Two months ago, I was furious with Disney over shoving Turning Red onto Disney+ with a theatrical release. Here was an original movie, not attached to any IP, that seemed charming and personal, coming from the director of the acclaimed short Bao, being put onto a streaming service for no reason immediately discernable reason. Symbolic messaging aside, it’s just depressing that yet another Pixar film is being shuffled onto Disney+ without giving it the chance to succeed in theaters.
Which is a shame because Turning Red is great. It captured a sense of nostalgia for me and feels like a genuine risk for Pixar. It removes a lot of their cliches in favor of a more straightforward and modern-day mentality that really does pay off. After sitting on it for a little over a week, I’m not sure if this is going to be one of my all-time favorite Pixar movies, but it’s probably going to be the best-animated movie of the year.
Director: Domee Shi
Release Date: March 11, 2022 (Disney+)
In Toronto circa 2002, Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is your typical 13-year old girl. She has a group of friends she’s ride or die with, she’s socially awkward, crushes on the ugliest people around, has a Tamagotchi, loves boy bands, and has an incredibly overbearing mother (Sandra Oh). Things are pretty okay, but after a high-stress situation, she discovers that she can turn into a giant red panda thanks to a family curse. At first, she’s mortified by this and wants to get rid of the curse with the help of her mother and grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), but her friends try to convince her to be herself and not be ashamed of who she is. Oh, and so she can use the giant red panda to make money to afford tickets to go see a boy band they all like. Friendship!
This movie exudes charm at every possibility. Mei is a very likable protagonist and all of the characters feel completely distinct. Her friends all have clear personalities, we see the positive and negative relationship she has with her mother, and Mei herself is just very endearing. She’s the embodiment of the time of adolescence when the biggest problems you had in life were fitting in at school and trying to make sure your Tamagotchi went to the bathroom. But there’s also the conflict of trying to establish an identity for yourself that breaks from your family.
Without going into spoilers, a lot of the themes tackled in Turning Red are similar to those tackled in Encanto. Both center on the unintentional harm that families can cause one another and how that can affect a family for generations. Encanto is a lot more overt about it, but I think that Turning Red more effectively weaves that in throughout its narrative. It never draws attention to itself, but when you do notice it, those moments are powerful.
But for the most part, you’re going to be focused on the bright and lush colors on display. Pixar is no slouch when it comes to animation. You know it, I know it, but what I find impressive here is just how vibrant everything feels. The colors pop and each character look distinct, whether it be Mei’s luscious fur, her friends and their color-coded attire, or how Toronto just feels warm and energetic. I have no idea if this is actually what Toronto is like, but it’s a place that I feel nostalgic about despite never actually going there. It transports you to that period of time perfectly and makes me feel like it’s an actual place I visited. This isn’t all that surprising given that Shi herself was a Chinese immigrant living in Toronto and would have been in her early teenage years around the time Turning Red takes place. I’m almost certain that this movie has elements in it that are autobiographical (minus the giant red panda bit).
But it adds a layer of authenticity to the proceedings. The characters sound like actual people. They have problems that fit someone in an urban setting and they talk like they’re actually middle schoolers. There’s no cringe dialogue in an attempt to appeal to “the youths” and fits the lingo of the time period. Anyone who grew up during the boy band wars will probably get PTSD at how accurate and ridiculous the fervor was for them as you watch the girls obsess over getting tickets to a concert for five generic pretty boys that they swoon over at any given time.
Turning Red is a pretty funny film because of it. I wouldn’t say that it was laugh out loud funny, but there were plenty of small scenes that got me to smile and laugh, like how Mei’s mother becomes a neurotic wreck at the mere prospect of her mother calling her or seeing Mei’s mind slowly collapse at the realization she’s crushing on the grungy convenience store employee. Those funny bits make the sadder moments hit all the harder, like having Mei worry that her friends will think she’s a monster or the anxiety that she’ll never go back to being normal.
Turning Red is a movie about discovery and growing up, about creating an identity for yourself that’s true to you. If I could criticize one thing about the movie is that sometimes the morals get a bit jumbled up. First, there’s a metaphor about puberty, then it shifts to independence, then about being true to yourself, so on and so forth. It all comes together in the end, but about half of the runtime feels a bit sloppy on the thematic side of things. It’s offset by just how entertaining the final product is and the animation is, well, Pixar animation, so it’s really just a minor criticism at that.
I wish more than anything I could have seen this on the big screen. Some of the key setpieces would have hit harder in a theater than just on my puny laptop. Some movies are best enjoyed on the largest screen possible, and Turning Red is one of those movies. But regardless of how it was delivered to me, the film is infinitely charming and sweet, carrying Pixar’s standard excellent animation in an authentic and sweet package that makes me want to rewatch it again and again. Do yourself a favor and see this movie as soon as it makes its way to Disney+.