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Review: 'Turning Red' (2022) Dir. Domee Shi

Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Wai Ching Ho, Sasha Roiz and James Hong


A Disney / Pixar production that heads direct to Disney+ presents an exploration of youth, of emotion and cultural importance, directed by a lead storyboard creative artist within Pixar...

13 year old Chinese-Canadian Meilin "Mei" Lee (Chiang) enjoys her social life with best friends Miriam (Morse), Abby (Park) and Priya (Ramakrishnan) and also her top-grading school work, striking a good balance between the two.

Mei juggles her care-free life with living to high standards for her mother Ming Lee (Oh). Yet as her emotions begin to spiral, she unleashes an ancient transformation in the female members of her family; turning into a red panda.

Mei needs to learn how to contain and control her emotions to prevent her turning into the red panda at the most inconvenient times. With one change to reverse the transformation at the next red moon, Mei must learn to to embrace her emotions to see the real joys of growing up...

Taking a leaf out of the ground-breaking Disney film Encanto which sheds fantastical light on the culture and people of Colombia, Pixar present their fusion of fantasy and culture of China in the guise of Turning Red. Yet this is not just an exploration of Eastern myth and wonder, but also a global occurrence understood by all - growing up, and especially for the females in the audience.

Surprisingly denied a full theatrical run, this colourful, snappy and emotive tale has become the latest hit on the Disney+ streaming service. This feels like more of an embrace between theatrical and streaming releases following the change to audience behaviours since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Big or little screen, it doesn't matter. What matters is the content; a family friendly, coming of age story that deals with emotions not always presented in mainstream animation.

Pixar storyboard artist and creative consultant Domee Shi (who has worked on numerous Pixar hits including Inside Out, Toy Story 4 and, soon, Lightyear) is given directorial and writing duties over this story that deals with her own experiences of growing up.

This is a welcome exploration of women's and racial rights in a fight for equality in a charming period of the 1960s, with perfect sets, costumes, iconography and characters on show.

Sixteen year old Rosalie Chiang voices young Mei Mei with sweet maturity and innocence as she traverses the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. While she embraces who she is, what she enjoys and who her friends are, the discovery of an inner transformative power turns her life upside down. Mei Mei is a welcome lead in the Pixar world; not a toy, a fantasy figure or myth, but a young girl who represents millions who find great highs and lows as their bodies and emotions change. She has great support from young co-stars Ava Morse, Hyein Park and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who have plenty of sweet moments showcasing their friendship, and screen vet Sandra Oh as the struggling overbearing mother who hides her own little secret to deal with.

Yet this isn't all about dealing with emotion, it's about accepting who you are, respecting your heritage and family, and simply being yourself. While not all of us turn into cute fluffy red pandas when our emotions hit high, it still helps present that inner change and turmoil in a simple way for young kids, but an identifiable way for adults.

The animation is a little more cartoony than the usual Pixar efforts, but that's not a bad thing as it helps reflect the cultural and age appropriate themes on offer, telling the story almost through the 4th wall from Mei Mei herself with lots of energy, visual style and colour. With the humour a little more grounded in favour of a more humane story, and more exploration of emotions in relationships, this still allows the red panda to provide a few fun moments and wacky antics. It doesn't take a genius to see the metaphor in use here, and so it's a not a film full of red panda goofiness.

Sweet on the outset, and at it's core, it sticks very close to the well-worn moralistic formula of Pixar, but in a much more surprisingly grown up way for young girls in the audience to connect which. For this, Turning Red marks a bold step forward in storytelling and talking to audiences about life and cultures in animation.

Turning Red ticks the boxes for what to expect from a Pixar film in terms of vibrant animation, heart and fun humour. Yet it does so in a very covert grown-up way that finally gives young girls a new favourite Pixar film to connect with.

'Turning Red' is a co-production between Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios

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