There are two particular jokes in Turning Red that are emblematic of the comedic brilliance of director Domee Shi and co-screenwriter Julia Cho and the confident maturity that Pixar has allowed the film to reach. The first occurs early in the film where protagonist Mei reveals her newfound disposition to her best friends. Her erratic and unpredictable transformations into a red panda have put a halt in their plans, mainly their endgame of attending the upcoming concert of the boy band of their dreams, 4*Town. With a whimpering straight face, 13-year old Mei tells her friends, “Go become women without me.” The second happens shortly after when Mei’s friend Abby shares her displeasure at not being allowed to attend the concert by her parents, “Mine called it stripper music. What’s wrong with that?”
Humor is one of the many defiant traits that comprise Turning Red’s identity. The film, in more ways than one, is akin to its protagonist Mei Lee in that both are at constant odds with their responsibilities and selves. Within the Pixar canon, Turning Red posits itself as the true rebel of the catalog; brash, anarchic, and spunky just like Mei. Pixar films have long examined complex thematics, especially with Pete Docter’s existentialist double-feature Inside Out and Soul, from a heightened fantastical perspective, oftentimes through characters resembling small children.
Soul had 22, a down-on-her-luck soul who can’t seem to find her purpose in life. Then there’s Finding Nemo’s Dory, who in her childlike naivete finds the will to find lost family in the unfathomable ocean. Turning Red departs from this mold with a 13-year old protagonist on the cusp of puberty. The film’s themes, while existentially complex in every sense of the way, are no longer just emotional concepts but physical ones as well. Faced with the overwhelming deluge of hormones, Mei begins to experience everything around her change; her body no longer feels the same, boys elicit feelings she’s never felt, and her parents no longer resonate the same way they did. Both the emotional and physical conflicts Mei and her friends experience allow the space for the filmmakers to examine them through the cultural lenses of a teenager in 2002, all without mincing words.
Domee Shi frames this semi-autobiographical tale in 2002, the cusp of 90s nostalgia and the burgeoning days of handheld tech. A child of that era, Shi uses the cultural touchstones of the era to explore how the characters behave among them. Tamagotchis, flip phones, the first wave of Nokia (or in this case, Jokia) phones, and the boyband antecedents of the era all play a key part in defining who these kids are. The songs by 4*Town – written by Billie Eilish and Finneas – are a particular standout. The duo fuses the new jack swing sound of 90s pop with the dance-pop hooks of the 2000s and the modernity of hi-fi KPOP to create a vibe perfect for this version of 2002.
Contrary to its unruly sense of humor, Turning Red does live up to the Disney brand with its profound and tender sense of heart. Central to this heart is Mei, her mother Ming, and their relationship that keeps that heart beating. Mei, like most Asian children, is weighed down by the expectation of duty and excellence from her stern mother. She’s the top of her class, diligent with extra-curricular activities, honors the family business yet every now and then, feels the urge to not be any of those. It’s only when a generational curse spanning centuries turns Mei into a red panda that those feelings are challenged. By extension, Ming’s role as the well-meaning yet faultless, absolute decision-maker in Mei’s life is also put to the test, as her own dormant trauma is unearthed. Their relationship soon becomes a tug of war between a daughter fighting for identity and a mother escaping from her trauma.
Caught in that tug-of-war are Mei’s friends, who prove to be one of Pixar’s most memorable ensembles in years. Made up of the deadpan Priya, the easygoing Miriam, and the hooligan Abby, whose frenetic wit stands out as a constant scene-stealer, the ensemble is to thank for the film’s funniest and most charming moments. Each of them brings a vibrant authenticity that holds the milieu of the early naughts together. They also not only serve as Mei’s support system but also as a tether to her identity. When the mother-and-daughter conflict comes into view, it’s the friends that are caught in the crossfire. The eventual drama that branches is not only somber but also powerful.
Turning Red nearly falls apart when the torrential family crisis threatens to be an unwieldy explosion of spectacle in its third act; reaching near-superhero levels of scope and literal scale rather than maintaining the intimacy of its earlier conflicts. But director Shi is quick to demonstrate the control she has over the material as she tempers the climax with the emotions of all the characters involved. As the set-piece grows larger, so do the themes that underpin every character’s decision. Character is never lost in the spectacle but also given a chance to shine in a way previous scenes could not. The resulting finale is one that’s not only exhilarating but also full of heart.
Both Mei and Ming are underpinned by fantastic performances from Rosalie Cheng and Sandra Oh respectively. Cheng, who was originally hired as a stand-in while the production looked for the actor they needed, gives a performance so dimensional that you’d be forgiven for thinking she was voicing her 20th animated film. Mei displays a charming yet weighty tenacity onscreen that could only ever work through the candor and earnestness Cheng yields from her voice. The ever so graceful Sandra Oh braces Cheng’s performance with a commanding warmth she engenders in Ming’s spirit. From the mere timbre of her voice, Oh envelopes each scene with a gravitas that gives the space for Cheng to be delicate and vibrant. Though the solemn gravitas eventually seethes into thunderous roaring, Oh never forgets to make it feel heartfelt.
But voice performances can only be so good as a singular element. It falls on the craftsmanship of the animators to make these performances palpable to the eye. Fortunately, Turning Red also happens to be the most expressive Pixar film to date, utilizing a spectrum of techniques derived from anime. An art form known for its stylistic excess, the film embraces the ethos of anime and uses every opportunity to be playful and experimental. Western animation sensibilities are broken frequently as facial expressions frantically contort to mischievous proportions; a star pops up in Mei’s eyes when she’s elated; her pupils shrink to a dot when startled or turn into crescent shapes; giant tears droop from her eyes in times of sadness. Because of this choice, every emote in Turning Red speaks volumes.
Meeting Turning Red‘s anime influence halfway is Pixar’s fidelity to vibrancy and richness. The film’s palette is aptly dominated by hues of red but is also counteracted by Domee Shi‘s vision of a watercolor painting rendered in full 3D. This visual aesthetic is most present during the film’s cutaway dream sequences, where vivid images of unsettling nightmarish creatures plague Mei’s dreams or hazy fantasies of 4*Town flash onscreen, and serene moments of introspection take place in the divine astral realm.
Turning Red marks Pixar’s third consecutive win in a streak of original ideas beginning with Soul and followed by Luca. While franchise installments like Lightyear and Incredibles 2 make stakeholders happy, it’s films like Turning Red that tap into the ethos that made Pixar so great all those years ago. Domee Shi and co. have crafted a film that has all the makings of a Disney classic while embodying a personality and attitude that hasn’t been seen in any of their animated films prior.