Domee Shi

Turning Red

24/03/22

Disney +

The House of Mouse’s decision to release all new Pixar films directly to their in-house streaming service seems incredibly short-sighted – and not just because this is a time when cinemas are really struggling to tempt viewers back into seats. Mostly, it’s because the gorgeous animation that exemplifies Pixar is made to be shown on the biggest screens available. However, Disney seem not for turning, so it’s time to renew that monthly subscription.

Turning Red is set in Toronto in 2002 . Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) is thirteen years old, a good girl who excels as a scholar and spends most of her spare time helping her domineering Mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), to run the family temple, a place dedicated to their illustrious ancestor, Sun Yee. Meanwhile, Meilin’s father, Jin (Orion Lee), cooks up some amazing food. In scenes that could have come straight from a Studio Ghibli feature, his dishes are enough to make this reviewer’s mouth water.

With her three bosom buddies, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Remakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), Meilin is a fan of the hot new boy band, 4*Town. She also discovers, to her dismay, that she’s developing a crush on handsome local store clerk, Tyler (Tristran Allerick Chen), who she has always professed to hate. She is hurtling headlong towards puberty and the resulting rush of hormones has an unfortunate effect on Meilin. She finds herself suddenly transforming into a giant red panda at the most inopportune moments (although I’m not sure when would be a good time). This is the result of an ancient transformation that every young woman of her family must undergo.

It can be cured, Ming assures her daughter, but not until a month has passed. Awkward.

And then news reaches Meilin that 4*Town are going to be performing at a huge concert in Toronto and she and her friends know that, whatever else comes or goes, they will have to be there in order to ‘become women.’ So how are they ever going to raise the hefty price of admission?

From the outset it’s clear that Pixar, already the most innovative of animation studios, is setting out to walk a path where no other cartoon makers have dared to venture. The Red Panda is clearly a metaphor, standing in for the turmoil and confusion of adolescence – the film even manages to cover the subject of menstruation without raising so much as an eyebrow. All credit to director Domee Shi, who has clearly used her own youth in Canada as inspiration for the story, co-writing the screenplay with Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher. Hats off also to songwriters Billie Eilish and Finneas, who manage to capture the vapid tosh that is 4*Town’s music with ease.

This is a gorgeous film, all about the power of womanhood and the healing properties of friendship. The fact that it’s wrapped up in a pretty parcel of jaw-dropping animation doesn’t dilute its message one jot – and the climactic showdown at the 4*Town arena concert – where events begin to feel a little like Pandazilla – brings everything to a suitably powerful conclusion.

Even on our modest screen at home this looks dazzling, so how it would have looked on IMAX can only be wistfully imagined.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney