Adolescence is confusing, awkward and messy, especially if your family has a curse that turns you into a giant red panda. That’s the basic premise to Pixar’s “Turning Red”, which is streaming on Disney Plus, even though it should have been released theatrically.
We follow Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl living in 2002 Toronto, who freaks out when she one day turns into a giant red panda. Centuries ago, her ancestor, Sun Yee, was granted the ability to protect her village by a goddess, and it’s been passed down genetically ever since.
However, in contemporary times of peace, the panda blessing has turned into a hinderance, and the family has developed a ritual to seal their pandas in inanimate objects shortly after they develop during puberty. The ritual is time-sensitive and needs to be done on a certain date and time, and it’s suggested that the longer a family member stays in their panda form, the harder it will be to contain it.
The panda is triggered by strong emotions, and Mei learns early on that her friends Miriam Mendelsohn (Ava Morse), Priya Mangal (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby Park (Hyein Park) keep her calm and centered, so she seeks them out. Her panda power, though, manifested close to a concert by their favorite band, 4*Town (they’re a “Backstreet Boys” homage), and the ritual to seal it is the same day as the concert, which creates conflict with Mei. To make matters worse, her mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), is overbearing and overprotective, which drives Mei to disobey her to attend the concert.
Mei’s family plays a big role in this film, shaping her character by providing her with generational challenges to overcome. Her father, Jin Lee (Orion Lee), is quiet but understanding and calm — a big counterweight to her mother, but he’s also less active in the family dynamic. While her mother goes a bit too far to protect Mei, it’s clear that Ming cares about and loves her — they just have a disconnect, which was directly influenced by Ming’s relationship with her own mom, Wu (Wai Ching Ho), who was tough on her growing up, rarely giving her approval. Ming and Wu have been distanced for years because of how difficult Ming’s panda was to contain, which left Wu scarred.
In typical Pixar fashion, this is a film about a family coming together by learning to accept each other’s flaws and coming to an understanding. It’s not one of their strongest films, but it has their signature heart and has sophisticated emotional depth when it allows itself to slow down.
Mei is a great protagonist, and the film does a great job of depicting what a huge deal something like a concert is to a 13-year-old. Its animation is vibrant and energetic and appropriate for its subject matter, though at times its frantic pace does come off as obnoxious.
“Turning Red” sits somewhere in the middle of Pixar’s catalogue in terms of quality, far below the likes of “Inside Out” and “Toy Story 4”, but above the “Cars” franchise and miles above “The Good Dinosaur.”
As stated before, this film should have been released theatrically, but unlike “Soul”, I didn’t feel like anything was lost by viewing it on streaming first. Still, it’s not great seeing Pixar held hostage in hopes of driving up Disney Plus subscriptions, but that’s a discussion that warrants its own post.
“Turning Red” gets an 8.5/10