Set in 2002 Toronto, Pixar’s Turning Red is clearly a deeply personal story for its Chinese-Canadian writer-director Domee Shi, but that doesn’t stop its setting from also having a meta kick. This coming-of-age dramedy takes place in the era during which Pixar were perhaps at the height of their inventiveness, releasing the kinds of emotionally complex and technologically astounding works that surely helped inspire Shi herself (who would have been 15 at the time) to break into animation. Turning Red doesn’t leap to the same heights as that golden era of Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc etc, but it is one of the more lively and purely enjoyable Pixars of recent years, an unapologetic celebration of the embarrassment of teenagehood.
Meilin (Rosalie Chang) has just turned 13 as the story starts and, along with her three best friends, has found a new independent streak, one that she’s having to hide from her strict and overprotective mum Ming (Sandra Oh). What is harder to hide, though, is her sudden overnight transformation into a giant red panda, a hereditary condition that marks the start of puberty in the women of her family. Bigger, hairier, and stinkier, this panda-fication is an obvious allegory for puberty itself, but Shi makes sure that this transformation is always more than just a metaphor.
For one, the realities of non-panda puberty are not sidestepped, but dealt with calmly and brusquely in the opening 15 minutes, which allows the panda moments to embrace some pure cartoon fun. The stretchy and springy art style lends itself to set-pieces that are at once funny and adorable (the panda design is absurdly cute) as Meilin bounces around Toronto in a chaotic red blur. Shi wears her anime influences on her sleeve, from general design choices to specific shoutouts, granting a manic energy to Turning Red that feels genuinely new for Pixar, an energy that it’s a shame to see relegated to an exclusively Disney+ release. There are plenty of scenes that just cry out for the big screen, not least the mouthwatering cooking sequences, for which Shi reserves the most photorealistic animation.
Also relatively new for the studio is the simplicity of the central message here – there’s none of the layered metaphors about parenthood from the Toy Story trilogy or the still extraordinarily bold lessons about emotional balance from Inside Out – which basically comes down to ‘be yourself, good and bad’. It’s hardly a bad message, but its familiarity does rob the story of some emotional power – I found the moments of joyous friendship moving, but the conflict between teen daughter and her myopically controlling mother felt like pretty bog-standard fare.
It’s an issue that mostly sits on the sidelines before making itself felt in the finale, which does still manage to save itself with some eye-popping visuals and a very funny recreation of early-2000s teen pop courtesy of a concert from in-universe band 4*Town (whose lyrics are written by *current* teen pop sensation Billie Eilish). It’s in this sort of texture that Turning Red is probably at its strongest, capturing the teen experience both in era-specific (Tamagotchis feature heavily) and eternally relevant ways – the visualisation of mortifying teenage embarrassment is exceptional.
Even if its central plot can be lacklustre, Turning Red is so much more concerned with all the little moments around this story that it’s hard to be too annoyed by it. Shi embraces female adolescence in all its cringy but cathartic glory, a celebration that still feels all too necessary in a world that continues to resent teenage girls simply for existing, all while providing us the most huggable Pixar protagonist since Wall-E.