When it was announced that Pixar’s latest film was foregoing a theatrical run for an immediate release on Disney+, it was met with disappointment. In a movie theater world seemingly dominated only by giant action-heavy blockbuster spectacle (with the occasional A24 or horror flick mixed in), the silver screen is becoming more binary than ever. One of the things we thought we could count on is the annual Pixar fare, using metaphor (talking toys, a chef rat, emotions personified, a flying house) to convey many of life’s great anxieties. Fast forward to Turning Red, Pixar’s splendidly animated new feature. But like Soul (2020) before it, unfairly shunned to a catalog in your smart TV.
Threatening to break out from said TV is Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a blisteringly energetic 13-year-old schoolgirl in Toronto, who balances a traditional Chinese lifestyle (enforced by her parents) with a carefree social life among her group of girlfriends. The latter often make dramatic hallway showcases, as if their rock stars making a grand entrance in Toronto’s Skydome. Set in 2002, Mei is obsessed with the boy band 4 Town, a group of 5 racially ambiguous pubescent vocalists whose current tour has them approaching Mei’s hometown. Why is it called 4 Town if there are 5 members? The movie doesn’t know either.
But it’s a local boy, not the boy band, who sets off an awakening in Mei. Her discovery that she may be attracted to him coincides with an unexpected internal arrival. As a result, Mei transforms into a giant red panda, just like the one of Chinese legend as we’re told earlier. But the metaphor is clear, this is not merely a panda – Mei is becoming a woman.
When her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), discovers her daughter’s predicament, she has a host of self-care items ready, including a plethora of tampon brands. But then the metaphor get a little more complicated. We soon learn the red panda arrives for all women in Mei’s lineage, a fact that was kept from her. In Chinese tradition, a ceremony is performed to trap the panda in a keepsake, enabling the user to control when and where she will unleash “the beast.” It’s a layered critique of how society couches a woman’s biological challenges into a corner of society, freeing us to not have to talk about or engage with those experiences. But soon, Mei discovers she quite likes her alter ego, and sees the occasional benefit of letting herself loose. With the ceremony approaching, Mei has to choose if she’ll upend her family’s traditions in order to assume her true self.
The shepherd of this project is director Domee Shi, most known for her short film Bao (2018). That work also dealt with the overbearing stubbornness of a concerned mother. Many of those themes are duplicated here. Ming tries to force Mei into the role she feels is appropriate, even as Mei desperately desires the freedom to break from tradition. Mei finds more solace in her girl group, who give her the confidence to be her true self. Shi, in crafting the story, is drawing from her own experiences as a youth in Toronto. It must be difficult to balance a storied heritage with strict parameters of behavior, while participating in North American pop culture with customs that seem to be the antithesis of those parameters. Mei wants to respect her heritage, but she also wants to take pride in her body and her desires. Telling her to store that side of her away in a necklace is the wrong lesson.
The film is one of Pixar’s most colorful, accompanied with framing, dissolves, and camera movements that do more to mimic live action photography rather than animation. Shi’s grounded directing style is a great compliment to the rainbow like aestetic, from the colorful wardrobes to the Lee family temple, to even the sparkling red hair Mei receives, in human form, after her initial transformation. The film features several big set pieces that sees the red panda in action, rumbling through the Toronto streets like the Incredible Hulk. The mere premise reminded me of the Hulk, except it’s more than just anger that can set off Mei’s transformation. It’s a cornucopia of emotions that can be the trigger, but Mei’s goal is to control it rather than store it away.
Much has been made about some people not being able to “relate” to Turning Red, for superficial reasons that aren’t consistent with the viewing habits of the general public. If we can get invested in stories about Jedi or monstrous green men, you can appreciate a story about a diverse group of teens and their love for a boy band. Those other franchises are also about confronting who you really are inside, using Marvel science or The Force to balance the good and the bad.
Turning Red is vibrant, fun, funny, and emotionally authentic. Is it among Pixar’s best? I wouldn’t agree, but that has more to do with Pixar’s supercharged filmography. It’s not quite an Inside Out, belonging more in a pantheon that includes the likes of Soul, A Bug’s Life, Luca, and Monster’s University. It may be the best of that grouping, marrying animated spectacle with real-world topics that can soothe the fears of it’s young audience. This movie means a lot, and the small screen can barely contain its gorgeous animation and big heart.