Turning Red Review: A Dorky and Groundbreaking Animated Masterpiece

If there's one thing the animated movies of Pixar has become known for, it's using adorable animation and incredibly specific plots to touch the hearts of audiences of all ages. Two talking fish traversing the ocean in Finding Nemo conveyed optimism and companionship, two robots on a post-apocalyptic planet in WALL-E made viewers think about saving the world and forming real-world connections, and a group of toys almost sacrificing themselves in an incinerator in Toy Story 3 sparked some deep feelings about childhood and the passage of time. It was safe to assume that Turning Red, the studio's new feature-length adventure about a Chinese-Canadian tween girl who can transform into a giant red panda, would utilize a similar storytelling technique. Sure, the film has a lot to say about the trials and tribulations of adolescence, and the various emotional bonds a person forms during that time — but the way its story is told might be the most brilliantly executed thing Pixar has released in years. Turning Red is an absurdly creative, clever, and personal new chapter for Pixar, which has all the makings of the studio's next instant classic.

Turning Red follows Meilin "Mei" Lee (newcomer Rosalie Chiang), a precocious 13-year-old growing up in the Toronto, Canada of the early-2000s. One morning, Mei wakes up to discover that she accidentally turns into a giant red panda whenever she experiences a strong emotion — a supernatural ability that has been passed down in the women of her family for generations. As Mei comes to terms with her ability to "poof" into the giant furry beast, she must juggle the chaotic world of middle school, the expectations of her overprotective mother Ming (Sandra Oh), and her friends' epic hopes to see their favorite boy band, 4*Town, in concert.

From the very first frame, Turning Red is filled with a brilliant mix of the niche and the ubiquitous — especially with regards to its time period and setting, which serve as an unabashedly love letter to the '00s without relying on the easiest or most obvious points of reference. (Any movie that can turn the perils of keeping a Tamagotchi alive into an actual plot point deserves to be praised.) Setting the film amid the "simpler times" of jelly bracelets, bedazzled flip phones, and passing notes in class proves to be brilliant, both because the aesthetics of the era have become popular once again, and because any viewer with even a vague fondness of that time will feel represented in some way. It also makes every emotional stake in the film a more compelling creative hurdle, without the easy narrative shortcuts presented by the social media and smartphones of our present day. 

The incredibly specific setting also makes the aesthetics of Turning Red feel unlike anything Pixar has put out before, from the gorgeously pastel-hued portrayal of Toronto, to expertly constructed sequences that draw inspiration from the Eastern anime of the era. One upside of the film debuting on Disney+ is that it will allow eagle-eyed viewers to dissect and appreciate the many small, artistic decisions on display, not unlike the ongoing conversation surrounding recent aesthetically profound animated hits like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. The Machines.

What the bedrock of '00s nostalgia in Turning Red allows for, in a way that feels downright revolutionary for a mainstream animated film, is a fleshed-out exploration of the experience of being a tween girl. The metaphor at the heart of the film — Mei's "poofing" into her red panda form — might be one of Pixar's most clever yet, as it packages the uncomfortable and unexpected elements of puberty into something heartfelt, but incredibly honest. The script, from director Domee Shi and co-writer Julia Cho, is unabashedly unafraid to lean into the cringeworthy and awkward sides of Mei's situation, and of what it means in the context of being a normal tween girl. But, as many viewers who remember being a tween girl can probably attest to, that cringe never fully derails the fun, something that the movie is able to have plenty of, especially once Mei's trio of ride-or-die best friends — Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) — become aware of her situation. Many of the most earnest and meme-worthy moments in the film occur when those four characters are in a room together, whether they're trying to hype up Mei's self-confidence or speculating if one of their crushes smells like "milk chocolate and wet rocks." It's easily one of the most charming and authentic portrayals of friendship that a modern Disney film has had, and one that will resonate with viewers of any age.

The same can also be said for the film's portrayal of fandom, with the 4*Town subplot feeling instantly recognizable to anyone who spent time obsessing over a boyband, whether that be NSYNC, the Jonas Brothers, or BTS. Luckily, the original music of the film understands that assignment in spades, both with the absurdly catchy 4*Town songs penned by Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell, and the toe-tapping original score from Ludwig Göransson. I found myself getting the soundtrack's central song, "Nobody Like U," stuck in my head for a solid day after I watched the film, which is all you can ask for with a boyband-centered project like this.

Juxtaposed with Mei's incredible friendships is her dynamic with Ming, which is allowed to unfold and evolve far beyond the traditional mother-daughter rapport usually seen in stories of this kind. While a lesser film would have leaned more into the stereotypes of an overbearing mother (especially the stereotypes traditionally associated with non-white families), Turning Red gives its central relationship every ounce of weight that it deserves, and showcases the good, the bad, and everything in between. Mei and Ming's rapport remains incredibly significant throughout the just-over-100-minute run time, and (even in the film's most fantastical and absurd sequences) tells an unbelievably poignant story of repressed trauma and the generational desire for approval from your elders. The end result will surely bring a number of viewers to tears, both in the way you would expect to feel from a particularly emotional beat from a Pixar movie, and in appreciation for how well the story is told. It also helps that the two leads are impeccably cast, with Chiang delivering a star-making performance with every line of dialogue from Mei, and Oh effortlessly giving her character the gravitas and humor she deserves.

All at once, Turning Red feels like a natural evolution for the realm of Pixar films, and also something absolutely revolutionary. I never would have expected to see an animated film of this caliber that is so focused on the teen-aged girl experience of embracing messiness and being true to yourself  — much less one that is wrapped in such a brilliant exterior. With endlessly impressive animation, an inspired approach to nostalgia, and a plot that is clever in all the right ways, Turning Red is about to (deservedly) be the world's next animated obsession.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Turning Red hits Disney+ on March 11th.