The debut feature film of Pixar prodigy Domee Shi tells an all too familiar tale of the awkward in-between stage of being thirteen years old–but with a magical twist. Shi, whose stunning Pixar short Bao marked her as one to watch, pushes the boundaries of the animation studio by bringing a coming of age tale that has a cast of refreshingly diverse characters and tackles ‘taboo’ topics and heavier subject matter.
Turning Red is the passion project that makes Domee Shi the first woman to solo direct a Pixar Movie, it draws from her personal experience growing up as a Chinese Canadian living in Toronto in the early 2000s. Mei Lee (voiced superbly by Rosalie Chiang) is thirteen and is torn between her excitable life at school with her quirky gaggle of girlfriends and the mounting pressures of being the perfect daughter to her mother (Sandra Oh). All hell breaks loose when one morning, Mei wakes up and sees a ginormous Red Panda looking back at her in the mirror. It becomes apparent that Mei can keep the Panda at bay when she is in control of her emotions, but when she feels things intensely – as most teenagers do – the Panda comes out again.
Turning Red is told from a very specific cultural perspective of a Chinese-Canadian daughter of immigrants; this is a long-overdue representation for Pixar. This specific setting, however, is not alienating in any way as Shi tells the story in such an open, affectionate way that invites every viewer to relish in the humour and resonate with the emotion. It has an exceptional quality of universality to it, tapping into common teenage anxieties such as the crushing devastation of being embarrassed by a parent. Turning Red treats teenage girls and their issues and obsessions with such affection and fondness, the film takes them entirely seriously and embraces the so-called cringeworthy.
The way that puberty is approached is refreshing; to even have pads being shown on screen feels like a radical move in a society that is unwilling to show such things, especially in films aimed at a younger audience. Furthermore, it takes on the heavy theme of tackling generational trauma but with a sensitive, well-rounded approach. Mei’s Mother, Ming, is voiced excellently by Sandra Oh, who brings a quality of warmth, as well as her sharp sense of humour to an already hilarious script. Turning Red is not interested in villainising Ming; in a way that feels reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, we get a well-rounded picture painted of Mei’s mother. We get to see a vulnerable side and are exposed to the pressure she felt as a young girl. She and Mei’s relationship, though difficult at times, is ultimately full of love.
Turning Red is a definite departure from Pixar’s usual style and pushes the studio in all the right directions both thematically and stylistically. The film has a fast-paced momentum and a slick editing style that drives the narrative and paces itself perfectly. The characterisation leans into comedy and the cartoon-like quality that makes animation such an exciting and playful medium. Pixar has never looked so vibrant in its characterisation, perfectly toeing the line between showing cartoon-esque, hilarious facial expressions and subtly nuanced emotions. This is a refreshing change in the landscape of animation and Disney productions becoming more and more obsessed with replicating reality. The influence of anime on the film is evident from the very beginning, Shi is an anime superfan and this inspiration brings an extra level of depth and comedy to the visual style. There are direct references to specific films and TV, such as a nod to Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl who Leapt Through Time. There are also more general visual cues to anime influences, such as the use of colourful backdrops to character close-ups, which enhance intense emotions, and the lavender and pink evening skies that feel familiar to any anime fan. These small details and additions bring a breath of fresh air to an arguably tired Pixar formula. Turning Red is a unique and daring expedition into a more interesting animation style for the studio. The visual style has a cinematic quality, the film is permeated with shots that wouldn’t feel out of place in an 80’s coming-of-age classic or even a Sofia Coppola film.
Turning Red is many things: an exploration of mother-daughter relationships, a story of being the child of immigrant parents and a film about the unpredictability and difficulty of puberty. Above all else though, Turning Red is a story about the magic of friendship and the unconditional love in a group of young girls. It is this love that allows us to embrace the strange, loud and intensely emotional parts of our personality, that we have been told, as girls and women, to hide away for too long.
Turning Red and its accompanying documentary, Embrace The Panda, are now streaming on Disney+.
by Chloe Slater
Chloe (she/her) is a film fanatic and proud northerner hailing from West Yorkshire. She is currently studying an MA in Film Studies at The University of Manchester. She has an affinity for Japanese animation, fantasy films and anything that Greta Gerwig touches! Outside of her love for film, she is a big football fan, supporting Blackburn Rovers. Chloe can also be found playing guitar and bass or watching live music. Favourite films include: Spirited Away, Ladybird, Lost in Translation, Frances Ha, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.