As far back as I can remember, it has always been a tradition to see a new Pixar film on the big screen with my family. Each new release was another opportunity to get together for some of the best movies that the medium of animation has to offer, and better still, it was a chance for parent and child alike to connect on an often emotional and heart-wrenching level. Due to the ongoing pandemic, Pixar’s last two releases, 2020’s Soul and 2021’s Luca, sadly have forgone theaters completely, and Turning Red now joins them. All three of these movies are fantastic in their own way, and it is a shame that Disney did not give them a chance to thrive in a box office deprived of strong entertainment for families. Turning Red ranks as one of my favorites in the entire Pixar canon, an angsty, moving, manic, and frequently hilarious film layered with adult subtext and oozing with charm.
Mei (Rosalie Chiang) lives in a household with one strict rule: honor one’s parents. For years, Mei has done everything they ask of her, particularly her overbearing, obsessive mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). It is time for eighth grade though—Mei just turned thirteen, and now all bets are off! Like any child at this age, Mei is just starting to develop her sense of self, which includes an obsession with an N*Sync/Backstreet Boys/O-Town clone, called 4Town. As the movie is set in 2002, it allows for a bevy of brilliant cultural references without feeling silly, including Mei’s little Tamagotchi, a friend reading the newest “Nightfall” book, and an overt love of this era that could only come from real-life experiences.
Mei’s life is thrown into a literal tailspin after cutesy sketches she makes of a local convenience-store boy are discovered by her mother. Ming goes straight to the source, confronting Devon and presenting him with the embarrassing sketches that instantly cause Mei to be the laughing stock of the school. Mei wakes up the next day and she has become a red panda! She practically crushes her own bed and freaks out, hopping into the shower before Ming harasses her with every type of sanitary pad one could imagine. Ming at first assumes that the changes Mei is facing are related to her menstrual cycle. This is a strong narrative that needed to be told by the all-female creative team. Who else could write a line as brilliantly double-edged as when Ming asks matter-of-factly to her daughter: “did the red peony bloom?”
Now with a panda-sized problem, Mei manages to calm herself down enough to change back for the first time. Then it happens again at school, and it becomes clear this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Ming manages to chase her down after embarrassing her with a big boxful of pads in front of nearly everybody. As she confronts Mei, it becomes clear that both Ming and her husband knew it was only a matter of time until the red panda would reveal itself. An ancestral blessing once used for protection has now become an “inconvenience.” The only way to suppress the panda is by performing a ritual under the red moon—a full month away!
Having recently lost my own mother, I fell in love with the bond between mom and daughter in this movie. By the conclusion, I had tears in my eyes from the beauty of the script. Director/co-writer Domee Shi (who also made the excellent dumpling animated short Bao) wonderfully depicts this symbiotic relationship, painting with the strokes of her lived truth. Few Pixar films feel this specific or this special, while also maintaining their typical sense of fantastical glee. Those two elements commingle beautifully.
The animation style itself is also quite different from other Pixar movies, shying away from hyper-realistic depictions of recent entries and favoring super expressive characters. Each character design is varied, with the majority of them becoming integral to the story. Mei’s besties help her stay grounded to balance her emotions enough to poof back into a human when she becomes too overwhelmed. It remains refreshing when even the film’s stereotypical bully is more than meets the eye. The panda is big, fluffy, and adorable, and every second spent with this panda made me want to develop cute-eyes and hug it, similar to how several of the characters respond.
With an uproarious, crowd-pleasing conclusion that soars with fun and emotionality, Turning Red won me over effortlessly. I remain thankful that Pixar and Disney continue a partnership that has granted us innumerable instant-classic animated features so beloved they immediately fold into the cultural consciousness. It remains to be seen whether Turning Red can have the longevity of others like Toy Story or Monsters Inc., but it certainly soars with its uplifting messages of positivity and embracing one’s own flaws. Even though I could not take my mom to see it in theaters, I know she will be looking down with a smile. In Ming’s own words: “the farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.”
Turning Red is now streaming for free on Disney+, and one doesn’t even need to conduct a ritual for it to poof into existence!