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Disney+ Review: Turning Red

March 7, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

We can all surely remember what it was like to experience growing pains and pubescent mood swings brought on by deep hormonal changes. But what if those mood swings caused you to physically transform into, say, a giant red panda?

That’s the predicament that Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), the Chinese-Canadian protagonist of Pixar’s latest feature Turning Red, finds herself in. Whenever she gets too excited, she turns into a red panda, which makes things especially awkward when trying to navigate the minefield of a Toronto middle school in 2002.

This provides the setup for an animated coming of age movie that is extremely entertaining, while also, in true Pixar fashion, being built around a genuinely touching, heartfelt emotional core. The result is a film that is adorable, funny and sweet, a balance that director Domee Shi, making her feature debut following her Oscar-winning short film Bao, pulls off effortlessly.

Like Bao, Turning Red explores similar themes of parental expectations within a Chinese family, with Shi basing the story around her own upbringing in Toronto. The Toronto setting is a big part of what makes the film so special and unique, with Meilin residing in the historic Chinatown, and landmarks like the CN Tower seen in the background. Like with the studio’s other films set in real locations, the Pixar animators have done a wonderful job of capturing the city (my city) in animated form. The diversity that we see in the film is also a big part of what makes it feels distinctly Toronto, from the main characters to background players like the Sikh security guard at Meilin’s school.

Meilin introduces herself to us over the high-energy opening scenes, breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. She’s thirteen, which means she’s an adult (at least according to the Toronto Transit Commission), who can do what she wants, when she wants. But she is still at the behest of her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who expects her little Mei Mei to help clean the family’s temple after school, and conform to a more traditional set of values.

Mei and her “ride or die” besties Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park) are at the age where they are getting more than a little boy-crazy, whether it’s the kid behind the counter at the Daisy Mart, or the five members of 4*Town, the boy band that all the kids are obsessed with. The band comes to life through a trio of original songs written by siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (who also voices one of the boys in the band), including certified bop “Nobody Like U,” an *NSYNC-inspired track that plays into the plot of the film in a great way (and will get stuck in your head in the best kind of way).

This growing interest in boys is starting to cause friction between Mei and her mother, who doesn’t approve of her listening to 4*Town. And it’s the morning after a particularly traumatizing experience of Ming embarrassing her in front of the boy she likes that causes the panda to first emerge. This ability to transform into a red panda is something passed down through generations from the family’s ancestor Sun Yee, who had herself turned into a red panda, and Mei must remain as calm as possible in order to keep human form.

The film carries on the trend of Pixar’s recent films Onward and Luca as part of their new phase of letting solo directors make grounded, heartfelt coming of age stories inspired by their own childhood mixed with high concept fantasy elements. Like in Luca, which focused on the young protagonists trying to get a Vespa, much of Turning Red‘s plot centres around the girls trying to get tickets to see 4*Town at the SkyDome (since it’s set in 2002, the film has the stadium’s correct name, before it got taken over by Rogers who bought the naming rights).

But there’s the “panda problem,” which makes the prospect of going to a high energy concert especially daunting, and adds a ticking time bomb element to the film. Will Mei be able to control her emotions enough to keep the panda at bay, or will her mother even let her go to the concert? This allows the film to weave in some poignant themes about finding the right balance between doing what your parents want and being true to yourself, and how daughters trying to please their mothers is something that can continue through generations.

The story feels very true to the experience of being thirteen (this is the first Pixar movie that references menstruation, which isn’t a sentence I thought I would be writing, but it makes perfect sense in context), with Mei and her friends very believably acting that age. The film is buoyed along by a witty and clever screenplay by Shi and Julia Cho (“my panda, my choice” is an early contender for one of the lines of the year), which finds the right balance between humour and emotional mother-daughter story, mixing the usual bittersweetness of a Pixar movie with vague elements of body horror and monster movie.

The animation is more stylized than usual from Pixar, but no less visually appealing. The more cartoony style and slightly chunky character designs work really well for the story, offering a mix of kawaii and anime influences with some wonderfully expressive facial expressions. At a lean 99 minutes including credits, this thing also moves. It’s incredibly quick on its feet, yet never feels rushed.

On that note, I feel obliged to call out Disney’s decision to not release Turning Red in theatres and send it straight to Disney Plus instead, a choice that is even more baffling after seeing the movie. This is a crowdpleaser of the highest order, that likely would have blown the roof off with a packed audience, especially during its big, rousing climax.

It’s an at times ridiculously entertaining movie (we get the “Cha Cha Slide” and “Bootylicious” on the soundtrack to add to those early-2000s vibes!), without ever losing sight of its core themes or message, and delivering those special Pixar moments that are almost guaranteed to get you choked up. I had such a good time watching it, and found myself smiling thinking about it for days afterwards.

Turning Red will be available to stream exclusively on Disney+ as of March 11th.

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