'​Turning Red' Is Fun for Tweens and Therapy for Adults

Directed by Domee Shi

Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Tristan Allerick Chen, James Hong

BY Rachel HoPublished Aug 25, 2022

In her first feature film, Domee Shi dives into the world of puberty and all of the joys and struggles that come with it for both child and parent. Set in an ultra-stylized, anime-inspired world, Turning Red is a fun film for tweens and a therapy session for adults.

Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is any parent's dream: a straight-A student with a solid group of friends who helps her parents run their family-owned Buddhist temple in Toronto's Chinatown. Mei is a content Grade 8 student, confident in her abilities to tackle all of life's challenges — until one morning she wakes up as a giant (and adorable) red panda.

Mei is suddenly bigger, smellier, and far more emotional than the day before. She discovers she's able to control herself from poof-ing into the red panda by calming herself and not getting overexcited, but there's no denying a part of her is changing. Her once unbreakable bond with her mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), is tested as Mei's new interests begin pulling her away. And when Ming finally lets Mei in on a family secret, Mei is confronted with a major decision that will have huge consequences for Mei and her family.

During the Turning Red virtual press conference in January, Shi described the latest Pixar film as an "Asian tween fever dream," and she doesn't disappoint. Early 2000s Toronto seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old is colourful, dynamic and very bubbly. The animation style Shi uses in Turning Red is a wonderful tribute to Studio Ghibli and '80s/'90s anime TV shows like Dragonball Z. Taking the traditionally 2D style into 3D gives it a modern appearance that feels fresh.

Shi writes a beautiful love letter to Toronto through Turning Red, with references to the (correctly named) SkyDome, TTC, Daisy Mart and, of course, the city's vibrant diversity. The classrooms and streets of Turning Red are filled with characters of all different shapes, sizes and colours, with multiple languages heard in the background. Set in the early '00s, Shi also stuffs the film full of nostalgia (Tamogachi and boy bands included) that's a real treat for older generations to enjoy.

At the heart of Turning Red is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl faced with the scary phase of life in which her individuality is being defined. The analogies to puberty are clear and will hopefully be helpful to young girls entering (or already in) this stage of life. And for an older audience, Turning Red is like watching your tweenage relationship with your mother unfold before your eyes with a different appreciation than when you were 13.

Unlike recent Pixar standouts Soul and Inside Out, which leaned more towards the adult audience, Turning Red is more of a young person's film than an adult one. While Shi introduces mature themes like generational strain, the messaging of the film is simple, straightforward and pointed at preteens: life is messy, and it's okay to embrace that. 

Turning Red is a great debut for Shi, and its unique aesthetic shows a willingness from Pixar to innovate and explore styles different from their back catalogue. The film is a truthful depiction of the awkwardness, embarrassment and the horror of growing up, but wrapped up in a giant, fluffy red panda — a great balance of substance and style.

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