A staple narrative device in Pixar’s feature films is exploring the magical concept of transformation – whether that’s turning from an undersea monster into a human, or from a human into a soul-self in the ‘great beyond’ – and that’s no different in the animation studio’s upcoming 25th feature. From the hugely creative talent behind the Oscar winning short Bao – and marking Pixar’s first feature film solely directed by a woman – comes Turning Red, an unabashedly bold, female-centric coming-of-age story spotlighting the first steps into adolescence.
Directed by Domee Shi, Turning Red centres on Chinese-Canadian Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a confident and nerdy 13 year old who’s achieving A+ grades at school, has a fun, close-knit friendship circle and an affectionate bond with her parents (Sandra Oh and Orion Lee). However, one morning she finds herself going through a different change to usual at the start of puberty, discovering she can harness her ancestral power to transform into a giant, fluffy red panda when overly emotional or excited. With the stadium concert of her favourite boyband 4*Town growing ever closer, can her transformative powers be successfully contained in time?
Aside from being an entertaining, nostalgia tinted coming-of-age tale (Tamagotchis, flip phones and Pop-esque boybands) Shi’s feature debut is an important and uniquely fresh take on navigating adolescence, identity & changing mother-daughter relationships. Told directly through the lens of a teenage girl via the magical red panda transformative metaphor, this is an impressively nuanced and empathetic look at puberty and awkward growing pains – I genuinely wish this film was available when I was younger! There’s plenty of engaging and amusing conversations around the topic, particularly when her mum mistakenly whips out the sanitary products (and her dad hilariously backs away from the entire scenario), but discovers her daughter’s “red peony” has not quite bloomed just yet.
Thematically, apart from Pete Docter’s introspective Inside Out, this feels much more in line with Isao Takahata’s wheelhouse, particularly Only Yesterday. Set in Toronto, Canada, and featuring an Asian protagonist (only the second full-length Pixar feature to do so after Up) Turning Red has it’s own distinct identity, beautiful settings and nuances, such as the lazy Susan at the dinner table, French lessons at school, tranquil family temples and orange slices after dinner. Alongside the journey through adolescence, Shi also explores the push-pull between Western and Eastern culture in the family, along with generation-spanning anxieties and miscommunication. Through an incredibly touching shared moment – harking back to Petite Maman – a revelatory understanding between Meilin and her mother occurs, as they both realise they share the same pressure to be the perfect daughter.
Another standout element is the brilliantly defined and authentically developed characters and evolving dynamics, wonderfully written by Shi and co-writer Julia Cho. Chiang is excellent as the hugely energetic and endearing Meilin, who particularly excels in the more comedic moments like frantically (and repeatedly) doodling her crush as a merman while awkwardly trying to hide them from her mum. She’s afforded a brilliant character arc, learning over time to embrace and own her inner emotions and identity. Her dynamic with her parents – particularly Oh’s Ming – also feels particularly relatable, as she juggles trying to keep them – and the ancestors – happy, along with her own social life. There’s also a particularly hilarious moment where Ming pretends she’s not in when her own mother calls! Meilin’s teen friendship group also feels organic, with their own distinct songs, dance routines, dynamic and visual style.
The visual style is also striking with a hugely vibrant anime-inspired look and feel, complete with dynamic editing, impact frames and Pokemon-esque sparkling eyes, paired with a teenage bubblegum colour palette. While this current, popular style is very much in line with Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Shi juxtaposes it with a flourish of the traditional – particularly in the temple sequences and the impressive bamboo-filled spiritual realm. This interweaving of traditional and contemporary is also reinforced by Ludwig Görransson’s score, as the composer combines R&B beats with traditional Chinese instruments – paired with Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell insanely catchy original pop songs for boyband 4*Town. However, the visual standout has to be a sublimely photorealistic sequence of Meilin’s father cooking their dinner (harking back to Bao) and the entertaining third act Kaiju-inspired showdown.
Turning Red is one of Pixar’s boldest and most visually distinct coming-of-age flicks since Inside Out. With an engaging spotlight on teenage girls navigating adolescence, identity & evolving relationships – paired with a unique animation style – it’s a real shame this isn’t getting a wider theatrical release. But what a delight of a directorial debut from Domee Shi!