“Turning Red,” 2022, directed by Domee Shi — 4/5 stars
Pixar has, for many years, been known for their ability to tell relatively complex stories in condensed, kid-friendly ways. As time has gone on, they’ve pushed further into more complex ideas; 2020’s “Soul” was easily the studio’s most thematically bulky film to date, facing questions of mortality and purpose head-on. As these movies have gotten more philosophical and ambitious, though, they’ve also stumbled. “Inside Out” was a respectable attempt at visualizing human emotions, but was limited by the simplicity of its own mechanics. “Onward,” “Luca” and “The Good Dinosaur” were big swings as well, but were duds both at the box office and with critics. After one too many “Toy Story” sequels and two too many “Cars” sequels, it’s begun to feel like maybe Pixar has lost their way. “Turning Red,” though, feels like a fresh new outlook on the tried and true formula. Directed by Domee Shi in her feature directorial debut, this latest release tells a much more digestible story with a stellar cast and a beautifully pastel-affected visual style.
The plot revolves around Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl growing up in Toronto in 2002. The emotional center of the story is the relationship Meilin has with her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), who she helps take care of the family’s temple dedicated to their ancestor Sun Yee. Meilin also has a group of friends with whom with she obsesses over the early 2000s boy band amalgamation “4*Town,” a group that admittedly has some satisfyingly catchy songs written by Grammy winners Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell. The vehicle for the plot is a curse placed on the family by Sun Yee, which causes the women in the lineage to transform into a giant red panda when become emotional. It’s an apt metaphor for growing up and puberty but also for embracing your ancestry, and thanks to Chiang and Oh’s performances, it feels relatable and emotionally impactful.
The visual style, which almost feels more akin to old-fashioned celluloid animation than any of Pixar’s more recent releases, adds to the story beats as well. Emotions are expressed in a wonderfully over-the-top manner, characters’ body language is joyously bouncy and rubbery and the city of Toronto is realized nicely with a bright, soft color palette. These traits may seem like a given in animation, but seem to have been lost in many of “Turning Red”’s contemporaries. The film’s aesthetics don’t always work — they’re sometimes distracting or grating — but on the whole the film is very nice to look at in a very refreshing way. One of the only things that detracts from the film is its length; the story feels artificially elongated at times despite clocking in at only an hour and 45 minutes, but it doesn’t remotely hold the other elements back.
Blending the more fundamental screenwriting from Pixar’s earlier era with a bold new style and approach, “Turning Red” is a sure bet to emotionally engage adults and children alike. It’s almost a little too saccharine at times but it’s tough not to be won over by its charm. “Turning Red” is streaming now on Disney+.