For the past decade, the genre of coming-of-age films has been in high demand. Disney Pixar contributes to this trend with the new animated film Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi, the first woman to ever direct a Pixar film. The movie tells the tale of a young girl grappling with the changes of adolescent life through a curse— one that turns her into a giant red panda.
The film takes place in 2002, where Meilin (Mei) Lee is a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Toronto. Everyday she helps her mother, a strict and overbearing figure in her life, and attempts to make her proud by cleaning their ancestral temple. Mei hides her personal life from her mother, including much of what she does with her friends, as well as her crush on a boy working at a convenience store. When Mei’s mother finds out about the boy, she becomes outraged. Racked with shame and embarrassment, Mei’s emotions and the ancestral curse that plagues her family causes her to transform into a giant red panda.
She tries to hide from her parents and friends, but learns to control the transformation by staying in touch with her emotions and imagining her friends to calm down. Her parents find out about her transformation, and inform her of the curse; to keep Mei safe, her parents insist on completing a ritual to seal the “panda side” of Mei away permanently— an act that Mei isn’t confident she wants to complete.
Becoming increasingly rebellious to her family’s expectations, Mei learns how to live not only with the panda, but through the hardships of growing up and understanding the love of her parents.
The film doesn’t fail in the slightest to present a wide array of fun and incredible performances. Most notably is Rosalie Chang as Mei, and Sandra Oh as Ming Lee, Mei’s mother. The voice acting in the film truly does a great job at conveying all the complex emotions that the family goes through, especially with Oh’s performance of Ming and her cold, strict demeanor. Contrastely, Chang gives a warm and energetic performance with Mei, a highlight of the film.
The film’s animation is entrancing enough to reach out and pull the audience into the world of Turning Red. The bustling city of Toronto is animated beautifully throughout the movie, and the whole film has a soft, pastel palette, creating a delicate feel. The animated fur of the red pandas is incredibly noteworthy, with a stunning attention to detail that is hard to take your eyes off of.
The underlying theme of the film makes it truly great. Using the “curse” of the panda as a symbol for puberty and the struggles of growing up, Turning Red reaches out to adults and adolescents through a universally shared experience. Although not very subtle with its themes, it still presents an accurate account of the messy and often uncomfortable times that occur while growing into young adulthood, as well as the familiar struggles that accompany that change. It also touches on the stressors of parent expectations, and how they can be damaging to children growing up, especially as they begin to become their own person.
Overall, Turning Red is a visually enjoyable and more importantly flat out fun film, one that is definitely going to be up there with the Disney Pixar “greats.” Out now on Disney+, it’s a fantastic animated film for all ages.