are all amplified and intense, designed to reflect the heightened emotions of being a teenager.
At its core, Turning Red is about Mei finding out who she is, and what that means for her relationship with her mother. It’s a deeply personal story, one Shi says was inspired by her own relationship with her mother. Like Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s 2017 Pixar movie Coco before it, Turning Red is made up of specific cultural details and relationships that take on more nuanced meaning within the context of the characters’ national backgrounds. And like Coco, Turning Red still tells a universal story about growing up and claiming an identity outside of your family.
As with Bao, Shi never compromises the specificities to pander to a more general audience. Though Mei proclaims at the beginning of the film that she’s full of confidence, she spends most of its runtime growing into actually feeling that sense of self. By the end of the movie, though, she has fully embraced her individuality, and found ways to let it live alongside the other parts of her life. In that way, Turning Red feels like the result of her growth, a movie that unabashedly and jovially embraces its own identity in such a tender way that it aches.
Turning Red will be released March 11 on Disney Plus.