Turning Red gets a lot of things right: from the way it casually yet potently brings an everyday women’s issue and makes an entertaining film about it to how it deals with representation. The Pixar film is replete with some solid animation, good storytelling, strong performances and topping all that is an important message that is delivered without any sermonising. In short, it may be a kids’ feature but it is equally for their parents as well.
The film is set in Toronto around 2002 (making it the first Pixar film to be set in Canada) and follows the protagonist Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old who discovers that due to an ancient family curse, she turns into a giant red panda as soon as she experiences any extreme emotion. The film shows how Meilin, with the help of her girl gang and her mother, deals with this sudden problem.
To some, the premise could be an allegory for menstruation and how teenage girls discover that puberty causes changes in them they find frightening and overwhelming. To others, it is just about flirting with the line between obedience and emancipation as a teen. Turning Red takes a universal idea and turns it into a meaningful and beautiful children’s film. This is where debutant director Domee Shi comes in. Having made the Oscar winning short film Bao, expectations were high from her and Domee hits the ground running in her first feature film.
She has beautifully brought out the love and conflict in the relationship of a mother and her 13-year-old daughter who is conflicted between duty and rebellion. Any teenager would relate. But teenage girls aren’t the only target audience here. The brilliant visuals, smart writing, and humour means it’s a film for kids and adults alike. At the heart of the film – like any solid Pixar film – is the emotion and the message of acceptance. In this case, it is the acceptance of self.
The voice actors have done their job well. Rosalie Chiang is a revelation. As Meilin, she draws the viewer into the story and makes them empathise with her within the first 15 minutes of the narrative. The veteran Sandra Oh, who plays her mother, shows why she is so highly regarded, as she delivers a mix of vulnerability and strictness very few actors can master. Meilin’s friends are a mix bunch and while the Indian fans may be hoping to see some sparks from Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, it’s Hyein Park who steals the show. But what’s heartening to see is that all four girls are different – not just in nature but also the way they have been animated. To see such individuality and distinctness in the depiction of female characters is heartening indeed.
But by no means is Turning Red among Pixar’s best. The studio has – in the past – delivered some of the most iconic animated films in cinema history. Turning Red, alas, is not one of them. But that does not mean it’s not a good film. It is enjoyable and sweet, but won’t probably be as memorable as some of the other Pixar titles. But maybe that’s just because its predecessors have set the bar ridiculously high. The one place where it can easily rub shoulders with some other Pixar titles is the vibrant colour palette. It is easily one of the most visually stunning animated films in recent memory.
Some might argue that Turning Red is using an old trope. After all, films like Brave and Luca have already explored the idea of what a torture adoloscence can be where your parents don’t understand you. But this time, Pixar has gone one step ahead and handled it with a bit more boldness than before. There are references to menstruation, teenage hormones and crushes in a more mature manner than children’s animated films have ever attempted. Whether they are successful or not, the audience will decide. But this small step maybe a giant leap for moviekind.
Turning Red is a well-made film that has its heart in the right place. That alone allows you to overlook some of its minor flaws. It is a reminder that clean, fun films meant for families can be made without the need to dumb it down for anyone. Turning Red had its world premiere in London last month and is set to stream on Disney+ Hotstar from Friday, March 11. It will also have a theatrical release in select countries.