With her feature directorial debut, writer/director Domee Shi decides to draw on her own experiences as a Chinese-Canadian woman, and the result, “Turning Red,” is absolutely delightful.
As the 25th film by Pixar Animation Studios, the story centers on Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a middle schooler in 2002 Toronto, who is dealing with everything connected to puberty while also trying to remain loyal to her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Alongside all this, Mei has the ability to turn into a red panda when her emotions run too high.
Since Shi draws on her experiences growing up in Toronto, the film as a whole has a real authenticity to it. Mei is a great lead, and one gets the impression she represents a lot of the director’s feelings growing up.
Her story arc tackles themes of succumbing to high expectations and the effects of generational trauma, not unlike the recent Disney animated hit, “Encanto.” The fact that much of the movie centers around the relationship between Mei and her mother might also bring on comparisons to another Pixar film, “Brave,” which also focuses heavily on a mother-daughter relationship.
That said, Mei is still a child, one who is scared of the changes she is undergoing and how they will affect her and her family. Her father Jin (Orion Lee), her four aunts and her grandmother, also play roles in helping Mei discover what she wants to be.
Mei’s friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park) also tag along for the ride. Their own relationships with Mei and her mother add a lot to the proceedings. Quite a bit of winning humor comes from Abby who is rather excitable.
Less successful is Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), a classmate who bullies Mei and her friends. The movie does attempt to give him some development, but it does little to nothing in making him endearing.
The artists at Pixar have been testing new art styles distinct from their classics with their past few films; “Turning Red” continues with this experimentation. In a Los Angeles Times article, Shi and production designer Rona Liu are said to have taken inspiration from various anime Shi watched as a youth, including “Sailor Moon” and “Pokémon,” for the look of the film. This allows for some hilarious facial expressions. The animators also do a lot in representing Mei’s culture, with the temple her family runs being a nice set piece.
In keeping with the early 2000s setting, the girls are fans of a boy group called 4 Town. The group’s songs, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, sound in tune with what NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys might have sung back then.
Pretty much everything about “Turning Red” works. Shi smartly takes inspiration from her youth to create a relatable story with the right amount of heart and humor. The cast is solid and worth spending time with. The animation is excellent with plenty of inspiration taken from other sources to distinguish it from other animated films, including Pixar’s own library.
If this is any indicator of what Pixar and Shi have planned for their future films, then their futures are looking bright.