“Turning Red” is Pixar’s first film directed by a woman. The studio, founded in 1986, is perhaps the most influential animation studio in the west, yet one that progresses at a snail’s pace. Still, “Turning Red” is well worth the wait; director Domee Shi delivers a film that’s submerged in femininity and that stands amongst Pixar’s most endearing and emotionally intelligent movies, a time capsule of the early aughts that will make you want to hug your mom and your best friends.
Set in Toronto, the story centers on Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiaing), a Chinese-Canadian 13-year-old girl caught between the warring interests of her parents and her friends. While her teen years haven’t been painless, Mei has been managing to keep her family and her social life separate, nurturing both yet keeping them apart. Her mom Ming (Sandra Oh) has no idea Mei is already obsessed with boys, and her friends (voiced by Ava Morse, Hyein Park, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) never understand why it’s so difficult to see Mei outside of school. It takes an abrupt red panda transformation for Mei to question why she’s hiding parts of herself. Mei’s metamorphosis doesn’t come out of the blue — the women in her family have long been struggling with the curse, transforming into adorable yet formidable red pandas when their emotions get out of hand. They’ve devised a ritual to be performed in a full moon, separating the panda and allowing them to live their normal lives.
Mei is horrified when she first transforms into the red panda. She runs and hides in the bathroom, calling herself a monster and feeling disgusted by all of the hair and smells that emanate from her new body, a scene that sounds more “PEN15” than Pixar. While Ming fights to disguise Mei’s new self, Mei’s friends embrace the change, making a hustle out of her new power and using it to gather the money they need to attend 4*Town’s concert, the boyband they’re obsessed with.
“Turning Red” is incredibly special. The animation is vibrant and expressive, and the music is fun and catchy, composed by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, who deliver three original songs that feel like a perfect mix between Backstreet Boys and BTS. All of this would make “Turning Red” a great film, but its true magic lies in the way it leans into the feminine parts of the story. While the whole world can relate to the perils of puberty, there’s something audacious about using a red panda as a metaphor for girlhood. As much as “Turning Red” is a movie about a girl with panda superpowers, it’s also a story about the first inklings of sexuality and of becoming a different person than the one your family expects.
“Turning Red” premieres on Disney+ this March 11th.