There’s a lot worth celebrating about Pixar’s latest, despite the disappointing ongoing trend of a studio that once single-handedly put animation back on the big screen dispatching another film straight onto Disney’s streaming platform. With no disrespect to anyone’s living room, it’s a bit like putting the Terracotta Army on display at a garden centre.
Happily, Turning Red is a highly re-streamable delight. Helter-skelter, a bit mad and full of heart, it bounces along with the out-of-control energy of the early adolescence its depicts. When it pauses, it also offers a seriously touching snapshot of mums and their daughters, as well as a smart critique of why the burden of family expectations and the inevitability of teenage boundary-pushing usually results in carnage.
Its hero, Mei Lee (voiced by tweenage San Fran actor Rosalie Chiang), is just your average Toronto high-schooler coming of age in the early noughts: she’s acing her grades, is rendered dorky around the handsome emo boy at the local convenience store, gets regularly embarrassed by her strict and controlling mum (Sandra Oh), and joins her three girl pals in crushing on an NSYNC-ish boy band called 4*Town.
Oh, and she ‘puffs’ into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited or stressed. Which, being 13, is often.
It bounces along with the out-of-control energy of the early adolescence it depicts
The movie’s inner tension comes from the family curse that causes this transformation, and as it builds as Turning Red neatly expands its Chinese mythology to introduce a small posse of older rellies onto the scene and a one-off shot at reversing it. But while not quite top-tier Pixar, Turning Red works so well because it makes Mei Lee’s panda-side all of a part with her teenage self. Her fury at the coming-of-age curse are mostly directed at the prospect of missing the upcoming 4*Town concert, rather than being transformed into a 10-foot furball against her will. The coming-of age metaphor harmonises perfectly with the narrative, just as it did in Inside Out.
There’s an entertaining moment when the curse first strikes in the bathroom and dad Jin Lee (First Cow’s Orion Lee) misconstrues what’s happening to his daughter. It’s not hard to spot the subtext here, even before dad tiptoes sheepishly away in a manner fathers everywhere can probably relate to.
For all its CG bells and whistles – and the pandas are gorgeously realised, right down to their micro-detailed fur and blazing eyes – and the superstar songwriting chops of Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell, who provide the 4*Town tunes – it’s clearly a handwoven labour of love from Canadian-Chinese animator Domee Shi (Bao). As well as Pixar’s first solo female director (Brenda Chapman was joint director on Brave and she was sacked, so not a studio equality highpoint), Shi has created the studio’s most diverse cast of characters to date.
She and co-writer Julia Cho also take the handbrake off completely with a borderline demented climax, but maybe their boldest move is tackling female puberty in such a candid, empathetic way. They’ve made a billion parent-daughter conversations just a little easier.
On Disney+ worldwide Mar 11.