Earlier this year when Disney announced that Pixar’s Turning Red is skipping cinemas and will show up exclusively on Disney+ instead, I have to admit it was a real bummer. Having seen the trailers each time I went for a Disney screening since last year, I figured its overall vibrant and feel-good vibes would be best experienced on the big screen.
Well, Turning Red sure doesn’t disappoint when comes to fulfilling the aforementioned vibes that are already promised in the trailers. The animation looks visually striking no matter the characters, the furry red panda or the Toronto-set background. Co-writer and director Domee Shi, making her first feature-length debut after her acclaimed 2018 short Bao, even transports us back to the early 2000s. Or more specifically, 2002 — the year where boy band manias were all the rage and Shi certainly knows how to crank up the nostalgia factor to her advantage.
The film also gives us 4*Town (the name that immediately reminds me of O-Town, best known for “All or Nothing” and “Liquid Dreams”), the fictional boy band that our dorky 13-year-old Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) adores very much. And so does her three best friends and fellow classmates Miriam (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park) and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan).
When the film introduces Mei, we learn that she’s an overachiever in school and super-obedient all the time. Right to the point where she spends most of her free time after school helping her parents (Sandra Oh, Orion Lee) run their family temple. Then one day, something unexpected has happened to her: She wakes up one morning and finds out she’s a giant red panda. Naturally, she freaks out about it and she soon discovers the only thing to transform back into a human form is to stay calm.
The furry and chubby-looking red panda definitely screams cuteness overload and while the film has a fair share of fun-filled moments, what interests me the most is the way Domee Shi subtly slips in relatable themes of puberty and teenage sexuality involving Mei. Turning Red nevertheless works well as a delightful coming-of-age story, at least for the most parts of the film.
The film is also heavy on the allegorical touches of embracing your true self and of course, exploring freedom, as seen from Mei’s perspective. She’s been longing to break free from all the restrictions that her overprotective tiger mom expected her to be a fully-committed, dutiful daughter. She loves 4*Town but her mom doesn’t like the fact she sees them as an idol, let alone giving her the money to attend their concert. The mother-daughter dynamic that explored their vastly different mindsets — one’s a conservative and the other is both repressive and rebellious teenager — not only add layers to their characters but also made the film all the more thematically relevant for (most) people who has gone through the same stage.
Of course, it also helps that the voice cast — notably newcomer Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh — deliver top-notch performances. I’m glad the film doesn’t look like it tries hard to be multicultural just for the sake of being all-inclusive. Instead, it’s nice to see the racially-diverse characters featured in Turning Red has a more lived-in quality.
However, for all the good things in Turning Red, the film is far from qualifying as one of Pixar’s best entries. This is especially true with the obligatory, yet somewhat lengthy big climax during the final third act. As visually spectacular as it may seem, the film looks as if it tries too hard to go all out with its fantastical mythology of the red panda spirit, complete with rituals and chants.
Turning Red is currently streaming on Disney+. Remember not to click away after the ending since there’s a brief post-credits scene.