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REVIEW – “Turning Red”: Pixar Aims High, Goes Bright in Inventive Middle School Comedy

Turning Red
RED ALERT – In Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film “Turning Red,” 13-year-old Mei Lee “poofs” into a giant panda when she gets too excited (which for a teenager is practically ALWAYS). This unfortunate new reality for the teenager lands her in a multitude of awkward situations. Featuring Rosalie Chiang as the voice of Mei Lee, “Turning Red” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on March 11, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

In what could best be explained as an unfunny running gag, Disney has sent a third straight entry in the Pixar canon away from theatrical and to the smaller screen. No matter the story or enthusing characters, it’s troublesome and hurtful to the wizard-like creatives involved. But this third instance, after the fact, had me reeling, knowing the experience, the mere inventiveness of their next feature, couldn’t be more deserving of a multiplex to contain it. Whereas Soul tackled the abstract, and Luca celebrated the summery simplistic, Turning Red brings their storytelling DNA a little bit back to the ground, before running at an unruly pace. Territory familiar, yet simultaneously untamable, rolling with the spirit of the creatures being embodied. Not quite perfect in execution, but yet again they manage to hook the emotions just right.

That very hook is one of experience. Of growing up. If you know this studio and their work, you’ve been there before. You’ve walked thru their halls of human experience. But not in a manner as mature, and frequently as overt as first-time feature director Domee Shi is blazing. It’s roughly inspired by her millennial childhood in Toronto, where family and heritage intersect with heightened confluence. Any missteps or mistakes, and the ramifications go beyond mere punishment. Shi’s central protagonist knows that feeling far too well, particularly at a time when self-empowerment and truthfulness reach a crossroads.

For 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), “prodigy” is only one adjective to break down her qualities. Straight A student, diverse in her interests, and loyal to her family, particularly overbearing mom Ming (Sandra Oh). The latter often causes stumbles with her core friends, tomboy Miriam (Ava Morse), deadpan Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and hyper Abby (Hyein Park). Their personalities often outweigh her own, the last to fully broaden on. She’s not quite sure on some things, but plenty certain on others. Central to that, a shared infatuation with era-appropriate boy band 4-Town. The group are heading to town for a concert, which the four friends are determined to witness. Ming won’t hear anything of it, showing her level of disapproval to unsafe events.

Further complicating matters, an inherent family curse defying the family’s affinity to the curious red panda. One random day, she finds herself turned into one, caused by strong emotion. It appears as an initial disaster for Mei, stuck in a perpetual crossroads while awaiting a moment of reversal. Conveniently enough, on the next presence of a full red moon. Until then, Mei just needs to stay calm, while also embracing the upsides of being an adorable anthro panda trying to welcome a mature mindset.

If Shi, with co-writers Sarah Streicher (The Wilds) and Julia Cho (Halt and Catch Fire), have made aspects of their story come off as familiar, it’s likely not coincidental, and not carbon-copying. It was difficult from my perspective to ignore mild Inside Out parallels. Albeit amped up by a minimum 40%. Here, what Mei feels expresses the same emotional complexities and nuances any one of us would face at that age. Shifting into a red panda could quite possibly be the most vivid mirror to talking about adulthood. Contrary to popular belief, very little is said on the rigors of periods, despite what the title would make one lead. Ming initially assumes it’s merely that, before realizing the curse has taken hold. Couple that with the more relevant torture of bullies, social class, and innocent crushes, and Mei’s sense of character layers on top of itself.

Chiang’s performance matches that unpredictable fervor, building serious depth and exuberance with that rampant teenage awkwardness, in a very commanding screen debut. Leaning hard into that sillier end of the spectrum is key enough to slice through Miss Oh’s stuffed-shirt demeanor. Not an easy task, when on her own, Sandra is already a raw burst of overprotective fire. She is made for openly cartoonish voiceovers, and here she gets a tiger mom level showcase. Her husband Jin (a sly, casual Orion Lee) is the steady rock of wisdom at times, doing just the minimum to keep everyone grounded.

That might be an incomplete victory, as Shi (previously known for the endearing, Oscar-winning short Bao) does rush through the bare bones of their relationship, not allowing their bond to fester into an element more meaningful early on. We gain that aspect eventually, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle of Mei’s quick evolution. And that of her besties, all of whom hit the mark for Toronto’s burgeoning diversity; Morse and Park are effortlessly razor-sharp with their portrayals, for the record. The overall design aesthetic, slick as it looks, does leave something to the imagination with its plasticine graphic novel echo. And the presence of Mei’s in-laws in the third act, anchored by her grandma (Ho-Wai Chen) does very little in Ming’s defense.

Shi still has no trouble sticking a precise spiritual landing for Mei with this story that feels complete and fulfilling, frustrating shortcuts aside. Even better, its near autobiographical nature lends itself to a barrage of rampant comic energy. And even that bears rather opportune branches to elevate the story into laugh-heavy genius. Whether it be the panda profiteering, two forms of which to touch on the iconic creature as a symbol of anime-level cuteness (to the point where gushing equates to visible kawaii eyes).

Or the varied Canuck-friendly in-jokes, like the Skydome, TTC bus passes, Tim Horton’s donut balls and ingratiating hockey mascots. Or the ribbing on early 2000s culture, Tamagotchi and boy bands spawning like frogs. It’s clear Billie Eilish and brother Finneas had too much fun co-writing songs for the very fake quartet involved. With research well in mind, Shi’s not all that shy to make the Asian-Canadian community, the perfectionist, or the puberty-stricken teen, feel seen, heard, and above all, appreciated from start to finish. No better time for that pride to shimmer in a time of utmost shaky ground.

All of this, accompanied by a tight Ludwig Göransson (Tenet) score, add up to material befitting Pixar’s careful eye for increasingly grown up storytelling, doing so with a clear plan and an even clearer exit strategy. It’s a goal Luca came so close to achieving, and that the closing minutes of Soul mistakenly fumbled on. A film that succeeds on its closure, and above all knows its audience with confidence. Turning Red may easily fly over the heads of hand holders, only to be possessed by that animal cuteness.

Anyone else who hops aboard should expect one of Pixar’s more unique forays. And likely with time, judging by the grin it left on my face, a modern classic along the lines of Clueless or Eighth Grade. Only far cuddlier, of course. The studio may have been known for being just that for years, unique and experimental, even with being confined to smaller screens. But with this story of adolescent affirmation, yet again do they genuinely mean it. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Turning Red debuts on Disney+ (and three theaters in key American markets) March 11, with a warning to stay through the credits; rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content and language; 100 minutes.