What’s the Story: Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian living in Toronto in 2002. She is a total overachiever in grade eight who pretty much has her life figured out. Between her studies and helping out at her parent’s temple, she got her close-knit group of friends Miriam, Priya, and Abby and their immense love for the popular boy band, 4*Town. As the daughter of an overprotective mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), everything she has to do has to be perfect with everything she does. Then one morning, after an embarrassing encounter the following night, Mei wakes up to find herself turned into a giant red panda bear. Explaining that the female members in her family have also been through the same transformation, starting with their ancestor that can be controlled whenever a Red Moon appears. However, since the next one isn’t until the next month, Mei must control herself and change back by being calm and not dealing with heavy emotions.
As a grown man in his mid20s who still loves the diverse and creative world of Disney-Pixar, there’s nothing wrong with being excited for their 25th feature film Turning Red. The trailers definitely made me laugh, but all I’m asking for is a good movie just like everything else that won’t be a dud. It’s an original coming-of-age film that will explore the trials and tribulations of teenagers in a very unusual fashion. At least this goes for something different, and I’m at a point where I shouldn’t expect everything from them to be the next animated masterpiece. Does this have to be entirely relatable to everyone? Absolutely not, but I’m to bring an open mind to another hit from them and everyone involved to create a wonderful film for families.
For a notable animated film of this kind to tackle the subject of puberty and discovering who we are during the ups and downs of teen life was undoubtedly a bold move. But watching Domee Shi’s directorial debut did make me realize it was probably a personal connection to the story. Shi has been around Pixar for a decade now, as she previously worked as a storyboard artist and went on to direct and write the beautiful Oscar-winning animated short Bao (I love that short!) Now, she’s the first solo female director taking part in a Pixar film that would be told with heart and relatability. Even hearing about the premise is strange, to say the least, with Mei turning into a red panda serving as a metaphor for growing up into womanhood. It’s like transforming into the Hulk; only it’s an adorable animal instead.
Kids will ask questions, which could be the point with Shi and Julia Cho’s screenplay, and let them view this with a weird way of examining the difficulties of growing is better now than later, telling them in a mature way that’s still works well for the appeal. However, with Mei discovering what she had become, it can get hilariously awkward quickly. Her mother instantly believes she got her period and got so many pads for her comfort. The film hits you with an understanding message that allows everything to be totally awkward and reasonable for everyone to get behind had gone through similar situations when they were young, combining the story about mother/ daughter dynamics and friendships that sticks with you no matter what. More importantly, it tells us that change is routine for everybody when coming of age, letting us know it’s alright to go through these everyday things because life isn’t always perfect and we shouldn’t always go out of our way to be the best at everything.
The animation goes without saying offers a bright and colorful look for all its characters and the overview of Toronto. Though it’s not a style that comes across as spectacular compared to everything else we’ve seen, it’s never something to complain about as long as they’re entirely inviting. It even gets a little anime influential on a few occasions that I got a kick out of. The exaggerated expressions on the characters’ eyes when something’s cute or even exciting fit perfectly. They got the biggest laughs from me. The third act goes so unexpected crazy that it made the film better.
The voice cast delivers the way everybody should be when involved in a big Pixar with unusual storytelling yet is utterly charming. Newcomer Rosalie Chiang got the opportunity to voice Mei. What an incredible job she took on to make her character go through various energic feelings, anger, and sadness, whether as her usual self or the panda. This comes at the wrong time of learning about any girl her age dealing with typical hormones. I also loved the relationship with her three best friends with their distinct personalities. Sandra Oh is the only big-name star out of the entire cast here, but who wouldn’t love someone like her to be perfecting voicing Mei’s mother since Oh’s vocal performance might be the best for a parental figure in years.
Did it have to take place in 2002? Maybe not, but it didn’t matter when it gives an excellent excuse to remember being nostalgic for the simpler times of 20 years ago with its culture. Especially the unescapable craze of popular boy bands like Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, every girl, or boy, was completely obsessed with at one time or another. Mei and the gals are obsessed over 4*Town (with five members, which is funny), as they desperately need to attend this upcoming concert to take their first steps into being mature women. The songs to come from the group were pretty catchy, and they should be since Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell wrote the original songs that fit perfectly during the time.
I don’t get the dumb criticism that men won’t find it relatable because this focuses on a teenage girl. Everybody has gone through teenage years, right? Hasn’t the studio made instant classics with memorable characters with a relatable message to connect with humans? 100%. Any person, regardless of age, race, or gender, will get the different upbringings that brings upon them. Any kid sitting in front of the TV figuring out who they are makes it more entertaining. And while this wasn’t on the emotional level of Inside Out or Coco, where it had me uncontrollably crying, I did let out some tears near the end that were expected. It’s still a massive shame this is the third Pixar movie in a row following Soul and Luca to skip theaters and go straight to streaming. So many people worked hard for the few years putting everything together to make this happen, and it’s disappointing not seeing their hard work on the big screen when it’s the perfect family film to be released right now.
Turning Red won’t be seen as the first lackluster this decade has to offer since it tackled the difficult growing pains of puberty the only way Pixar can make it. Not a Top 10 from them, but it’s, without a doubt, another hit so delightfully funny, gorgeously animated, and heartwarming that I enjoyed quite a bit. Let’s hope Shi gets the opportunity to do another project really soon.
Grade: 7/10 (B)
Turning Red is now streaming exclusively on Disney+. Runtime: 107 Minutes. Studio(s): Disney and Pixar Animation Studios