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Disney/Pixar's "Turning Red": Pixar's Puberty Tale

Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.

Intro

To quote from my Luca review: "No matter what direction the studio goes, Pixar will always continue expanding its creativity onto the world."

This statement could not be more true as new and aspiring animators are taking over the studio's visual storytelling and unleashing their creativity. Following the nostalgic Italy trip by Enrico Casarosa, we head to Canada with Chinese culture from Pixar animator Domee Shi.

Shi has worked on a few films as story artist, but his most significant achievement was the award-winning short film Bao. With this short, Domeen became the first female Pixar director to win an Oscar, and she made history as the first female director of a full-length film when she took on her next project. The movie was originally scheduled for theatrical release. Because of a new variant surge, Disney decided to stream the movie on Disney+ while releasing it in theatres internationally.

To date, this review marks the third Pixar film in a row that was originally planned for theaters, however, the company changes the release date at the last minute. It's understandable that they want to protect their consumers. Even so, putting a big-budget movie on a streaming service is usually risky, and the revenue wouldn't cover the costs. I turn red from rage at that change alone. Apart from that, we could say, at least, Domeen Shi's envisioned project has been released.

When she gets angry or excited, a 13-year-old girl (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) transforms into a giant, red panda.

An Allegorical Story About Puberty

Let's face it: growing up has never been easy. We go through changes both physically and mentally without realization. Sometimes, we want to live a new life but don't how to handle it. Sometimes, those changes would lead to social anxiety and tension among family and peers. But, in the end, it is all natural and part of life. There's nothing to worry about.

That's exactly what Domeen Shi went through during her youth in Toronto and decided to present us a story based on her experience but with a fun and clever twist to it. On paper, this story sounds weird with a family curse scenario, cliched characters, and a foreseeable outcome on the main character's predicament. Anyone that saw the trailer would easily find this concept of a girl turning into a red panda outlandish, even by Pixar standards. But, knowing this is coming from Pixar, the execution helps make the story worth watching and investing throughout.

For those who are familiar with Bao, Domeen Shi took a fairytale-like approach where the titular character, which is a living bun, is a metaphor of herself as a "steamed bun" being overprotected by her mother. In other words, Shi is known for her allegorical storytelling.

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In this movie's case, Domeen Shi decides to expand on her young womanhood experiences by adding her ethnic mythology and the aspects of puberty. For the latter, the movie cleverly tackles the subject matter visually without going into full detail. There is one scene that is so jaw-dropping that even the filmmakers themselves thought it wasn't suitable for this type of movie, but the studio approved it anyway. As for the Chinese culture, it displays a fascinating backstory on how this transformation has passed down from her family's generations and how it affects those around them. As a comedy, the majority of the jokes hit their mark, including one punchline involving a recurring character. Thankfully, the comedic moments don't hinder the emotional components as the heartwarming moments between Mei and her family keep the tone in balance. Admittedly, the climax, without spoiling, would be a matter of one's personal preference, regarding the concept alone. I'm not saying it is a bad climax; it delivers the thrill and psychological results that anyone would expect from Pixar.

Appealing and Cultural Animation

It's no easy comparison that Turning Red has taken an art direction quite similarly to what Cararosa has done with Luca, yet different at the same time.

The visual components that were carried over from Bao are the character designs. While the human characters retained their round appearances, this movie has made them more realistic proportionate with a hint of an anime look. In fact, Domeen Shi was heavily influenced by anime during her youth and that style fits the movie well, thanks to the appeal and expressive facial animations. Not to mention, Mei's design as a red panda really gives out cute and plushy toy vibes thanks to attention to detail on the fur texture. As for the character animation, the movements are down-to-earth while certain characters have their own distinctive flair. These examples include Mei struggling with her emotions or her friend Abby's erratic behavior. The climax is also visually intriguing and intense, which acts more like a homage to kaiju or monster movies.

Although Toronto may seem to look like an average city with a generic middle school, the early 2000s setting helps give it an authentic feeling, including technology and pop culture (i.e. virtual pets and cell phones). Comparing these and the technology we have today, it is considered nostalgic for those who grew up around that period. Once we get to the Lee family temple, it feels comforting and immersive as we learn about the family's history and Chinese culture. The 4*Town concert stadium also brings out the neon colors and scope of an actual concert, along with a mixture of traditional and contemporary music during the climax.

Bonus points go to the effects animations and fantasy sequences whenever we get to Mei's psyche.

It Takes Two Characters to Grow and Bond

It is important to remember that this story is about growing up and how it affects the characters throughout. At first, there may be some simple and commonplace characters, but the execution helps them feel understood and connected towards the end.

Our main protagonist Mei Ling has turned thirteen and is ready to enjoy the new, independent life, such as having crushes and hanging out with her friends. At the same time, she also has a respectful yet complex time with her family, mostly due to her mother's overprotective nature. Once she becomes the giant red panda, Mei's life changes, and now struggles with both her personal and family life. Speaking of her mother, Ming is an overbearing parent whose actions towards her daughter's interests would unintentionally cause more harm than good. While some would view her as an unlikeable character, she is actually an example of letting your emotions get the best of you. Once we learn more about Ming, there is a tragic and sympathetic side that any parent could relate to.

The rest of the Lee family includes the quiet yet supportive father Jin, the stern grandmother Wu and Mei's eccentric aunts. Mei's friends, consisting of the easygoing Miriam, the deadpan Priya, and the aggressive Abby, represent the moral support of Mei's newfound change and the key to calming her nerves. Other characters like the bully Tyler and the shaman Mr. Gao definitely have their moments.

The voice acting is also solid with Rosalie Chiang sounding believable as a child going through changes while Sandra Oh delivers a chilling yet compelling performance. Every actor's performance helped strengthen their character's personalities over their simplicity and Domeen Shi knew how to convey them.

Conclusion

Overall, Turning Red is another great entry in the Pixar film library. For a concept that sounds strange and uncanny, the movie executes it in a delightful and skillful manner. It symbolizes the outlook of puberty with imaginative writing, societal animation, and empathetic characters. This is highly recommended for families and an inspiration for those who are having trouble growing up. For anyone else, it would depend on how one feels towards the concept itself. Watch it once and decide for yourself. It is a shame that this movie didn't get the silver screen treatment as intended. Let us pray from the bottom of our hearts for the future of Pixar and its passionate projects. Growing up can be a literal beast, but Domeen Shi teaches us that everything is okay in the end.

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