Pixar’s latest tackles puberty in adorable and mature ways.
The reason why Meilin Lee looks cute and smells bad is because she’s been turned into a giant red panda, which gives off an odiferous smell to avoid predators. The reason why she would turn into a red panda to begin with is based on how she expresses her emotions. When she’s calm, she’s a human, and when she gets excited, stressed, or angry, Poof!
That’s the set-up for “Turning Red,” the third Disney/Pixar film to be scrapped from theatrical release and put on Disney+, after “Soul” and “Luca.” I think we can all agree it deserves to be shown in theaters. After seeing “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” appear on Amazon Prime and “The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild,” there must be a distinction of what animated movies deserve to be in theaters and what should just go online.
I’m glad the crappy animated features I saw this year so far got put online, but “Turning Red” should be in theaters, because it takes many risks for a Pixar film. Set in Canada between 2002-2003, its innuendos dish on puberty, about how Meilin (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang) doesn’t have to worry about having her periods, for now. Her biggest problem is that she’s lived her life as straight A student under the strict supervision of her mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), who runs the local temple. She would rather help her sweep up and delight tourists than party with her BFFs, and this is like something out of the introduction to”Booksmart.”
The next morning, she wakes up all fluffy, red, and smelly, and struggles to hide it from her mother, who thinks she’s in need of tampons. And like Elsa at her coronation in “Frozen,” Meilin tries to keep a reserved attitude, until it all comes crashing down. That’s when her mom and friends find out, and that’s when she learns it’s all part of a family tradition. And unless they perform a sacred ritual, she’ll be stuck with this power forever.
Threatening to break tradition are her BFFs, who consist of the goodnatured Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), the deadpan Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and the energetic Abby (voiced by Hyein Park). All of them her mother judges as untrustworthy, but they’re more valuable than she knows. In fact, they all stick together to find a way to buy tickets for the upcoming concert of their favorite boyband 4*Town.
“Turning Red” is another delightful entry for Pixar, because of the way it combines cartoonish behaviors with real topics and family generations. It was directed by Domee Shi, who not only won the Oscar for the Pixar short “Bao,” but was also the first woman to direct a Pixar short. In “Turning Red,” she combines the mouth expressions of Hayao Miyazaki with the colors of Wes Anderson. In fact, there’s even a sequence later in the film that really has the style of anime, even though the story is Chinese-themed.
The movie also follows the Disney tradition of giving a newcomer a breakout role in a Disney animated feature. From Jodi Benson in “The Little Mermaid” to Auli’i Cravalho in “Moana” to Anthony Gonzalez in “Coco,” they’re able to give their characters a delightful vibe and add more truth to their voices. Rosalie Chiang joins the club in the ways she adapts to the moods of her character Meilin. And the role for her combines themes from “Booksmart,” “Frozen,” and “My Neighbor Totoro.”
Sandra Oh has fun with the notion of an overprotective mother, while trying to be serious when her character blames other people for her daughter’s leisures. Morse, Ramakrishnan, and Park all have value as the BFFs, while Orion Lee (“First Cow”) has an affectionate aspect as Meilin’s father, and Wan Ching Ho is excellent as her grandmother, who is more strict than her mother.
I would say it’s a movie made for older kids over the age of ten, when it makes some guesses about Meilin having her period. But then again, when I was younger I didn’t know Princess Fiona woke up Mr. Happy for Lord Farquaad in “Shrek.” Another fun example of an animated feature that would appease both adults and kids on different levels. Kids will enjoy how the human turns into a red panda, while adults will admire its creativity, innuendos, and themes.
Streaming on Disney+ This Friday