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‘Turning Red’ Review: Pixar’s newest is a refreshingly frank take on teenage anxiety

Pixar's groundbreaking project runs the gamut from teen dramedy to action epic, and is timelier than perhaps any of the studio's previous efforts.
Credit: Disney/Pixar

What is it about the release of a new Pixar movie lately that gets us sweaty over whether or not they’ll pull it off? 

Oh come on, dear reader, surely you’ve thought the same at one point or another—especially if you’ve grown up with these films, the increasingly higher standard we expect each one to meet and their general reliability for never stumbling in the process (the less said about “Cars 2,” the better). Maybe it’s because of that mindset that Pixar movies feel more and more homogenous with every new one. How close is a successful formula to becoming a glaring sign of a studio happily stuck in its ways? 

Enter Meilin Lee – Mei, for short – the nuclear-powered pinball of a protagonist at the center of the forthcoming “Turning Red,” a kinetic, nuanced, intergenerational story about how family can smother as much as it can empower. Chaotically precocious even by Disney’s standards, Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) lives in Toronto’s Chinatown neighborhood with her parents, from whom she’s inherited a certain burden of expectation and flaunts it with enough confidence to power Canada. She’ll have to settle for powering one of the most non-Pixar-seeming Pixar movies in a long while. 

The studio may be renown for finding poetry in a robot’s post-apocalyptic wanderings and the existential plights of toys, but “Turning Red” – a superb feature debut for director Domee Shi unjustly skipping theaters as a Disney+ arrival – zigs and zags with such intensity that it more closely resembles the hyperspeed storytelling of a Phil Lord/Chris Miller production than the artistic ethos which made the overly deliberate “Soul” just over a year ago.

Maybe it’s only for the folks at Pixar for whom a freewheeling sense of filmmaking volatility could be considered a mark of growth, but in addition to being precise, their best films are also deeply purposeful. That remains true for “Turning Red.” It just so happens that its energy is unwieldy, unpredictable and a bit unmoored. 

In other words, a teen’s energy. Mei – whom we meet in direct address, a clever screenwriting twist disguising requisite world-building as a one-woman hype train – is at that point in life when overflowing reservoirs of pride and ability threaten to short-circuit her most important relationships. “The No. 1 rule in my family: honor your parents,” she says early on, and though it sounds just a bit rehearsed, she’s resolute enough that you feel when she starts to be pulled in two directions. 

What Mei and her best friends are really living for (between crushing on the clerk at the corner market and succumbing to uncontrollable pangs of desire) is the upcoming concert featuring megapopular boy band 4-Town, whose tunes Mei’s mother simply can’t stomach. Ming (Sandra Oh) insists she’s only looking out for her daughter’s best interests. When Mei sprouts the bushy paws and tail of a red panda, jumpstarting a Lee family ritual and an apt metaphor for the fragile time of puberty, the helicopter parenting no longer becomes something Mei can simply slam her bedroom door in the face of. 

Locked by Shi into the hyperactive subjectivity of a young girl who acts like she’s ready to skip her teenage years altogether, you might find yourself equal parts frazzled and electrified by “Turning Red.” Vivid visuals turn exaggerated at a moment’s notice as Mei and her friends sprout bubbly anime eyes, and the director has a knack for turning the painfully relatable and anxiety-inducing into something wholly exciting to witness. Has a Pixar movie ever moved this fast before? Has a Pixar protagonist ever felt so due for certain truths about the way the world really works before? 

Even if the answer is no, “Turning Red” will compel older audience members to squirm as they wonder when the unstoppable force that is Mei’s family meets the immovable object of teenage impulse. The screenplay, penned by Shi and Julia Cho, smartly circumnavigates the most predictable version of that collision in ways that make narrative and emotional sense; Pixar has mastered the reality-bites metaphor over two dozen movies, but just when you expect the script’s machinery to start groaning, it’s instead greased with newfound dimension as Mei eagerly starts using her cuddly metamorphosing to her money-raising advantage. 

It’s been three years since Domee Shi won an Oscar for her wonderful animated short “Bao”—a feat only four Pixar shorts accomplished previously. “Turning Red” fulfills the promise by tightening its grasp on themes of parental concern and adolescent angst. If Pixar has indeed continued to tell stories that are as much for kids as for those who were kids when “Toy Story” released in 1995, the fact that “Turning Red” comes to be as concerned about Ming’s reckoning with familial tradition should resonate with any Pixar fans starting to have children of their own. 

It’s evident in its approach to that side of the story how “Turning Red” is one of the studio’s most contemporary efforts, and I realize that’s a funny thing to say given how it breaks new ground in 3-D animation with virtually every project. Regardless, it’s notable that “Turning Red marks the first all-women writing and directing team to lead a Pixar film; as overdue a step as that is for a company with a founding father who left after several allegations of misconduct toward women, it’s also represented in the story’s frank and audaciously timely point of view. “Turning Red’s” Toronto is culturally diverse, its approach as realistic as it is diverting, its emotional integrity sturdy yet malleable.

It’s impossible to avoid the stab of recognition, for example, when Ming explains how the family’s rite of ursine transformations was once a blessing that became an inconvenience. There’s wisdom in that recognition, in how circumstances change not just over time but also when placed in a new context. That’s how it feels with this film, which mirrors the general thematic landscape of Pixar’s last effort, “Luca,” even as the two couldn’t be more different in style or verve. The pathos is familiar even as the circumstances are extraordinary, though for how much “Turning Red” ends up hewing far closer to kaiju fare than audiences are likely expecting, it ends up being possibly the least fantastical story in the Pixar canon. Not the least of its many real-world truths: Never underestimate the all-powerful might of a crooning boy band. 

Yet Shi’s film is fantastic – fantastically sweet, funny and grounded – and along with “Luca” provides a sure sign that it may serve Pixar well not to take themselves so seriously all the time. For now, “Turning Red” increasingly signals a future where they might not have to anymore.

"Turning Red" is rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content and language. Streaming on Disney+ Friday. 1 hour, 40 minutes. 

Starring: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Orion Lee 

Directed by Domee Shi




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