Pixar has went back-to-back with great coming of age films, following up last year’s “Luca” with this superb animated feature.
Domee Shi, who helmed the Academy Award-winning short film “Bao”from 2018, directed and co-wrote this Pixar film. The movie is set in Toronto during 2002 and centers on Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a straight-A student who works hard to meet the high standards set by her mother (Sandra Oh).
At the same time, Mei is also a typical 13-year-old. She hangs out with a group of best friends and they enjoy boy bands and have crushes. She has a pretty good balance going on, but that begins to change when a mystical family spell that passes generation-to-generation turns her into a giant red panda.
While Mei spends half the movie as a panda, her journey through adolescence and puberty feels completely relatable, and makes for an endearing watch. There’s a genuineness in the writing that really powers this whole feature.
It’s an honest film that’s exceptionally funny and heartfelt. It’s also rather effective in exploring some of the difficulties that come from that age.
Mei is figuring out who she is, and it’s a process that doesn’t always make everyone happy. Shi’s film doesn’t shy away from showing how this happens, as well as the impacts it can have on relationships with parents and how one navigates school life.
There’s a charming authenticity on display, and the movie is freshened up with some originality via its mystical elements. Mei’s panda form gives the film a unique twist on the genre
The inclusion of the panda form also acts successfully in a metaphorical way at times, not unlike how the main characters in “Luca” were sea-people.
Mei’s arc isn’t the only thing powering”Turning Red,” though. While her story is compelling, she doesn’t carry the whole movie on her own, because the supporting characters are a blast.
Her group of friends are downright hilarious, but they’re not limited to just being comic relief sidekicks. The characters feel like a real group of friends who’re there for each other. The support Mei’s crew gives her through the panda situation is such a joy to watch unfold.
The movie also works thanks to Mei’s mother Ming. Early on, she’s a strict, overbearing mother who gives second-hand embarrassment to the audience. As the movie goes on, the viewer learns more about Ming’s struggles with her own mother, and how there’s been generational pressure to contain the panda.
The mother-daughter relationship between Ming and Mei not only provides humor, but also explores conforming to what a parent wants and what happens when new generations want to take their own path.
The film is also wonderfully diverse, both in terms of the writing and animation. Shi, drawing on her own upbringing as a Chinese-Canadian, not only succeeds in providing Asian representation, but also offers insight into her culture for audiences as well.
The animation is also visually wonderful. The character designs, for example, are all varied, multiple ethnicities are included and Mei’s crew are all different body shapes.
It’s also just good to look at. The Red Panda form is meticulously well animated, and the film has a quirky, fun style with a lot of vibrancy. There’s an especially great scene where Mei is jumping across rooftops at night under a red moon, switching back and forth between her human and panda forms to do so, and it’s a real treat.
“Turning Red” captures the awkwardness of being a teen, features lovable characters and addresses generational changes, all while boasting great animation and humor. While not every joke lands in the film and there maybe could have been more details resolved in the last bit of the movie, this is still a winning effort by Pixar. 4.75 out of 5.