Review: 'Turning Red' is a thrilling funhouse ride fueled by the empowering message to be yourself

"Turning Red" is now streaming only on Disney+.

March 11, 2022, 4:13 AM

Pixar has tackled many a thorny topic through its state-of-the-art-animation -- how sadness is necessary to experience joy in "Inside Out," how love can live on after death in "Coco," how greed impacts humanity in "Wall-E."

But not until the refreshingly wise and wonderful "Turning Red," streaming only on Disney+, has Pixar broached the subject of female puberty.

Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Domee Shi (who helmed the Oscar-winning short "Bao") lavishes her focus on a 13-year-old girl much like herself 20 years ago. She is Meilin Lee (voiced by a fine, feisty Rosalie Chiang), a flute-playing, eighth grade honor student who finds herself rebelling against the strict rules of her helicopter mom, Ming (a standout Sandra Oh).

And when Meilin gets her freak on, letting her excitement fly about everything from boy bands and the store clerk she’s crushing on to her hormonal urge to break chains, she turns into a giant red panda, a comical and cunning metaphor for the roller coaster of messy adolescence.

PHOTO: A scene from "Turning Red."
A scene from "Turning Red."
Disney/Pixar

The repercussions of Meilin’s first period are so beautifully handled within the film’s PG limits that parents needn’t fret. As Meilin learns, she need only calm down to revert to the ideal student her parents so lovingly raised. The big question is: does Meilin really want to conform?

Set in Toronto’s Chinatown in 2002, "Turning Red" builds a Meilin world rooted in Chinese culture by her parents, Ming and Jin (Orion Lee), who operate a temple whose symbol is also a red panda. Still, like most teens, Meilin is most influenced by her peer group.

Her diverse besties -- Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park) -- aren’t scared off by her panda alter ego. In fact, they devise a plan to sell tickets to watch Meilin transform so they can earn cash to see their boy-band idols, 4*TOWN, in concert.

It’s a kick to learn that the band’s hit single, "Nobody Like U," is written by the gifted Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell with the kind of earworm catchiness that ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys would surely have envied back in the day.

PHOTO: A still of characters from Disney and Pixar's "Turning Red."
A still of characters from Disney and Pixar's "Turning Red."
Disney/Pixar

Ming forbids her daughter to attend the concert. Why? "You’ll get whipped up in a frenzy and panda all over the place," says mom. Maybe so. But "Turning Red" is all about Meilin letting her adorkable spirit animal out for a walk on the wild side. And when her parents promise to perform a ritual that will lock away her panda identity for good, Meilin isn’t so sure.

Would you be? Coming of age can be fraught with awkward impulses, but there’s no growth without it. The concert itself is a setup for a war between tradition and the exhilarating freedom of living in the moment. Who can’t relate to that? Even mom gets her panda on.

Does "Turning Red" fall short of peak Pixar ("The Incredibles," the "Toy Story" franchise) by carrying its teachable moments too lightly? Hardly. As Meilin tells Ming, "My panda, my choice, mom."

PHOTO: A scene from "Turning Red."
A scene from "Turning Red."
Disney/Pixar

Unleash your panda and make "Turning Red" your choice for a thrilling funhouse ride fueled by the empowering message to be yourself. It’s some kind of miracle.

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