‘Turning Red’ Review: A Pubescent Pixar Classic
I am trying to think of the last feature film that had as clever a premise and as brilliant a central metaphor as Turning Red, which merges the horrors of puberty with the tropes of an old-fashioned monster movie. The answer might be Inside Out, which anthropomorphized human emotions in a battle for control of the mind of a sad young girl. The fact that both movies came from Pixar speaks to the continuing excellence of our country’s best animation studio, even in the face of radical change within Hollywood — like the fact that the company’s last three productions have all gone straight to streaming on Disney+.
While there are worse things in the world than millions of people gaining instant access to an outstanding family film, the truth of the matter is that Turning Red is better than just about anything you can watch in a movie theater right now. Given its bold visual designs and epic conclusion (not to mention its catchy pop soundtrack) it would have been even better on a large screen. (The movie is playing a in a few select theaters; here in New York, it’s opening on a single screen in Times Square.) A straight-to-streaming premiere is surely not the outcome Pixar’s talented artists wanted when they created this amazing movie, but as Turning Red teaches us, life rarely turns out the way we expect.
For proof of that, just look at Mei (Rosalie Chiang), Turning Red’s hero. A confident and smart 13-year-old girl living in Toronto in the early 2000s, Mei thinks she has everything figured out. She’s got a thriving academic career and a great group of friends who all share a love of a popular boy band that is amusingly named 4*Town even though the group has five members.
Mei has kept most of her social life — along with her budding attraction to boys — from her overbearing mother Ming (an unforgettable Sandra Oh) but it’s not long after her mom discovers a diary full of her daughter’s hormonal drawings of boys that Mei wakes one morning covered in fur and transformed into a giant red panda. Mei tries to hide her new body the same way she’s hidden all of the other things about her life she doesn’t want her disapproving mom to know, but that’s sort of tough when you’re eight feel tall and several hundred pounds. And so Ming soon discovers what’s happened — and also reveals Me’s “little quirk” runs in their family. There is a cure, but its requirements create even more tension between Mei and Ming, and between what Mei wants from her life and what her mom expects from her daughter.
Turning Red was directed and co-written by Domee Shi, who previously made the Oscar-winning Pixar short film “Bao,” and there are clear thematic parallels between her two productions: Both movies feature domineering Chinese Canadian moms terrified about losing control of their children. I hesitate to speculate too intensely about Shi’s personal life, but it is clear that she still remembers childhood’s emotional scars, and that she possesses an uncanny knack for finding brilliant allegorical hooks to turn deeply emotional stories into broader entertainments.
In “Bao,” a steamed bun stood in for a clingy mom’s child. In Turning Red, there’s Mei’s transformation from tween to giant red panda, and it works on so many levels: As a stand-in for a girl’s first period or for puberty more generally, and for the way Mei’s culture expects women to bury their emotions for the sake of keeping up appearances. Mei’s panda also turns something extremely specific into something that’s more universal. I’m not Chinese or Canadian or a girl, and I’m about ten years older than the main characters in this movie, but I deeply related to Mei and her plight. Anyone who grew up an outsider in school, or struggled to please demanding parents, or felt utterly uncomfortable in their own bodies when they hit middle school, will find something — or a lot of things — they recognize in Turning Red.
As mature and smart as Turning Red is, it’s also a really entertaining story, with an ending that is full of laughs as big as Mei’s panda. The vocal performances, particularly from Chiang and Oh, are so sharp and funny, and also so emotional when the story takes some dramatic turns in its final act. Cinematically speaking, Turning Red is the complete package.
It also makes Shi the most exciting filmmaker to come out of Pixar since its first wave of brilliant directors like Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter. It’s not only the studio’s best movie (and metaphor) since Inside Out — it’s one of their best movies ever. Wherever the company’s next project premieres, I just hope they keep getting to make original, heartfelt, beautiful films like Turning Red. It’s one of those special movies where during your first viewing you already know there’s going to be a 100th viewing someday.