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Disney+’s Turning Red Review: Pixar Transforms Period Perils Into A Warm, Fuzzy And Empowering Coming-Of-Age Tale

Domee Shi's directorial debut is a laugh out loud nostalgia-trip through the middle school days.

Panda Mei and her friends in Turning Red
(Image: © Pixar Animation)

Pixar’s Turning Red, a comedy about a young girl who one day suddenly transforms into a giant red panda, is somehow the most relatable Pixar film I’ve ever seen. Fantastical elements aside, the moment Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) discovers that she has become a large fluffy panda, there’s an awkwardness, uncomfortableness and weirdness that Pixar captures about what it’s like to be thirteen. I know I was still cute, innocent-looking at that age – but man, were my emotions big and red and confusing. Then, enter the voice of a mother trying to help relay a myriad of facts of life one doesn’t really want to deal with at that age. If I had seen this film before that time, I sincerely think that I may have felt less estranged by the milestone that is puberty. 

In that, Domee Shi’s Turning Red does what Pixar has always done at its best: it redresses a mundane element of life into something oozing with imagination. Since seeing Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Inside Out, I’ve never thought of the lonely toys in my closet, the “monsters” under my bed, or my own emotions the same way. Heck, the studio even romanticized alley rats for me after Ratatouille. This time around, the animation studio tackles the middle-school years with not only a rich concept, but a standout approach that garners laughs and a greater sense of empathy and expression for the coming-of-age experience, which is ever-changing but still universal from one generation to the next. 

Turning Red’s clever concept captures teen frustrations and desires thoughtfully. 

Meilin is an impassioned preteen living in Toronto in the early '00s, and already leading two lives before her red panda identity makes itself known. As she enters the film at the top of Turning Red in a fourth-wall-breaking monologue, she confidently explains that she is determined to be herself at the age of 13. She comes off as relaxed – cartwheeling through the streets, laughing with her friends, hitting all the right notes at school, and dressing how she pleases. 

But once her family duties call, her demeanor sees a sudden shift. Mei is suddenly the mini-me to her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) – beside her at the family business, making food together, acting agreeable to everything she says, and, most of all, hiding her true boy band-loving self. 

Clearly, there’s an internal rift developing for Mei between these two clashing identities. Things come to a head when Ming finds Mei’s lusty doodles of herself and a boy from the local market, publicly confronting the object of her daughters secret affections and blaming him for inspiring the feelings. Because, of course, how could her own daughter be crafting up these fantasies herself?

Only a day later, Mei magically transforms into a red panda, and after she does so, Turning Red begins to fully explore its deeper metaphors, operating both as a conversation about period perils and the push-and-pull of growing up in an immigrant family (while still successfully being light and hilarious). 

Dreamy pastels and a witty style takes Pixar animation to a refreshing place.

Following in the footsteps of Pixar's previous film, Luca, which felt like it was taking a note out of Studio Ghibli’s playbook, Turning Red has an energetic, fast-paced anime-influenced style that appears inspired by the likes of Sailor Moon. In some ways, the movie is less distinguishable as Pixar than ever, while in other ways it’s nice to see a feature that feels beautifully unabashed in trying to fit into the studio's mold. The film continues to see Pixar finding new footing and getting real weird with it in the best of ways. 

The movie uses its animation to bring in the viewer to the perspective of Meilin, who is wonderfully intense and obsessive while also being very likable and sweet. Pixar has always been incredibly detailed in the world design in its films, and this one sees writer/director Domee Shi explore and reminisce about a personally special era in a way in which no live-action story could do with quite as much artistic expression and fever dreaminess. And the concept is only elevated with the studio further dipping its toe into fantasy after Onward and Luca

Turning Red embraces the power of fandom, friendship and daughterhood with warmth and fun. 

What makes Turning Red particularly special is how it goes into the complexities of teen-dom by telling a simple story that sees Meilin and her friends attempt to live a dream and see their favorite boy band in concert. It’s a great setup to time capsule of growing up during the age of the Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC in this context. However, on a grander scale, it pinpoints how important being of a fandom can be to one’s upbringing. More importantly, it understands it. So often the boy-crazed teen is seen as manic and troubled, but in Turning Red, it communicates how being a fan is about building community with your friends and finding your place at a time when the world is a much smaller and scary place. 

Much like Mei, Turning Red as a film is doing a complex balancing act and not every plate spins with ease. But the aspect of the Pixar movie that is the most effective is the arc between Mei and her mother. From beginning to end, the movie keeps its focus on moving forward the complicated relationship gracefully. The result is a truly affecting and cathartic original story that fits beautifully in Pixar’s legacy, and one hopes its confidence will open the door to even more bold and deeply personal stories to be told by the studio.

YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.