Twenty-seven years ago, Pixar changed the world of animation with Toy Story. In the years since, the studio has masterfully crafted a wide range of computer-animated stories that allow its audiences to empathize and fall in love with the likes of rats, insects, and monsters. Pixar’s latest film, Turning Redcaptures that familiar magic, while also striking out on its own in refreshing ways never seen before from the studio.
Turning Red, which became available to stream on Disney+ on Friday, is Pixar’s 25th feature film. It centers not on some fish or monster voiced by a famous comedian, nor on a male character in general—like 20 of the studio’s previous 24 films have. Rather, Turning Red follows an awkward, yet unabashedly confident 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl named Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in early-2000s Toronto. She’s an honor student who lives to serve her parents and make them proud, especially her overbearing mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei’s chief responsibility—outside of staying on her path to become UN Secretary-General, of course—is to help maintain the family’s temple. But Mei’s life changes in an instant when she wakes up one day as a giant red panda.
Directed and co-written by Domee Shi in her feature-length debut, Turning Red is the first Pixar film to be solely directed by a woman. (2012’s Brave initially had Brenda Chapman at the helm, and though she retained a credit, Chapman was fired during production over “creative differences” and replaced by a man.) And unless you’re including Russell as the second lead in 2009’s Upthe movie also features the studio’s first Asian lead character. Turning Red is as hilarious as it is poignant, and it features beautiful animation along with some terrific voice acting from a diverse cast. Perhaps above all, though, the movie is fearless in its approach to focusing the story on a young Chinese Canadian girl and her three best friends as they transition into puberty, covering everything from periods to a sudden interest in boys. Turning Red may be about Mei learning to control her inner panda, a longstanding familial “inconvenience” which breaks free every time she experiences strong emotions, but it’s also a menstrual allegory—one that you wouldn’t expect to fly at the Walt Disney–owned Pixar Animation Studios.
Early in the film, a half-asleep Mei wanders into the bathroom and shocks herself awake when her reflection in the mirror reveals a massive red panda looking back at her. Moments after she screams in terror, Mei’s mother is standing outside of the bathroom door asking questions like, “Did the red peony bloom?” Ming springs into action, barging into the bathroom with a quickly assembled box of painkillers and pads, and starts her “You’re beginning to become a woman” speech. Meanwhile, Mei is cowering on the other side of the shower curtain, looking like the modern-day red Totoro. “I wanted to explore this adolescent girl going through bodily and emotional changes and her relationship with the most important person in her life, her mother,” Shi told Toronto Life. “And I wanted to combine it with the red panda, which I think is the cutest animal on the planet.”
Shi arrived at Pixar as a storyboarding intern in 2011, later rising to staff artist to work on films like Inside Out and Incredibles 2. She initially made a splash when she became the first woman to direct a short for Pixar, with 2018’s Oscar-winning Bao. Despite the film being only eight minutes long, and without the use of a single spoken word, Bao is a bite-sized emotional journey that showcases Shi’s unique sensibilities as a storyteller. (In hindsight, it should be no surprise that the same filmmaker who crafted a story about a lonely empty-nester finding solace in a sentient dumpling would go on to create a movie like Turning Red.) The Chinese Canadian director, whose parents immigrated to Toronto from China when she was a toddler, builds on the magic of Bao in Turning Red. Drawing from her own experiences and reflections on her adolescence, community, culture, and relationship with her mother, Shi is continuing to push the boundaries at Disney and Pixar. “How do I sneak this through?” Shi thought to herself before a pitch meeting with executives at Disney. “How do I sell this and get old white men who’ve never experienced this before excited about this and wanting to, like, see more of it?”
Turning Red‘s focus on the Asian community in Toronto and a group of teenage girls who obsess over boys, especially the fictional boy band 4*Town (whose far-too-catchy music was composed by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell) , feels unprecedented for a major animation studio like Pixar—even as the studio and Disney have made strides in representation over the past decade with multicultural stories like Big Hero 6, coconut, Raya and the Last Dragon, Drunkand Encanto. Led by an all-female creative leadership team, with Shi and playwright Julia Cho behind the screenplay, Turning Red has an authentic touch that comes when a story is carefully crafted by those who look like and have shared experiences with the characters on screen. But even though the Turning Red team leapt a major hurdle by getting the all-important green light at Disney, appeasing a wider audience is another matter.
On Tuesday, Cinemablend managing director Sean O’Connell wrote a controversial review of Turning Red, which contained sexist and racist undertones, sending many on Twitter into a frenzy. “Without question, Turning Red is the horniest movie in Pixar history, which parents no doubt will find surprising,” O’Connell wrote in the since-deleted review. “I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members.” (O’Connell went even further in a tweet that accompanied the review, saying the film lacks universal appeal and has a “very narrow” target audience—while also deeming it “exhausting.”) Although this is a frustrating take considering the vast majority of Pixar’s films have been written and directed by white men and centered on male protagonists, the unfortunate truth is O’Connell probably won’t be the only one with this ignorant point of view. Rather than tearing down Turning Red, we should be celebrating it for its ability to spotlight a specific Asian culture and community whose perspectives are historically overlooked in mainstream Western media, while also maintaining a broad universal appeal to, say, anyone who’s experienced puberty. Without spoiling the specifics of it, Turning Red also features an incredible, action-packed finish that beats the endings of the vast majority of superhero movies at their own game.
Turning Red is one of the best films Pixar has made in years, and Disney’s only real mistake here is its decision to forgo a wide theatrical release, as it joins the likes of Drunk and Luke as new releases given a one-way ticket to Disney+. (While I understand the pandemic isn’t over, The Batman just raked in $134 million at the North American box office in its opening weekend, and—unless Sony is attempting to pull off an elaborate April Fools’ joke—even the oft-delayed Morbius will still be hitting theaters in less than a month.) Hopefully the move to streaming will allow plenty of eyes to watch from the comfort of their homes, because Turning Red manages to share the fantastical flourishes of some of its most acclaimed predecessors while remaining as grounded as Pixar has ever been. Disney still has more than a fair share of issues to correct, but with Pixar turning to rising stars like Shi for fresh perspectives, the studio can continue to make strides and push the mainstream animation industry in the right direction.