If there’s one thing we can all relate to as human beings, it’s that growing up ain’t always easy. In a way we never really stop growing as people and change is constantly happening around us. Only, sometimes change can happen a lot quicker than you could have anticipated and the answers are not always readily available or clear.
If validating one’s emotions is at the heart of Pixar’s Inside Out, then it is this concept of change that drives the story of their latest feature, Turning Red, from writer/director Domee Shi. The parallels don’t end there either, as Shi’s feature film debut is similarly defined not just by its themes, but by practically every facet of its stellar production. Turning Red is a tale told with a cultural richness that stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Coco, Luca and Encanto, but where it sets itself apart from any of these productions is by telling one of the boldest stories in Pixar’s history, seeking to normalise the transition to womanhood in a manner never before seen in animated cinema.
Set in 2002 Toronto, which makes this the first feature length Pixar film set in Canada (the very first production set in Canada was Domee Shi’s animated short Bao, which earned her an Academy Award), Turning Red centres on 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a dutiful Chinese-Canadian girl who juggles her straight A school life with working at the Chinese temple her family runs as a tourist attraction, leaving little time to hang out with her three best friends outside of school. Mei has a strong bond with her loving mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), but her overbearing parenting starts to weigh on the young teen and after a particularly embarrassing incident at the hands of the oblivious Ming, a long-standing family curse manifests in Mei, where she turns into a giant red panda whenever experiencing strong emotions. Mei must then wait a month for the next Red Moon before she can lift the apparent curse, learning how to control her emotions and balance her domestic and personal lives in the process.
In case you haven’t picked up on it already, Turning Red’s central premise is a metaphor for puberty. Domee Shi does not shy away from this, with Mei’s parents even initially believing she had experienced her first period before discovering that she was actually turning into the red panda. The fact that many see this as a bold move just speaks to the work that needs to be done to normalise discourse around the subject instead of treating it as taboo, and Shi’s efforts here go a long way in doing so.
Full disclosure, I am a white, Irish male barely into his 30s. The closest I can come to pure objective relation with this material is through the immigrant experience in Toronto, which is tangential at best to the film’s core narrative. But Turning Red’s narrative and message is nonetheless universal and hit home in a deeply visceral manner. Shi gives us insight into her Chinese cultural background, which might be alien to some, but nonetheless serves to educate those less familiar with Asian family dynamics and is still shown through the lens of universal truths such as friendship, insecurity, and seeking the validation of our parents. This is the point CinemaBlend reviewer Sean O’Connell so badly missed in his now infamous review of the film, where he claimed he “not this film’s target audience” because it is set “very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto,” labelling it as “limiting” for that reason, which somehow completely misses the point of cinema as escapism. It has since been taken down and rereviewed by another critic, but considering O’Connell is an Irish-American and likely grew up in a more multi-ethnic environment than I, his comments were stunningly short-sighted.
Even if Turning Red’s themes don’t resonate with those like O’Connell, it is difficult to imagine how anyone would not fall in love with its rich and varied cast of characters. The show stealer is Mei, who stands not only as one of Pixar’s best animated characters to date (whether she be in her human or panda form), but is one of the most flamboyant, kinetic, and indeed progressive characters they have ever put onscreen. The film’s earliest scenes had moments where Mei’s giddy imagination bordered on overzealous, but thankfully Shi demonstrates a restraint throughout that is never restrictive, culminating in the Turning Red’s touching final act that shows a sensibility beyond that of the writer/director’s own 32 years.
The same can very much be said for the cast of supporting characters, of which not a single one feels out of place. Mei’s core group of friends each have their own distinctive personality, which shows as much in their voice acting as it does the ways in which they have been animated. The same can be said of Mei’s family, both immediate and extended, who come with their own individual complexities, while the framing of the film’s “villain” is a refreshing shakeup of the Pixar norm.
Turning Red is a revelation for Pixar, and Domee Shi has undoubtedly established herself as their latest wunderkind. It is a charming, hilarious, insightful and touching ode not just to womanhood and Chinese-Canadian culture, but another nuanced exploration of the human experience by Pixar. Turning Red deserves to be regarded amongst the best features ever released by the company, and I am already excited to see what Shi does next.