Meet Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian student who has been called ‘mildly annoying’, ‘very enterprising’, ‘a major weirdo’ and ‘an over achieving dork’, and she doesn’t care. In fact, as she says, she accepts and embraces all labels. She wears what she wants, say what she wants, 24/7, 365, and that’s the way she likes it.
Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) and her best friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Par) are also huge fans of boyband 4*Town, and would give anything to watch them in concert. The only problem is, her overprotective mother Ming (Sandra Oh) would never give her permission to do so.
Then one morning, Meilin’s life is turned upside down when she wakes up to discover that she has transformed into a giant red panda, courtesy of a family ‘blessing’ passed down from her ancestors.
Any strong emotion will trigger the transformation. When she cries, POOF! When she gets angry, POOF! When she gets excited over a 4*Town concert, POOF! When she sees her secret crush Devon, POOF! (And the odd AWOOOGAH!). You get the picture.
Despite the family-friendly nature of their films, Pixar has never been one to shy away from difficult themes. In the past, they’ve touched on death (Soul, Coco), emotions (Inside Out), grief (Onward, Up), and now, first-time feature director Domee Shi (best known for the Pixar short Bao) tackles the life-changing experiences of puberty and what it means to be a girl on the cusp of adulthood.
With Turning Red (which premieres exclusively on Disney+ Hotstar on March 11), Shi deftly addresses the changes that young girls go through, both mentally and physically (name me another animated feature that mentions menstruation), while delivering one of the funniest and most enthralling Pixar films in recent years.
The challenges of parenthood is another topic that Pixar keeps returning to, and for good reason too – it allows the various directors to strike a balance between being a kid-friendly flick and one that the adults (especially those who are parents) can relate to and learn from as well.
Here, Sandra Oh’s over-protective mother serves as a reminder that there is a fine line between caring and wanting the best for your children, and smothering them to the point where they can’t live the lives they want.
To her credit, Oh never goes TOO ‘Tiger mum’ with her voice performance, and gives the character a balance of exasperation and concern that every parent can relate to. (Heck, it made me think about how I'm raising my daughter as well).
The MVP of the show, however, is Chiang, whose vivacious voicing of Meilin perfectly captures the tween-age exuberance of the character while handling the more emotional beats perfectly. Orion Lee’s understated performance as Meilin’s father Jin is another standout, and the perfect example of a character not having to say a lot to make a huge impact.
The only gripe I have with this film is that it is not being shown in the cinemas, as the animation is gorgeously vibrant and full of life, and many of the scenes would have been brilliant to watch on screen.
As much as I loved the Toy Story and Incredibles movies, Pixar has always been at its best when telling smaller, original stories. From masterpieces like WALL-E, Inside Out and Up to its last few movies Soul, Onward and Luca (which may not have made the biggest of splashes, but were still highly memorable,) these are movies that you can watch again and again, each time, you will still feel the same emotions, laugh at the same jokes, and tear up at the same scenes. And in that respect, Pixar has added another masterful feather in its cap with Turning Red.
One of Pixar's best films in recent years