Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a precocious thirteen-year-old in Toronto who suddenly turns into a giant red panda whenever she experiences strong emotions. Her mother (Sandra Oh) is desperate to keep her daughter safe and arranges for a mystical ceremony to help rid her of the panda within, but when Mei begins to embrace her changes, the two come into conflict with one another...
Much of Pixar's oeuvre has been about childhood or adulthood. 'The Incredibles', for example, is about family dynamics and conflict with working parents. 'Toy Story' covered the very idea of childhood innocence through to young adulthood, while 'Inside Out' examined childhood emotions and the formation of self. 'Turning Red', however, aims itself at a topic everyone is familiar with and isn't afraid to embrace the painfulness of it. Namely, becoming a teenager.
Throughout 'Turning Red' and its hectic 100-minute runtime, we see Mei Lee combat the wild panda she manifests standing in for hormones with all of the awkwardness and fear you'd expect, carefully balancing it between humour and heart as Pixar always does. It's never afraid to really needle just how terrifying being a teenager is, be it first crushes or the fear of losing connection with parental figures. The script by Domee Shi and Julia Cho grasps fully that growing into a teenager is about rebelling and conforming while trying to grow so that you can hopefully reach a place where you're comfortable in your own skin. When you look at other movies that have tried to take this topic on previously, very few have done it so smartly as it's been done here.
The animation is clearly derived from anime and mangas, gathering up the bubble-gum colours and the over-the-top action, while the humour is derived from the physical comedy of Mei Lee as a giant panda trying to navigate a small house, or losing it when she sees a box full of kittens. The voice cast, as well, is made up of real, reliable voice actors - not just famous people pulled off the street and shoved into a recording booth. The most recognisable voice in the main cast is Sandra Oh, but she's able to portray both the helicopter mom aspects and the heartbreak of a mother losing her daughter to womanhood. Rosalie Chiang has all the awkwardness and verve you'd expect but is able to grasp the delicate twists and turns of the story too.
Although 'Turning Red' is being pushed straight to Disney+ and bypassing cinemas, don't let that for one second indicate a lack of quality or any reason you or your little ones shouldn't watch it. It's a fantastically pitched story of teenage awkwardness with real moments of comedy blended into the story. Even if some of the cultural representations soar over your head - the SkyDome is a big thing in Toronto, seemingly? - and it blasts through the story with only a handful of moments to let the story breathe, there's still so much here in 'Turning Red' that you'll recognise and appreciate how they're crafted into this.
If only real-life teenage awkwardness was as neat and efficient as this.