Pixar is in an incredibly weird state. We can debate the merits of some of their “lesser” films all day, but by and large, actually feeling something as a result of a Pixar film is becoming rarer and rarer for many folks as they delve further into sequels and safer, dare I say, “Disney” scripts. Turning Red is one of the riskier projects they’ve done in years, and that wild swing paid off.
Directed by Domee Shi, who is Chinese-Canadian, the themes and overall feel of Turning Red immediately sets itself apart from many of Pixar’s predecessors. It’s weird, it moves quickly (in other words, it doesn’t waste your time or dwell on the saccharine), and it’s memorable. Centred around a 13-year-old girl named Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang)—affectionately known as “Mei” to her friends and family—this is a coming of age tale with an over-the-top allegory: Mei turns into a big red panda when she gets too emotional.
“Turning Red does a fantastic job of creating nuance, without overtly giving us a ‘villain’ in a moustache-twirling, cheesy fashion.”
At times (especially at the start, which is a lot of tone setting), the dialogue can get kind of cringey, as the co-writing team (which Shi is a part of) consists of a 40-something and a 30-something writing for kids in a 2002 setting. But it quickly evens out and becomes endearing as you start to learn more about this cast, and are introduced to all three generations of the Lee family.
Turning Red does a fantastic job of creating nuance, without overtly giving us a “villain” in a moustache-twirling, cheesy fashion. Sure, Pixar has always been dabbling with the “sympathetic villain” trope, but the genuine approach to storytelling, mostly via Shi’s own life experiences, informs Turning Red with an earnestness that other cartoon features can’t compete with.
Mei serving as an assistant temple keeper for her family is a striking uniquely cultural tale, and Sandra Oh is fantastic as her caring, yet quirky and stern mother. You can easily spot the connection and the chemistry between the two the first time they interact.
With that emotional core, Turning Red also isn’t afraid to get weird. There’s a mix of surreal Lynchian elements, generational trauma drama, boy band humour, and a relatable message of the trials and tribulations of growing up. It wraps all of that in a neat little package that’s unique to the film; unlike a lot of other works that seek to tell the same broad story with less heart. Turning Red is bizarre at times. I say this with love, it’s hard to believe this even got made, and that some specific parts were approved by executives. But I’m glad it exists, and Domee Shi shows us that Pixar could reestablish itself once again as a trendsetter.