Turning Red review: Unashamedly female

Pixar’s first female-directed film is a beautifully resonant coming-of-age tale

Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, and James Hong

Isn’t puberty just the worst? There’s just no sugar coating it. Your body, once unassuming and dainty, is soon alien – lumbering, gangly, awkward. Hair sprouts in places you’ve barely even looked at before. It’s a genetic lottery. Your own face staring back out of the mirror is no longer yours. You don’t quite know where it’s going to end up. And that’s just visually – not to mention the veritable hormonal tsunami that lingers beyond the surface, turning the obedient, pliant, eager-to-please child into a bristling, surly teenager, still desperate to please but more desperate to be seen.

It’s a challenge for even the most well adjusted to navigate. That’s precisely how it finds Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She does incredibly well at school, has a small group of close friends, and even helps out with her mother and father’s family business. That is, until one day, where the boyband obsessed Mei discovers that, due to a family condition, she turns into a red panda in moments of high emotion. While Mei’s family prepare themselves for a ritual to rid Mei of her panda spirit, she and her friends desperately attempt to attend a 4*Town concert.

While Mei’s problems are far more anthropomorphic than most, it doesn’t stop this coming-of-age tale from being any less prescient or deeply personal. This is perhaps unsurprising considering Domee Shi’s previous directorial work on Bao. Even though just a short animation played before the hotly anticipated Incredibles 2 back in 2018, Bao made a significant impression on viewers with its depiction of an empty nester, desperate to have a place to store her love after her child leaves home. Winning an Academy Award for its efforts, it is clear that Shi brings the personal to her work in a way that makes it feel even more relatable despite the specificity of the included elements.

Turning Red, despite its focus upon the highly specific situation of Mei, as a Chinese-Canadian teenager in the early noughties, obsessed with boyband 4*Town, still manages to appeal to universal experiences. The awkwardness of adolescence, for one – especially female, the all-consuming nature of feeling in early teenage years, from doodling hearts around your crush’s name to getting overwhelmingly irate at your parents the next. For being desperate for your parents approval and never feeling like you amount to their expectations for your life whilst also attempting to carve your own path and identity. And, on the flipside, the difficulty of parents to navigate the change that comes with ageing children.

In amongst this, Turning Red presents a narrative in which the protagonist learns to embrace herself and be a good child without losing her own identity. It addresses many concepts, from body image, to unresolved generational pain, to internalised shame. It also manages to depict a mother-daughter relationship which grows and evolves without demonising Mei’s mother Ming (Sandra Oh). Instead, it presents Ming as an adult who is defined by her own childhood neuroses passed on by her mother, and one who has built her life around caring for her child and guiding her towards what she thinks is best and is learning to let her go and how she can reset her own life with that tremendous space left within it.

The animation style throughout is delicious and matches Mei’s infectious energy perfectly. While the backgrounds and environments are highly realistic and dramatic, the characters themselves possess exaggerated features with anime-inspired physiques. The facial expressions themselves are gorgeously over-the-top and goofy and really enhance the teenage element of the story without proving distracting from the narrative. The direction is particularly strong and cohesive, and Shi clearly thrives with this storytelling format. There’s never a sense of the story being limited by the constraints of animation, and Shi pulls out a variety of different shot angles which keep the audience engaged and almost forgetting that everything is computer generated.

Searingly personal, Turning Red shucks off Pixar’s previous existential instalments to give a grounded, emotional and realistic coming-of-age tale that is wonderfully relatable.

Turning Red is streaming on Disney+

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