Turning Red, 2022.
Directed by Domee Shi.
Featuring the voice talents of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Jordan Fisher, Grayson Villanueva, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo, Finneas O’Connell, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, and Addie Chandler.
A 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Without diving into how and why just yet, it’s safe to say that most will associate the central plot of Turning Red with the awkward inner chaos of puberty. Mei Lee (excitable voice of Rosalie Chiang) is an overachieving 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl with a small healthy circle of friends (each with a distinct personality beyond diverse ethnicity). Chief among their interests is a fictional boy band called 4*Town led by the voice of Finneas O’Connell (playing a character) that organically triggers a sexual awakening. Due to a family history involving red pandas, the women of this tribe begin a phase where they shapeshift into a giant anthropomorphic version of the animal, but only when something heightens their emotions. If those emotions are kept in check, the body returns to human form or simply doesn’t transform at all.
Co-written and directed by Pixar animator Domee Shi (scribing alongside Julia Cho), the concept alone makes for a specific target demographic and a bold storytelling idea that could have resulted in disaster. Such catastrophe is avoided mainly because the filmmakers have chosen to rewind the clock to the early 2000s, presumably to draw inspiration from their youth to convey these complex and shifting feelings. There’s less of a pressure to nail the vibe of whatever 13-year-olds are up to today, but enough liberty is taken to ensure that the overall depiction of early teenagehood is sincere and authentic. Plus, there are some anarchistic touches for modern-day youth (this is the only movie where you will see twerking come into play during the final battle) that are typically cringe-worthy but in a good way since they come from a place of realism.
Smartly, Turning Red doesn’t just stick to functioning as a puberty metaphor, as Mei’s mom, Ming (voice of frequent Disney collaborator Sandra Oh), is an overprotective guardian not allowing her daughter the freedom to grow into her identity. Anyone that has ever had a parent go out of their way to restrict suggestive material, especially music, will find something to relate to. Here, the questionable content is a 4*Town concert at the Toronto SkyDome that Mei wants to attend with her friends. Unfortunately, Ming disapproves, further pressuring Mei to maintain a high GPA and stick to working hard at a nearby temple, molding her into a perfect reputable daughter. It’s also known that Ming suffered a similar rift with her mother, although the story somewhat lacks in exploring those generational dynamics. This means instructing Mei to repress the beast inside her, representing any number of things from nurturing friendships, setting aside personal time for something like a concert, and sexual curiosity.
Another brilliant move is the aforementioned choice to collaborate with Finneas O’Connell, who may be the performer here but has written songs for the movie alongside his worldwide famous and unbelievably talented sister Billie Eilish, who has already dabbled in penning songs about sexual awakenings. Again, the music here is primarily riffs on popular boy band songs from the turn of the century, but with this sibling duo writing, there is a strong feeling that the works will resonate with the target demographic. It also helps that Shi has been granted plenty of creative freedom, implementing numerous amusing sequences that don’t shy away from the horny element.
Chinese ancestry is also at play, allowing for some mystically striking and colorful visual segments (and no doubt several more minor authentic touches that you should seek in reviews from Chinese authors). Admittedly, Ming’s authoritarian parenting initially comes across as grating and over-the-top for an animated feature trying to explore sensitive subjects such as sexuality and familial approval, but it does become more understandable and tolerable once her awareness of the red panda is explained. From there, Turning Red is a consistently hilarious romp that sees Mei learning and figuring out what she wants to do with these changes and who she is becoming.
While raising money to purchase concert tickets, Mei and her friends essentially put on a comic convention hidden away in the school posing for paid photo ops, showing that for all the serious themes working in conjunction with one another, this is also silly fun. One downside is that the film never quite reaches memorable emotional highs but remains enjoyable to watch.
As with every Pixar review, it’s also worth mentioning that the animation is once again highly impressive, whether it be the squishing and subsequent deflation of a basketball or the detailed fur. There are also imaginative hybrid concepts of Mei and the red panda, so it’s also safe to say that Pixar is pro-furry. And maybe that sounds weird or offputting to some, but another key message to Turning Red is being yourself, but not in the traditional sense. Above all else, this movie encourages everyone to let out their weird side and not judge others. Similarly, Pixar should continue to make weird animated features if they will be as enchanting as Turning Red.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com