'Turning Red' Is the Best Disney Movie in Years
Domee Shi's feature debut is about a little girl who can transform into a giant red panda.
Being a teenager is tough. Your clothes don't fit, you've got all kinds of new and weird feelings, and, if you're Turning Red's Meilin Lee, you spontaneously transform into a giant red panda whenever you experience strong emotions. Director Domee Shi, the first sole female director in Pixar's history and the mind behind the studio's beloved short film Bao (which premiered in front of Incredibles 2), along with co-writer Julia Cho, bring to life a hilarious and deeply affecting modern fairy tale with more than a few twists that feels like the most daring feature Disney has released in a very long time.
The year is 2002, and newly minted thirteen-year-old (basically an adult) Chinese-Canadian Meilin "Mei" Lee (a fantastic Rosalie Chiang) lives in Toronto with her close-knit multicultural group of friends, acing her classes and swanning around town like the independent spirit she is. Except when it comes to her family, particularly her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who has high expectations for Mei and keeps close watch over every aspect of her life. Mei juggles her free time between her friends and giving tours at her family's Chinatown temple dedicated to an ancestor who had a particular spiritual connection with red pandas.
Mei's life seems perfectly fine, if a little strained at times, especially when it comes to her and her friends' obsession with the cuties of boyband 4*Town—something Mei's mother frowns upon. The morning after Mei and her mom have a particularly bad argument (sparked by, it's implied, Mei drawing sexy pictures of the crushable boyband singers as mermen), Mei awakens to find herself, like a cuddly version of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, transformed into a giant red panda, poofy tail and everything. She soon discovers that it happens only when Mei feels strong emotions, and that she can keep her panda-self in control if she calms down. When her mother figures out what's going on, she reveals the true reason for her overprotective nature, and that they have less than a month to fix it.
The idea of an enormous red panda as a metaphor for a young girl going through puberty is immediately charming at the outset, but Shi's film is far from a conventional Disney fairy tale. Like Bao, perhaps the most wrenching short Pixar has ever released, Turning Red has a deep well of compassion for a parent—particularly an immigrant parent—and the kind of desperate love that often manifests as overprotective helicopter parenting. But the movie spends equal time exploring an adolescent kid's relationship with her friends, as that's the time when children start growing away from their parents and closer to people their own age. Instead of being frightened of Mei's uncontrollable ability, her friends love it, and she soon discovers that friendship is where she finds the most peace.
The story isn't the only place the film shines: the animation alone feels innovative and exciting in a way Disney's animated movies haven't in a while. Shi and her animation team brought the film to life in a style reminiscent of Studio Ghibli's iconic linework, giving characters exaggerated toothy smiles and lightning-fast expressions they convey with their entire bodies. Mei's panda form, though big, is so adorable it feels like a crime for her to even consider getting rid of it, with fur that looks so real you forget it's animated at all. There is also a gorgeous pastel color palette to much of the setting, with Toronto's city streets and skyline rendered in beautiful shades of pink and orange and periwinkle blue.
What's so wonderful about Turning Red is that its themes of growing up and learning to live with a complex and mature set of feelings are clear without being obvious or simplistic. Disney's animated movies have felt either too risk averse or too complicated, resulting in stories whose endings were either predictable from the jump or totally out of left field. Turning Red, on the other hand, never feels, as other recent films have done, that it was written by fifteen different people, each fighting to keep their favorite parts in the script. It's disappointing, then, that Disney chose not to debut this movie in theaters, a decision made at the height of the Omicron wave, but hopefully its availability on Disney+ will make it that much easier for viewers to seek it out. Turning Red is the first Disney movie for a young audience in quite some time that feels like it's speaking directly to them, instead of about them. The result is not so much a moral lesson as a map of how to accept yourself the way that you are. And who among us hasn't fantasized about turning into a giant animal at least once?