Review Roundup: Domee Shi’s Turning Red

Pixar’s coming-of-age story about a teen girl who turns into a red panda arrives on Disney+ on March 11.
Turning Red - Domee Shi

In 2018, writer/director Domee Shi released a Pixar short titled Bao, in which a cooked bun comes to life and is adopted by a Chinese woman. The short was widely acclaimed and ended up winning an Oscar for “Best Animated Short.” Following Bao’s success, Shi — who has also worked on various Pixar titles including Inside Out, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4 — was picked to direct an upcoming feature.

The result is Turning Red, a coming-of-age film about a young Chinese girl who discovers her family’s curse: she turns in a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited. Turning Red is Pixar’s 25th feature length movie, and critics are already weighing in on its themes of adolescence, friendship, and family, as well as its anime-inspired visual style and inclusive storytelling.

Hoai-Tran Bui, One of the visually stimulating animated films to come out of Pixar in a long while” 

Turning Red wears its anime influences on its sleeve and its middle-school shame on its face. Its animal transformation conceit is clearly pulled from anime classics like Rumiko Takahashi’s martial arts comedy Ranma 1/2 or Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, while the elastic animation style pays direct homage to anime — Mei’s eyes will suddenly transform into those big, watery anime eyes, or the characters will morph into that flattened 2D anime style, anime flames and lighting bolts will shoot across the frame, while the bright, hyper-saturated colors make everything look and feel bigger — as if the emotions of a preteen girl can’t be contained by the limitations of reality.

Pat Brown, A sweet, if stretched-thin, metaphor of adolescent change” 

[A]s compelling and unique a relationship as it draws between Mei and her mother, Turning Read turns increasingly plodding as it progresses. The culture clash embodied in the mother-daughter tension leads, after some sitcom-esque “sneak out to party” hijinks, to a rather uninspired battle between giant pandas that seems like it could have been taken out of the latest Marvel extravaganza. The metaphor of adolescent change and rebellion was perhaps a bit overworked even before it culminates in an extended, high-energy climax at the 4*TOWN concert in which the action feels less motivated by the characters’ feelings than it does by heavy-handed symbolism and the commercial value of combat between super-beings.

Justin Chang, Fresh blood makes for another unique Pixar delight” 

The influence of Hayao Miyazaki, a touchstone for more than a few Pixar artists, can be discerned in everything from the Totoro-esque dimensions of Mei’s panda to the oval shape of her toothy human grin. In an era that predates Snapchat, the blissful scenes of Mei hanging with her girlfriends recall the rainbow-and-glitter aesthetics of purikura photo booths. (One of those friends, Abby, recalls a cruder era of anime character design.) The climactic action scenes owe something to classic kaiju movies; the more lyrical moments — a dreamlike interlude in a bamboo forest, a scene of Mei’s panda leaping over the moonlit rooftops of Toronto — are pure wuxia epic.

Christie Cronan, Does not cease to delight audiences with unexpected visual treats and surprises” 

But will you Disney cry? You’d better bet my 13-year old Coke bottle glasses that I did. But as a Korean girl growing up in America, I realize that I am 1000% biased. Finally seeing my teenage self on the screen means so much to me personally. Embracing people and seeing them as they are — as flawed, different and unique — it’s a beautiful thing. Maybe Turning Red isn’t as “ugly cry” moving as Inside Out or Up, but there are tears to be shed about the world seeing more and more representation of Asian American girls in film.

Leah Greenblatt, A breezy-smart coming-of-age charmer” 

Shi, who won an Oscar in 2019 for her animated short Bao, is actually the first woman to helm a Pixar feature, which may be why its portrayal of girlhood on the verge feels as true as it does, even as a cartoon; she captures the tsunami of heightened feelings that makes everything matter so much in adolescence, without judging or making fun. She also roots Mei’s story engagingly in family ritual — the Lees hand-shaping dumplings for dinner or lighting incense for their ancestors as a matter of course, not calculated exoticism or lesson-teaching.

Peter Martin, A charming, perceptive and very funny animated adventure” 

Bursting with sly sight gags, clever dialogue, and recognizable situations, Turning Red quickly establishes a cheerful tone that remains resolutely positive. The tone is developed based on core relationships with dearly loved ones: Mei Le and her mother, which is intensely respectful, as well as Mei Le with her three best friends, which is faithfully supportive.

David Rooney, An effervescent balance between folkloric fantasy and contemporary teen-movie tropes” 

Until I saw Turning Red, I had no idea how much I needed the cute overload of a giant red panda scampering over the rooftops of downtown Toronto or stomping through the streets in what seems an homage to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. OK, sorry, massive spoiler, but I didn’t specify which giant red panda. And even if you know what’s coming, the magic of this rollicking metaphor for the rollercoaster of change that is puberty is all in the telling. Director Domee Shi, who brought a dumpling to life in her Oscar-winning short, Bao, graduates to features with flying colors — literally — in this charmer from Pixar.

Laura Sirikul, A sweet story about growing up, not apart” 

Turning Red is a sweet and relatable story about what it means to grow up, but not apart. It also feels like a love letter to being a teenager during the 2000s with its nostalgia — particularly the obsession with boy bands — something I still experience to this day. But it’s the small details that provide a nod for many Asians in the diaspora. From the toilet paper roll in the living room used as tissue to the Asian aunties dressed in tracksuits and wedges, Turning Red doesn’t forget that this story is also for us Asians who have struggled with their identity due to their strong ties to their parents. Mei serves as a reminder that yeah, we should honor thy parents’, but we should also not forget to honor ourselves too.

Drew Taylor, A sweet Asian tween fever dream’ about growing up” 

Shi has made a movie about a character whose body is out of control and whose transformation to adulthood has some additional quirks, but no matter how magical things get, it’s still so relatable. We all feel like gross hairy monsters at that age. And rightfully so — we are. What Turning Red argues is that if we learn to love and accept that hairy sweaty monster part of ourselves, it’ll probably leave us happier, better adjusted, and with healthier relationships with our friends and family. Also, it might get us to that boy band concert we’ve been dying to attend.

Martin Tsai, Delivers a timely message as it tackles a timeless topic” 

In a time when Asian women in North America have endured so much hate and trauma, Turning Red is a little respite that celebrates them and their culture, resilience, intelligence, perfectionism, insecurities, anxieties, quirkiness, feistiness, ingenuity, sisterhood, love of food, etc. We all need a little reassurance once in a while to stay true to ourselves, and Turning Red is speaking directly to generations of Asian women in the diaspora when they need to hear this the most.

Turning Red begins streaming on Disney+ on March 11. Watch the trailer below.