I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way.
I do not believe that I am able to fully appreciate all of the nuance, detail, and insight that Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Turning Red, has to offer. How can I? I am a middle-aged white man from the South. I do not have the lived experience of a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl. I do not know what it is like to see the world through those eyes. I don’t know what it’s like to live that scene or move through the world with those expectations and that cultural heritage on my shoulders. As such, Turning Red is a film not made for me.
And that is partially what makes it great.
Instead, Turning Red is a film to which I opened my mind. I took in a hint of what that world might feel like. I will never be able to fully understand that lived experience, but writer/director Domee Shi doesn’t care at all. Rather, she writes what she knows. She offers up slices of her own past, her own culture, and her own familial relations and fashions a fast-paced, poignant, and kind of revolutionary new Pixar film. It’s thematically and visually unlike any Pixar you’ve seen before, and if you’re willing to open your mind to the experience, I’m confident it’s one you’ll thoroughly enjoy.
The film focuses on Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), whose great grades and slavish obedience make her the jewel of her mother’s (Sandra Oh) eye. When Mei discovers an unexpected attraction to a neighborhood boy, strange things start to happen. And by “strange things” I mean she turns into a giant red panda. The only way she can return to “normal” (let’s revisit that in a minute) is to find ways to bring her wildly varying emotions under control.
For me, the great fun of the film lives in its world building. This anime-accented variation of Mei’s neighborhood and school are all populated with interesting and inclusive characters that support the central theming in compelling ways. Don’t get me wrong — there’s little nuance here. This isn’t Drive My Car. Yet what remains is a strong vision of the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl who’s a total emotional wreck. Her relationships are all high drama, and her adventures are all comically outsized.
Also found in the pleasures of the film’s world building are the gorgeous and purposefully exaggerated visuals. The entire film looks like it was painted with spools of cotton candy. I’ve already talked about Shi’s style of “chunky cute,” and even though Pixar departs from its photorealistic style here, the visuals are equally as compelling as anything in Ratatouille or Finding Nemo. Pixar excels at creating richly populated words full of luscious detail and amusing site gags. Turning Red delivers on that front as well.
I loved the first two-thirds of the film so much that the traditional climax inevitably feels slightly deflating. For one thing, there’s a twist I guessed fairly early in the film. I’m not some genius, though. I suspect most will see it coming a mile away. That coupled with the intersection of teen rebelliousness, family honor, and a boy band called 4*Town (which has five members) leads to a meltdown of a truly silly action climax. I’m not sure how I would have ended it, and it’s very likely that my inevitable second (and third if I’m being honest) viewing will smooth out my objections.
Regardless, Turning Red is a film that I’m thrilled exists. It serves an audience that rarely sees not only themselves on screen but representations going through real world problems. Yes, I’m talking about a Disney/Pixar film tackling teen girl menstruation both literally and metaphorically. It’s something I never thought I’d see, and I’m happy to share it with my 14-year-old daughter. Plus, without giving too much away, I applaud the film for refusing to see Mei’s gift as abnormal. The film’s greatest accomplishment is giving us a message of love and acceptance.
And that’s the most important — most universal — message of all.
Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red debuts exclusively on Disney+ on Friday, March 11.