Packed with the usual elements of heartfelt family drama and some new fragments of adolescent pop culture pizazz, Pixar is back with Turning Red – the third consecutive feature film from the studio to go directly to streaming, foregoing a traditional theatrical release. Directed by Pixar alum Domee Shi, this film oozes with personality and deep passion. Where it might fall short in feeling thematically ground-breaking, Turning Red makes up for in particular and specific worldbuilding and storytelling. Guiding a tale of daughter-mother relationships and coming to terms with one’s cultural heritage, Shi uses her distinct vision and artistic tastes to break free of the Pixar formula and create something truly unique and expressive.
From the very start, we are introduced to Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian who lives with her parents in the city of Toronto. In a sequence of in-your-face, high-frequency jump cuts and 4th wall-breaking soliloquies, Turning Red wastes no time in directly telling us who our protagonist is and how she feels; she’s a typical teenage girl, reveling in her newfound “maturity,” freedom, and individuality. It’s a high-paced introduction to the film’s setting and characters, quickly putting us on pace to understand Mei’s frenetic internal journey.
Integral to her character and development throughout the film, Mei’s actions are informed by her cultural surroundings. Her parents (especially her mother Ming) run the city’s oldest Chinese temple and tell tourists stories of their ancestors. Seen as an extension of this public image as well as the latest addition to their familial legacy, Mei is pressured to be the ideal daughter and suit her mother’s perception of what that means.
But Mei’s life is far from one-note; while she does take pride in her high-achieving academic success, she thrives most when spending time with her friends Abby, Ava, and Maitreyi. The group of teenage like-minded girls is as close as can be, brought together by boy gossip and a mutual love and affection for the heart-throb boy band 4*TOWN. Eventually, Mei and company learn that 4*TOWN is putting on a show in the coming weeks… and nothing will get in their way of being there.
The group’s charming obsession with 4*TOWN is the first element of Turning Red that grounds its world in reality. Taking place in 2002, there’s an undeniable nostalgia to the film’s approach to family and coming-of-age storytelling. Close attention to minutiae relays the special intimacy of this narrative to the writer-director (a more literal approach than we often see from Pixar); small little details like Mei owning a Tamagotchi add a distinct time and place to this film that still feels timeless through its youthful gaze but also cement these girls’ passions and obsessions as grounded in actual phenomenons, applicable to real-world audiences.
It’s when this adolescent, obsessive worldliness collides with the strict, disciplined disposition of Mei’s mother that the film’s conflict and thematic aspirations become clear; the divide between her personal passions and those thrust upon her by her overbearing mother Ming is central to this story and represented by none other than a giant, fluffy red panda.
Sparked by her (incredibly common) fits of high-energy expression, Mei transforms into a red panda at often the most inopportune of times. Whether excitement, fear, or anger, the red panda is brought out by Mei’s unrestrained inner feelings, inextricably tied to her emotional relationships with her friends and family. Here, in what could easily be seen as a tired spin on the human-turned-animal cliche, Turning Red finds some genuine cultural resonance and commentary in its premise that will nonetheless speak true to a wide audience.
Like in her Oscar-winning animated short Bao which accompanied screenings of Incredibles 2 back in 2018, Shi once again brings the troubles of mother-daughter relationships to the big screen. Mei must find the balance between preserving her family’s idea of culture and being herself. In the end, it comes down to “my panda, my choice,” and it’s up to Mei to carve her own identity. It’s an effective (if proven) emotional core that takes a new meaning in this out-of-the-ordinary context, sprung to life by expressive direction that extends throughout the script, animation, lighting, and music.
Key to this story’s jovial tone and perspective, the character and production designs look as though they were plucked straight out of a child’s imagination. Critics are bound to liken them to other contemporary designs, yet they feel perfectly at home in Turning Red. The plastic sheen of its appearance adds to the nostalgia of the film’s time period and approach to childhood storytelling, at the same time also creating the grounds for more rubbery animation. Turning Red features many moments of Pixar’s most inventive animation to date, sprinkled throughout its runtime. Whereas the realism of Toy Story 4 is impressive, Turning Red is in a league of its own, using the animated medium to create a heightened, imaginative parable.
Similarly, the music takes on a similar role in the film. Songs by Finneas O’Connell and Billie Eilish make up the discography of the fictional 4*TOWN, populating a large proportion of the film. Presumably inspired by the real-life group O-Town, this style of early 2000s pop music imbues both theme and tone to the story – an obvious, stark contrast to the more traditionally scored moments dealing with Mei’s family.
Ludwig Göransson composes his first score for an animated feature here, bringing his electronic-infused elements of music to the world of Meilin Lee. As he did to Star Wars with The Mandalorian, Göransson’s palate brings a whole new field of flavors to Pixar’s more traditional musical lexicon. With clear hip hop inspirations and instrumental flourishes suitable to this culturally important narrative, his underscore brings the lead character’s thoughts to life effortlessly, adding drive and energy to each and every scene.
Turning Red is unabashed of its identity and will be adored by many of Pixar’s younger fans. For older viewers, however, it may leave them scratching their heads, noting a lack of the “emotionally mature” Pixar of days gone by. This, of course, is to expect something of the film that it has no regard for; this is the internal journey of a 13-year-old designed to rightfully capture that experience. The film’s high-octane, busied presentation feels attuned to the attention spans of today’s youth – which is far from an issue but could still seem awkward for those expecting a more meticulous approach.
From spectacle pop concerts to fantasy dream landscapes, a lot of plot elements in Turning Red often come across as disjointed, although they’re not totally without purpose or pleasure. The film is unafraid to break the rules and bend genre lines, and it knows younger audiences are smart enough to keep up. More importantly, the film knows they’ll prefer this uniqueness over more conventional filmmaking decisions.
For some, Turning Red’s relative immaturity and frenetic design will be a turn-off, but for others, it will be its greatest strength. Regardless, it definitely stands out with an eccentric imprint upon the Pixar canon. Faithfully bringing life to an underrepresented culture in the most honest way, Domee Shi has further pushed the boundaries of animated studio filmmaking – and that’s not to mention her place as Pixar’s first female feature director. While it’s a shame Turning Red will never screen in most theaters, it’s an important film that deserves a large platform, and Disney+ might be its best chance at reaching those who deserve it most.