Domee Shi’s feature debut about a teenage girl with an unusual power is Pixar’s best film in years.
Turning into animals or other mythic creatures is practically a Disney cliché at this point. Yet Domee Shi’s Turning Red puts an engaging spin on the conceit, employing it as a multifaceted metaphor for a number of adolescent growing pains, as well making ties to various aspects of cultural identity.
A self-proclaimed ‘adult’ of 13, Mei Lee is reaching a crossroads in her life. What she wants is beginning to clash with what her parents want for her. As in Shi’s excellent short film Bao – a silent story about a parent suffering from an empty nest – Turning Red depicts the traditions and textures of the family home as they are delicately unpacked via the adorable symbolism of Mei’s stress-induced transformation into a giant red panda.
The red panda comes to represent puberty and social anxiety, a parent’s fear of separation that comes with their children’s maturation, even generation-spanning matrilineal anxieties about being a perfect daughter. Even after three decades of Pixar productions, Turning Red’s perspective feels unique, concerned as it is with the awkward realities of girlhood, childish crushes and awkward sexual awakenings, all without openly manipulating the viewer into crying, as Pixar films are oft to do.
This kind of use of fantasy-as-allegory for parental anxieties and family history might recall Mamoru Hosoda for some, a filmmaker Shi is on record as being a big fan of, even quoting his 2018 film Mirai in one interaction between parent and child, as well as Mei leaping through the air in the exact pose of 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
Other such influences are woven into the visual texture of Turning Red as well as its narrative, as Shi accents sequences with the sparkling eyes, 2D impact frames and speed lines seen in so many an afterschool anime. There are other effects that recall the CG and hand-drawn hybrids of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the Netflix series Arcane. That mixture of visual reference makes Turning Red immediately stand out as one of Pixar’s more vibrant works, part of a welcome shift toward a more expressively cartoonish style compared to the drab pseudo-realism of something like Soul.
It bounces through a candy-coloured Toronto as seen through the eyes of “mildly annoying” (according to a teacher) 13-year-old overachiever, Mei. At the same time Ludwig Görransson’s score mixes catchy R&B grooves with traditional Chinese instruments, reflecting the push-and-pull between the Mei’s family clashing desires. Which is mostly the N-Sync adjacent fictional boy band 4-Town (their incredibly catchy songs written by Billie Eilish and produced by Görransson), which is a delightful highlight of the film’s extremely 2002 setting.
After its hyperactive introduction, Shi and co-writer Julia Cho’s story settles into an incredible comic rhythm, characterised by wonderfully sharp storyboarding and quickfire editing: an early standout sequence sees Mei profusely sweating as she draws increasingly deranged doodles of a local grocery store clerk as an attractive hunk (and mermaid).