Pixar unleashes fluffy, colorful gem in 'Turning Red'
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.
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.
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.
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