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Pixar unleashes fluffy, colorful gem in 'Turning Red'

Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times (TNS)

In "Turning Red," 13-year-old Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) lives a very normal life, mostly. The only child in a warm Chinese Canadian family, she gets good grades at secondary school, hangs with her three besties, helps her mother run their ancestral family temple, enjoys her dad's cooking and occasionally — in the way of 13-year-olds everywhere — gets a little dramatic. Oh, and sometimes she turns into a giant red panda.

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That's the charming, offbeat concept at the center of the latest Pixar gem, the debut feature of director Domee Shi (whose enchanting Pixar short "Bao" screened with "Incredibles 2" a few years back) available on Disney+. "Turning Red" has a sense of grounded realness to it; set in 2002 Toronto (where Shi grew up), it's full of the details of real life: the red Toronto streetcars, the weary-looking lockers in the school hallways, the steam off a perfectly cooked stir fry, the not-quite-outgrown little-girl trinkets in Meilin's bedroom. Which makes Meilin's first transformation, fairly early in the film, a delightful shock; you knew a Pixar movie would have something like this up its sleeve, but you don't quite see this coming.

The panda, which quickly becomes a verb ("you'll get whipped up into a frenzy and panda all over the place," Meilin is warned), is of course a metaphor for puberty. Meilin, a bit older than a typical Pixar heroine (Riley of "Inside Out" — a film that feels in some ways like a prequel for this one — is 11), is at a crossroads: She loves both stuffed animals and boy bands; adores her parents but prefers to be with her friends; and is cringingly embarrassed by her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), who's trying her best to parent an ever-changing daughter sometimes unrecognizable as her little girl. Quite literally unrecognizable: That panda emerges in a cloud of red smoke, whenever Mei gets upset or overcome — which is, for a 13-year-old, quite often.

From left,  Abby, voiced by Hyein Park, Miriam, voiced by Ava Morse, Priya, voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Mei Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, are seen in a scene from "Turning Red."

It's new territory for a Pixar movie to make references to menstruation (Ming, misinterpreting why a panda'd Mei is hiding in the bathroom, dramatically asks, "Did the red peony bloom?"), but Shi and screenwriter Julia Cho present a sweet, graceful ode to growing up. I watched wishing "Turning Red" could be watched on an enormous screen — there are scenes as lovely as any Pixar classic, particularly a fantasy sequence involving an ancient scroll — and that movies like this had been around when I was Mei's age. We've all got an inner beast, Shi reminds us, and taming it isn't too hard — as long as you have friends (and boy bands) on your side.

‘TURNING RED’

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Running time: 1:40

MPAA rating: PG (for thematic material, suggestive content and language)

Where to watch: on Disney+ Friday