Animation feature film “Turning Red”, the latest work from Pixar Animation Studios which unfortunately goes straight to Disney+ instead of being released in theaters, is a delightful female coming-of-age tale peppered with distinctive cultural touches to be appreciated. Like several recent Disney animation films such as “Encanto” (2021) and “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), it embraces and embodies its cultural background with gusto and energy in addition to gleefully brandishing female empowerment and solidarity, and the result is another welcoming dose of fresh air of diversity into Disney animation.
The story, which is set in Toronto, Canada in 2002, mainly revolves around Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a plucky 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl who could be my nemesis if my adolescent self were in her middle school. When I was around her age, I was your average Asian overachiever not so different her in many aspects, and I still remember a lot how I was frequently occupied with maintaining a continuous stream of high test scores to impress and please my parents and teachers more. Yes, unless my mind was resting via books and movies, I was often zealously (and psychotically, perhaps) obsessed with being at the top of not only my class but also the whole school, and the World War III could have been possible if I had ever happened to compete with a truly worthy match like Meilin.
Everything in Meilin’s daily life is constantly under control by her strict and overprotective mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), and Meilin has been mostly content with that, but, just like her several close school friends, she cannot help but feel helplessly swooned in case of a certain very popular boy group consisting of five very handsome dudes. They are all excited when they learn that the upcoming concert of that boy group will soon be held in their city, and Meilin is quite determined to attend the concert along with her friends even though she does not tell anything to her parents yet.
However, there comes an unexpected change on one day. Not long after her personal romantic feelings toward a certain boy in the neighborhood get exposed to everyone, Meilin goes through lots of emotional upheavals throughout the following night, and her very intense emotional experience happens to trigger something hidden inside herself. When she wakes up, she is shocked to find herself transformed into a big red panda, and that accordingly causes lots of trouble at her home as well as her school.
Once they find out what happens to their dear daughter, Meilin’s parents belatedly reveal a little family secret. For many centuries, the female members of her old family could transform into big red pandas due to their mystic connection with red pandas, and all Meilin will have to do is holding her emotions under control for avoiding another transformation before eventually going through a magical ritual for getting normal again.
However, of course, it is not so easy to control emotions for Meilin because, after all, she is an adolescent girl susceptible to all those strong emotions associated with adolescence. While never hesitating to generate plenty of gags from her emotional/physical struggles, the film also finds some poignancy from how Meilin’s school friends come to provide support and help once they happen to learn of Meilin’s extraordinary situation, and it is often exhilarating to watch them working together for getting what they are wanting so eagerly.
After cheerfully bouncing from one inspired comic moment to another, the film becomes a bit more serious during its climax part, but the story by director Domee Shi, who previously won an Oscar for her short animation film “Bao” (2018), and her two co-writers Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher never stops rolling. Besides being often rich and interesting in case of small and big cultural/ethnic details, the film depicts its story and characters with considerable wit, care, and affection, and we gladly go along with that as alternatively tickled and touched along the story.
The main cast members of the film are all solid in their effective voice acting. While young performer Rosalie Chiang effortlessly functions as the heart and soul of the film, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan are well-cast as Meilin’s best friends, and the unadorned rapport among them and Chiang constantly energizes the screen. While Sandra Oh, an ever-reliable Korean Canadian actress who has seldom disappointed us since her breakthrough supporting turn in Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” (2004), brings an ample amount of personality and humanity to her archetype role, Orion Lee, whom you may remember for his gentle performance in Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” (2019), humbly stays in the background as demanded, and it is certainly nice to see that James Hong, a great Chinese American character actor who appeared in many different films ranging from “Chinatown” (1974) to “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986), is still working as usual.
In conclusion, “Turning Red” is another successful work from Pixar Animation Studios, and it is a shame that we cannot watch it on big theater screen. To be frank with you, I am willing to watch it again sooner or later for appreciating its numerous goodies more, and, as you know, that is a definite sign of excellent animation film.