Thirteen-year-old Mei Lee has big problems long before she unexpectedly turns into a giant, walking, talking red panda. She wants to hang out with her friends, drool over their favorite boy band (4*Town, though there are, inexplicably, five members), have some laughs, just be a kid. But at home, she has to be someone else, buttoned up and proper, a perfect student and a doting daughter, not just some screeching teen (and what were teens best made for, other than screeching?). Being a teenager is tough enough, weird beyond measure, confusing as anything, and then…giant, walking, talking red panda. What’s a girl (panda) to do?
Pixar has never shied away from the tough stuff — there are entire generations of kids who have being guided through the cold terror of nothing less than death, world-wide destruction, and even the afterlife through the animation giant’s charming productions — but Domee Shi’s instant classic “Turning Red” marks the first time Pixar has gone all-in on perhaps the scariest, funniest, weirdest thing of all: puberty.
Kicking off with incredible, unfailing energy, Shi introduces us to her wonderful Mei (voiced by the charming Rosalie Chiang), a Toronto native attempting to navigate the wilds of middle school, being an only child, and the full force power of a first crush. Yes, Mei might often feel split between her two selves (think of them as school Mei and home Mei), but she also has a firm grasp on her core spirit: She’s a proud overachiever, a math whiz, a total brain, and kind of a dork.
That’s totally fine by Mei, because she’s got a solid crew of three besties who support her in everything she does. Miriam is a bit of a tomboy, Priya is the stoic and sarcastic one, and Abby is prone to screaming no matter if she’s happy or sad or angry or anything in between (a character trait both incredibly specific and wonderfully universal, because everyone knew a gal like this in middle school).
Just like her animated star, Shi is a proud Chinese-Canadian, and the filmmaker’s obvious affection for her hometown of Toronto is clear in every scene. It’s a vibrant, multicultural city, filled with interesting people and places (Shi and her animators even somehow manage to make the neighborhood mini mart as enticing as the Lins’ beautiful temple), and Mei navigates it with ease. The rest of her life? That’s a bit more complicated.
Their family’s temple is the oldest in Toronto, and that’s not the only reason it’s special: It’s also the only one that honors all the clan’s ancestors, particularly their matriarch, who had a profound bond with red pandas that exemplified both her bravery and creativity. Mei’s uptight mom Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) manages the temple, both a familial treasure and its primary source of income (tourists love it, especially when Mei dresses up in a homespun red panda costume).
In her pin-neat bedroom, a trio of posters remind Mei of what her priorities are: “STUDY,” “WORK,” “LISTEN.” The thing is, Mei does do all of that stuff, with style and dedication, but she also wants more.
Like any red-blooded 13-year-old girl, that involves her friends and pop music and yes, a magical boy band comprised of five equally alluring members (one of them “fosters injured doves”!). Amped up on both her desire to attend a massive 4*Town concert with her BFFs and the possibility she’s got a thing for the doe-eyed teen clerk at the mini mart, Mei seems on the cusp of something big. It is still, however, quite a surprise when she wakes up one morning as a giant red panda.
As a desperate, totally adorable Mei tries to hide her condition from her parents, it’s totally understandable that Ming inquires, “Did the red peony bloom?!” at a slammed bathroom door, a moment that brought back such visceral memories of this critic’s own feminine youth that I felt the need to both lay down and re-read my middle school diaries. Mei, ever-resourceful and crackling smart, soon discovers that, if she can calm herself, she can de-poof her panda stuff. Middle school is, however, not exactly the best place to remain calm.
Even when she’s fully back in her human body, Mei’s once-black hair stays a vibrant red — her churned-up insides seemingly very much visible on the outside — the red panda always threatening to break loose and wreck havoc on he world. Soon, Mei realizes that her ailment might not be entirely unique to her (remember that family temple?), and “Turning Red” unspools a fresh, funny, and family-centric new mythology destined to become iconic.
But what’s most inspiring and special about the film is how Shi, alongside co-writer Julia Cho, manages to thread together both the fantastical elements of the story (the girl is a panda!) and the more universal elements of the classic coming-of-age film (even in her panda-iest moments, Mei remains dedicated to her pals and their love of 4*Town). And it must be noted, the film’s soundtrack, complete with a slew of fake 4*Town jams, is quite literally, pitch perfect.
Fans of Shi’s breakout hit, the Oscar-winning short “Bao,” will find much to love here, too. Yes, there are lush animated sequences centered on food (in this case, lovingly prepared by Mei’s father Jin, voiced by Orion Lee) that will make anyone drool, but it’s Shi’s multi-faceted response to the tensions of culturally divided families that hit hardest. Mei, for all her early puffery, does want to please her family, but Ming’s rigid rules and straitlaced nature leave little room for Mei to be her wacky, wild, weird teen self.
That tension — plus all that teen girl confusion, multiplied by red panda mania — manifests in bright, colorful, zippy animation (some of the best in recent Pixar memory), with Shi and her animators often unfurling more classic style animation to tell storybook scenes or to contextualize the legacy of what Mei is enduring. It’s emotional, stunning, and a joy to behold. That can be said of the entire film, which sets a course for what a modern Pixar film can (and should) look like, sound like, and obsess over. The lessons are of the usual sort — how to be true to yourself, how to honor your family and friends, the value of culture in all its forms, the need to find humor — but they are rendered fresh and new, with “Turning Red” turning in one of Pixar’s best films not just about the pain of life, but the very joy of it, too.
“Turning Red” will be available to stream on Disney+ on Friday, March 11.