Streaming Review

Turning Red review – Pixar’s latest is a stunning and transformative experience

Domee Shi’s feature debut is a highly personal, vibrant coming-of-age caper that sees its studio breaking new ground all over again

In Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi’s 2018 animated short Bao, a steamed bun functioned as a very literal but remarkably nuanced metaphor for a mother’s coddling love for her son. At the time, Shi quipped that she chose to make Bao about a mother and son because you’d need a whole feature for a mother and daughter.

With Turning Red, her Disney+ bound debut feature, Shi has seized her moment and made a film about exactly that – and so much more. Stunningly suffusing Eastern aesthetic and cultural influences with the kind of big-idea, big-hearted storytelling that defines Pixar’s finest, Shi has crafted a beautiful coming-of-age tale that celebrates self-discovery while taking the idea of embracing your wild side to a whole new level.

Drawing on her own childhood growing up in early 2000s Toronto – animated here with a nostalgic bubblegum glow that welcomely prioritises evoking our lead’s unique perspective over pure photorealism – Turning Red follows thirteen-year-old Meilin Lee (spry newcomer Rosalie Chiang), a confident, booksmart anime devotee with Katie Mitchell-worthy geek heroine credentials.

At school, Mei plays flute and fangirls over boyband 4*Town with besties Miriam, Priya, and Abby (a winning combo of Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park). At home, she's the mild-mannered apple of quiet father Jin (Orion Lee) and demanding mother Ming’s (Sandra Oh) eyes. She’s also, like most teenagers, a raging sea of hormones. Unlike most teenagers, however, when Mei’s emotions are heightened she turns into a giant – and adorably fluffy – red panda, something she only learns after her mother discovers her crush on a local store clerk.

If this was any other film, Mei’s transformation would be the jumping off point for a comedy about a young girl trying to hide her big secret from friends and family alike. But this isn’t any other film. After Mei’s mum realises her daughter’s “red peony” has not, in fact, bloomed – Shi doesn’t relegate Turning Red’s status as a metaphor for menstruation to the subtext, instead centring it with refreshing openness and razor sharp wit – she matter-of-factly tells her daughter that all Lee women have the trait, reassuring her that all will be fixed upon the next red moon.

The twist, then, is that while Mei’s mum does her best to make sure her golden child keeps the panda at bay, holding her daughter so close she risks pushing her away and isolating her from her friends, Mei actually finds herself coming to embrace the changes she’s experiencing and the opportunities it presents to be her entire self, unburdened by expectation.

There’s an undeniably Ghibliesque flair in Turning Red’s melding of whimsy and wisdom. But although many will see panda Mei and immediately think of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, it’s actually Ghibli’s other great master, Isao Takahata, that Shi’s film most powerfully recalls. The sensitive handling of romantic stirrings and puberty’s onset echoes of Taeko’s childhood memories in Only Yesterday, while the wide-mouthed, big-eyed expressions of her characters bring the Yamadas to mind. A moonlight flight from home in pursuit of freedom during the film’s tremendous climax has all the beauty and kinetic thrust of that gorgeous palace escape in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, another film with familial tradition and individualistic rebellion weighing heavily on its mind.

Turning Red’s litany of references, from Ghibli to Kaiju cinema to noughties boyband balladry (Finneas and Billie Eilish’s pop pastiches are dangerously earwormy), offer plenty to catch the eye and ear, but Shi’s own personal touches and distinctive voice are what win the heart. Mei’s world is lovingly filled with the textures, tastes, and rituals of Shi’s own immigrant upbringing in Toronto – orange slices and conversational Cantonese ground the fantasy elements in something proudly human, proudly Chinese – while every exchange has a natural ebb and flow that could only come from lived experience.

The final, long-awaited exchange that the movie builds towards isn’t just one shared between a mother and child who have loved, misunderstood, and seen themselves reflected in each other deeply, but feels instead like a conversation across generations of Asian women that Shi has been waiting for a chance to commit to film and doesn’t take for granted.

With its wonderfully maximalist animation working perfectly in tandem with an intimate, low-stakes story about a teenage girl who learns to love her new self, Pixar have once again produced something from such a specific place that it transcends itself to offer an experience that comes to feel entirely universal. Sure, it's teenage girls will who likely leave this film feeling most seen and validated, but Turning Red promises to be a transformative picture for anyone who’s ever found themselves torn between embracing their inner freak and sticking to the status quo.

Turning Red is available to stream on Disney+ from 11 March.

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