Turning Red Review: Pixar’s most hilarious and touching film in years
The latest film from Pixar, Turning Red, is an interesting entry in Pixar’s prolific filmography. It not only features the first solo female director for a feature film in the studio’s history with Domee Shi, who also makes her feature directorial debut, helming the film, but it showcases a unique vision for what Pixar movies have been in recent years.
With its more recent string of original animated films, Pixar has created culturally diverse coming of age fantasy films and Turning Red falls in line with that for the most part. The film tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian teen whose vibrantly confident personality is often undercut by her constant need to please her overprotective mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh). As Mei constantly stresses over hiding her personal interests from her mother and deals with new feelings, she suddenly must take on a new challenge when she finds that she’s transformed into a giant red panda.
Turning Red’s themes about puberty are pretty apparent early on as Mei must learn to deal with new emotions and urges as any strong emotion sees her turn into a red panda. However, Shi’s vision for Turning Red’s story, animation, and world is unique compared to previous Pixar films.
First, the film’s 2002 setting is perfect for delving into a key aspect of Mei’s life, her love for a cheesy, yet irresistible boyband named 4-Town. Boybands absolutely ruled the late 90s and early 2000s and the adoration that Mei and her tight group of friends have for 4-Town is not only a nostalgic callback for many viewers of boyband fandom that’s arguably just as strong nowadays, but also a relevant and meaningful aspect to them growing up. 4-Town isn’t just something that Mei and her friends enjoy, rather it genuinely binds them together. When they breakout into song singing their music, it’s not only incredibly fun to the point where you want to join in, but also meaningful to how they use it to stay together.
It’s definitely a shame that 4-Town’s annoying catchy bops, which are actually written by Billie Eilish and Finneas, aren’t utilized enough and sadly traded in for licensed music, but their impact on Mei and her friends remains as a strong thread throughout, especially when it comes to some of the issues between Mei and her mother. Right from the start, Mei is characterized as someone who is unabashedly themselves and you can’t help but love that about her. Mei’s opening monologue giving viewers the rundown of what she’s all about is full of bombastic energy and a resounding confidence that’s excellently backed by Chiang’s incredible voice performance. She makes you laugh with all of Mei’s adorable dorkiness and boasts this sense of support with her friendships that resonates strongly.
However, this never makes Mei seem flawless as she struggles to find a balance in her personal life due to how controlling her mother is over her. Although Mei seems free in her personal life, she is constantly at her mother’s beck and call and her mother doesn’t show that same support for Mei’s personal interests like her friends. Ming absolutely despises 4-Town and constantly blames others, especially Mei’s best friend Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), for things she doesn’t want to accept about Mei. This especially true when Mei transforms into a red panda, which stems from a hidden family tradition that affects all the women in her family.
Mei’s transformation into a red panda, that’s adorably designed, not only leads to plenty of fun hijinks between her and friends that sees them trying to use the red panda to earn money for 4-Town tickets, but also acts as a major catalyst for her strained relationship with her mother. The red panda transformation is easily a symbol of puberty within Mei’s family and Ming’s desire to hide and contain it, something that’s been influenced through each generation, rather than embrace it embodies the growth that Mei truly needs. Her journey is really about embracing her own uniqueness and breaking traditional cultural norms that seek to keep her bound. Mei’s experience in embracing her own self and breaking from the norm within her family is incredibly emotional and has some genuinely tear-jerking moments. The growing conflict between her and her mother leads to some fulfilling moments of growth for not just Mei, but for her mother and other women within her family that everyone can share in. Mei’s arc is legitimately one of Pixar’s most satisfying and connective because of how meaningful it clearly is for her and how it ultimately allows her to become her own person.
All these strong emotions in Turning Red are also elevated through the animation’s more anime-inspired visual emotion. Frankly, there’s no better place to turn to for incredibly expressive, sometimes over the top emotion than anime and Shi utilizes it well in Turning Red to elevate the hilarity and heartfelt dynamics. This anime style of emotion works excellently in creating a glittery romanticism of 4-Town and making some of Mei’s reactions absolutely hilarious. It’s perfectly fitting for Mei’s energetic personality and wild imagination as well as Pixar’s distinct brand of comedy, but more importantly, fits with Mei’s emotional journey. The film’s great visuals mesh wonderfully with Mei’s personal journey and elevate this excellent story about family, growing up, and learning who you are. Pixar’s animation continues to look more and more beautiful and Turning Red might be their most visually stunning work to date.
Turning Red is one of Pixar’s best films in years with how Shi directs this strikingly animated and emotionally moving coming of age story. It features everything fans love of about Pixar movies, from gut-busting hilarity to a touching personal story, and so much more. Chiang will undoubtedly become a breakout star for helping create one of Pixar’s most lovable protagonists in Mei and Turning Red is an absolute steal for Disney+ subscribers.