DIRECTOR: Domee Shi

CAST: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, Addie Chandler, Jordan Fisher, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo, Finneas O’Connell, Grayson Villanueva, Anne-Marie, James Hong, Lori Tan Chinn, Lillian Lim, Mia Tagano, Sherry Cola, Sasha Roiz, Lily Sanfelippo

RUNNING TIME: 100 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: A young teen (Chiang) finds that she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

One of the many reasons that Pixar has thrived over the years is because beyond the sophisticated storytelling and memorable characters, almost every one of their family-friendly movies has dealt with very grown-up themes, done in mature enough ways that both children and adults can identify with them. So far, Pixar has tackled abandonment, overprotection, family conflict, our numerous complex emotions, and even what lies beyond this mortal life, but now with Turning Red the company focuses on something that is genuinely shocking in how it hasn’t been done before: puberty. Like, blossoming-into-womanhood-in-all-its-awkwardness kind of puberty. That’s right, folks: Pixar is finally talking about the natural progress in all its glory – albeit in the guise of giant, fluffy red pandas. Y’know, for kids.

The feature debut of director Domee Shi, who previously won an Oscar for the animation studio with her 2018 short Bao, doesn’t stop at its central themes in standing out from other Pixar movies. Its style, character designs, period setting (no pun intended) and all the way to its soundtrack feels actively different than we’re used to seeing from Pixar, and that can only be a good thing, for Turning Red truly does stand out as both a unique film amongst their eclectic line-up, and also a very charming, even vital, family film in its own right.

Taking place in 2002 Toronto, 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Mei (Rosalie Chiang) is a confident and bright tween who, in between being a straight-A student, enjoys fangirling over the hilariously 2000s boyband 4*Town with her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). At home, however, she struggles to remain the perfect girl in the eyes of her strict and overbearing mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who actively discourages any fascination or crush her young daughter may have. Unfortunately for Mei, things are about to get a lot more awkward; she wakes up one morning to find that she has transformed into a giant red panda, which can only be suppressed whenever Mei calms herself down – something that is in and of itself a challenge because, well, she’s a pre-teen on the cusp of womanhood. Now, Mei must find a way to live with her transformative new abilities before she has a chance to get rid of it – but also still pine for 4*Town, who conveniently have a concert coming up shortly.

While it retains a lot of Pixar’s most recognisable attributes – among them the sophisticated storytelling, the gorgeous animation, and of course those underlying mature themes – there’s a lot about Turning Red that feels very different. The style of animation used to create the atmosphere and the characters, for example, is clearly modelled after classical tricks in Japanese anime; characters’ eyes have the capacity to bulge and sparkle as they often tend to do in anime, while the faint backgrounds have that light sense of being hand-drawn before they are then rendered into 3D computer graphics. Even some of the character designs, like Mei herself in human form and also in her fluffier, Totoro-esque animal self, look like they could have been covertly conjured by the animators at Studio Ghibli, again setting the film further apart stylistically from the likes of Toy Story, Inside Out and Soul. As ever, it’s all so breath-taking to look at, with the smooth and tender graphics paving the way for some beautiful imagery that can make even downtown Toronto look as magnificent as Paradise Falls in Up.

Visually, it’s another triumph for Pixar – but it’s what lies at the centre of Turning Red that really makes this a true one-of-a-kind. No other major Western animation movie from such a well-known cartoon studio comes to mind that has actively addressed the trials and tribulations of puberty (Inside Out makes light reference to it, but as a joke and right at the very end, so does that even count?), so it’s rather baffling that we’re only now getting one that does. Children at similar ages to Mei in this movie, who may well be experiencing unusual changes to their own bodies such as body odour or menstruation (and it’s not just limited to girls, as boys may also find their voices deepening or hair growing from their faces), can see the very literal changes our young protagonist undergoes here and identify the parallels with their real-life changes, potentially helping them feel more at ease with the natural developments. The film makes no attempt to shame such transformations either, as Mei eventually learns to accept her changing body (in all senses of the phrase) and embraces the new person/panda she is becoming without letting anyone tell her otherwise – except maybe her overbearing mother, whose arc is largely that of the stereotypical overprotective parent you do find in a lot of Pixar movies, though there are times when the film pushes that stereotype to rather extreme levels.

It’s honestly great that there is an accessible, far-reaching and crowd-pleasing movie that can also be seen as a strong way to introduce the awkwardness of puberty to children just on the cusp of experiencing it themselves. While the movie itself doesn’t completely stay on target – a kaiju climax has the traditional bearings of a Marvel film, which doesn’t mean it’s bad but for something trying to be much more grounded can seem a little out of place – Turning Red does keep focused for long enough to deliver these important life messages, as well as still find room for the story to be charming and for the characters to be very likeable. It’s one of Pixar’s boldest films in a long while, based purely on what it’s setting out to highlight, which in a way makes it a little depressing that it’s headed straight to Disney+ instead of cinemas (you can thank Omicron for that), because a movie with this much ambition and fluffiness to its nature does deserve to be much more widely seen.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Turning Red is one of Pixar’s boldest films in a while, primarily for its mature and imaginative way of addressing normal bodily changes during puberty, but its stylish animation, likeable characters and sweet story also make it another winner for the acclaimed studio.

Turning Red is now available to stream on Disney+

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