Pixar’s short Bao (2018), which played before Incredibles 2 (2018), won over the hearts of most who saw it. Its director, Domee Shi, returns with her first feature, Turning Red (2022) – which is a first for Pixar – in that no female director has previously received a solo directing credit. The film centers around Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who is turning that awkward age of 13. She is starting to notice boys, wanting to spend more time with her friends, and…turning into a giant red panda if she gets too excited. This change is noticed by her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), who has great ambitions for her daughter, and expectations that Mei is finding hard to live up to.
Turning Red is a really great story about trying to honor one’s parents while still pursuing your personal ambitions and interests. Shi, who also wrote the story, doesn’t rely on too many of the tropes of these coming-of-age stories whilst not totally avoiding them. There are expected fall-outs between friends and family, but they are treated with true humanity…or, in some cases, panda paws. The transformation into a panda is an interestingly used metaphor for puberty in some cases, – but it goes much deeper than that, as the story pulls back the family history and the generational elements at play. Shi’s personal story is evident, and it makes for a very emotional ride.
Pixar’s films have increasingly looked better and better over the last twenty years, and Turning Red is no exception. While this one lends itself to a more grounded look, as the main characters are people, there is that distinctive look that is undeniable. Shi’s crew went with 2-D animation, and the anime aesthetics trickled in with the intent to work well in this style. I particularly like a lot of the “camera” used in this film. There are scenes where the camera locks in on the subject who is running through halls, and it creates the mania that the character is experiencing in those moments. “Camera” placement isn’t always something that grabs my attention in animated movies – but it was noticeably intricate at times in this film.
There have been few Pixar films that I haven’t connected with, but I was thrilled at how much I came to love Mei and her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). The initial trailers painted Mei as a bit of an almost mean girl – or at least that was how I remembered – and I was happy that wasn’t at all what this film was. Even the “bully” character, Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), isn’t one-dimensional. There is a real depth to the characters and relationships between them that is developed with clear care and intent.
Turning Red is fun and emotional while being familiar and original all at the same time. Shi has taken her opportunity to play with the Pixar ball and run with it. These personal stories about a culture that many can not have known exactly, as we are not all born a Chinese girl who emigrated to Toronto, has such an important universality to them. I hope to see more films like this, as more people are given the opportunity to share their stories through film. Turning Red earns the Must See rating.