Tradition is often at war with modernity, and people, particularly teenagers and young adults, sometimes feel a pull towards the latter at the expense of the former. Ancient customs and religious heritage may feel antiquated and counterproductive to societal progress, but there is a reason they have endured for so long and remained the fabric of communities. In the path proudly blazed by other Pixar films before it, Turning Red charts a new protagonist’s journey towards embracing her family’s rituals, which in this case involve a larger-than-life coming-of-age transformation.
Meilin is thirteen years old and all she wants to do is go to a concert of her favorite band, 4*Town, with her friends. Her mother, Ming, who works as the keeper of the Lee Family Temple, wants to make sure that Mei is focused on her academic studies and on an important transition that she knows will soon happen to her: when Mei feels any strong emotion, she poofs and turns into a giant red panda. Initially horrified by this new reality, Mei sees an unexpected opportunity, one that can help her achieve her top goal of the moment by using her uncontrollable ability to her advantage.
Turning Red clearly serves as a fantastical exploration of puberty and what it means to be undergoing changes to your body. In this case, rather than a gross-out comedy like Big Mouth, which does certainly have its fans, it’s a wholesome yet inescapable literal metamorphosis into a large creature that can’t be hidden. While many would see a giant red panda and run the other direction, it’s interesting to note that the kids in this film are generally intrigued and amused, eager to see what it can do and how it can move, with an obnoxious bully classmate of Mei’s even hiring her to bring the panda to his party so that he will have the best entertainment.
Just as other Pixar movies have highlighted cultures that aren’t as often represented, Turning Red is a wonderful ode to the Chinese Canadian community. Director Domee Shi grew up in Toronto, like Mei, in the early 2000s. After working as a storyboard artist for Pixar on Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4, Shi made her directorial debut with Bao, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2018. In just eight minutes, Shi powerfully conveyed a Chinese Canadian mother’s yearning for her children as one of the dumplings she made came alive.
Turning Red is a feature-length expansion on the idea of the mother-daughter relationship, one that wisely casts well-known Asian-Canadian actress Sandra Oh as the voice of Ming and newcomer Rosalie Chiang as the voice of Mei. The panda is a visual representation of otherness, something that causes Mei to feel shame rather than to connect with her heritage, and which her mother and ancestors see as a challenge to overcome and tame. As she tries to cover her embarrassment, she begins to see the positives that being different can bring.
Those who have seen a good chunk of the Pixar film catalog, which counts this as its twenty-fifth film, will be familiar with the arc of the narrative. Knowing what’s generally coming doesn’t make it less enjoyable, and its spotlight on Chinese Canadians should be particularly welcome for those who haven’t yet seen a story like theirs on screen. Heading straight to Disney+ is a logical decision given that it will provide greater access to family audiences, who should be perfectly happy to experience it on a television.
Turning Red premieres exclusively on Disney+ on Friday, March 11th.