Being a teenager is tough. Your clothes don’t fit, you experience all kinds of new and strange feelings, and if you’re turn red‘s Meilin Lee, you spontaneously transform into a giant red panda whenever you feel strong emotions. Director Domee Shi, the first single female director in Pixar history and the mind behind the studio’s beloved short Bao (which was created before Incredibles 2), with co-writer Julia Cho, bring a hilarious and deeply moving modern day fairy tale to life with more than a few twists that feel like the most daring feature film Disney has released in a very long time.
The year is 2002, and 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Meilin “Mei” Lee (a fantastic Rosalie Chiang) (essentially an adult) is living in Toronto with her close-knit group of multicultural friends, graduating from school and roaming around. of the city as the independent spirit that she is. Except when it comes to her family, especially her mother Ming (Sandra Oh), who has high expectations for Mei and watches every aspect of her life closely. Mei juggles her free time with friends and visits to the family temple in Chinatown dedicated to an ancestor who had a special spiritual connection to red pandas.
Mei’s life seems perfectly fine, if a little tense at times, especially when it comes to her and her friends’ obsession with cuties from boy band 4*Town – something Mei’s mother disapproved. The morning after Mei and her mother have a particularly bad argument (triggered by, it is implied, Mei drawing sexy photos of the crushable boyband singers as newts), Mei wakes up to find herself, like a cuddly version of Franz Kafka. Metamorphosis, turned into a giant red panda, poofy tail and all. She soon discovers that this only happens when Mei feels strong emotions and that she can keep control of her panda if she calms down. When her mother figures out what’s going on, she reveals the real reason behind her overprotective nature and that they have less than a month to fix it.
The idea of a huge red panda as a metaphor for a young girl going through puberty is immediately charming at first, but Shi’s film is far from a conventional Disney fairy tale. As Baoperhaps the most heartbreaking short Pixar has ever released, turn red has a deep well of compassion for a parent – especially an immigrant parent – and the kind of desperate love that often manifests in overprotective helicopter parenting. But the film spends so much time exploring a teenage girl’s relationship with her friends, because that’s when the kids start to drift away from their parents and bond with people their own age. Instead of being afraid of Mei’s uncontrollable ability, her friends love her, 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 is innovative and exciting in a way Disney’s animated films haven’t been in a long time. Shi and his animation team brought the film to life in a style reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s iconic line art, giving the characters exaggerated toothy smiles and lightning-quick expressions that they convey with their entire bodies. Mei’s panda form, while large, 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’s also a gorgeous pastel color palette throughout much of the setting, with the streets and skyline of Toronto rendered in beautiful shades of pink and orange and periwinkle blue.
What’s so wonderful turn 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 films 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. turn red, on the other hand, never feels, as other recent movies have, that it was written by fifteen different people, each struggling to retain their favorite parts in the script. So it’s disappointing that Disney chose not to release this film in theaters, a decision made at the height of the Omicron wave, but hopefully its availability on Disney+ will make the search much easier for viewers. turn red is the first Disney movie aimed at young audiences in quite some time that feels like it’s talking directly to them, instead of about them. The result is not so much a moral lesson as a map of how to accept yourself as you are. And who among us has not dreamed at least once of turning into a giant animal?