Pixar has an amazing quality as a studio where they love to add deeply humane themes and tear-jerking emotion into an idea you’d never quite expect. Whether it be Remy learning to be a chef and learn about the beauty of the art we create in Ratatouille or getting a deeply-moving story about life, grief, love, etc. through the eyes of an old man, a young boy, a talking dog, and a floating house in UP – those are just a few examples of how often Pixar can get us to feel the deepest of emotions through the wackiest of concepts. Their latest film, Turning Red, is no different – and very well may be the most out of the box allegory and concept of them all.
The film follows 13-year old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who is a Chinese-Canadian middle schooler at the height of her adolescence. Mei is struggling to balance her school life, friendships, passions, and overwhelming expectations from her high-strung mother Ming (Sandra Oh) as she begins to go through the most formative changes imaginable at her age. This is only amplified when one day she turns into a giant red panda – learning that this will now happen anytime her emotions run too high. Now, in a middle-school environment full of raging hormones, an overbearing mother, a supportive and loving friend-group, she has to try her best to conceal her new quirk.
One of the most delightful elements of the film is how delicately it portrays Mei’s relationships with just about everyone in her life. The most delightful example of this is her friend group and how downright supportive they are of her through thick and thin. It’s so lovely to see a family film show the importance of teenage friendship and how deeply formative our best friends can be in getting us through trying times; even if it’s through things that are as simple as trying to go to a boy-band concert with each other. On the flipside, the way the film portrays Mei’s relationship with her mother Ming is equally compelling – in a way that it doesn’t completely villainize her mother, but rather shows how draining and stressful the expectations she sets upon Mei are. It’s all balanced rather perfectly, all the while presenting Mei is a thoroughly complex and interesting character individually as well.
As it’s a Pixar movie, the animation here is clearly gorgeous. There was a bit of discourse in terms of Pixar stepping away from making characters photo-realistic and now embracing a more cartoon-ish approach, but I’m all for it when it looks this vibrant and lovely – each character expressing so much detail and emotion in each and every frame they share with each other. The actual design of Mei’s giant red panda form is especially impressive, from how beautiful the design is down to the smallest details of her fur and individual features. It’s really impressive stuff.
The film isn’t quite as hard-hitting for me personally as something like Soul, which I think is something that’s a bit more universal in terms of themes. But this isn’t a bad thing at all – I’m so glad Pixar is reaching a point in their filmography now where they are telling deeply personal, specific stories that will be sure to hit even harder with certain people due to how specific they are. Turning Red is an absolutely lovely film that is radiating warmth, humor, and originality in each and every frame. It’s hard to not fall for it!