Directed and co-written by Domee Shi (the theatrical short “Bao”), the film tells the story of 13-year-old Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), whose family runs a Chinese temple in Toronto. An honor student who craves the approval of her mother (Sandra Oh), Mei has a trio of close friends with whom she shares a passion for a boy group named 4*town, which will soon be playing a concert in her town.
Budding boy mania, however, triggers another unexpected response: Mei’s transformation into a furry Red Panda, a legacy of her family’s mystical history. The parallels between that and the advent of puberty are unavoidable, and Shi and co-writer Julie Cho hilariously lean into them, with Mei’s introduction to dawning womanhood bringing with it a series of mortifying side effects.
In tone and style, “Turning Red” perhaps most closely resembles “Inside Out,” another Pixar film that did an inordinately good job of addressing the pangs of this particular age in a sprightly and entertaining package. Here, the add-ons include not only a generational clash but the weight of expectations that Mei faces, trying to satisfy her mother as she begins to exhibit signs of independence.
“Turning Red” also gets a whole lot of mileage out of the panda gags, which, in the crassest commercial terms, should sell a whole lot of plush toys to younger tykes.
Like the best Pixar fare, the film operates on multiple levels, in ways that will be relatable to parents and older kids that are both culturally specific and broadly universal, with the added garnish of original songs by Billie Eilish.
Animation has obviously been a major driver for Disney+ over the past two years, at a time when the streaming service needed content and viewers were hungry for escapes at home.
Whether that logic holds as theaters are opening up is between Pixar and Disney’s accounting teams, but the lack of a theatrical window right now is puzzling, with a movie that’s qualitatively in the conversation with the Oscar-winning “Soul,” and a cut above recent releases “Luca” and “Onward.”
Still, wherever one sees it, “Turning Red” delivers an exquisitely animated story that’s moving as well as funny — welcome evidence that creatively speaking, at least, Pixar hasn’t lost its golden touch.