Turning Red

Pixar's Turning Red is a spiritual successor to their blockbuster hit Inside Out. That earlier film was about a little girl learning to cope with her emotions after a move to a new town; this one is about a tween trying to wrangle the out-of-control feelings that accompany puberty. Both movies explore what it means to feel things deeply. The difference is that Turning Red deals with how emotions affect our heroine outwardly, rather than internally. And to say they affect her outwardly is a massive understatement.

Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a normal 13-year-old girl living in Canada with her overprotective mother Ming (Sandra Oh) and her laid-back father Jin (Orion Lee). She loves to hang out with her three best friends. All of them are obsessed with a boy band called 4*Town. Mei's life changes when she awakens from a nightmare, only to discover that she's turned into a giant red panda. When she tries to hide the situation from her parents, Ming assumes she's just gotten her first period. Well, let's be honest – the movie is a metaphor for puberty in all its forms.

Eventually Mei learns to deal with the problem. When she keeps her emotions calm, she's okay. Whenever she feels something too strongly, the panda comes out. Keeping the situation contained becomes difficult when Mei and friends plan to covertly attend a 4*Town concert on the exact same night that Ming intends to force her daughter to participate in a ceremony designed to lock her panda side away.

Turning Red is Pixar's loosest, funkiest film to date. Watching Mei abruptly “poof” into a panda at embarrassing moments is hilarious. The conceit is used to represent all the things we're humiliated by in those awkward adolescent years, so there's a level of identification accompanying the laughter. That's just the start of the weirdness. There are menstruation jokes courtesy of Ming, gags related to the girls excessive swooning over the boy band, and a finale set inside a concert arena that's kind of like Pacific Rim-meets-Backstreet Boys.

All of the crazy happenings work because they're funny, but also because they serve the basic theme, which is that adolescence is a time of confusion and mortification. Younger kids can delight in the panda shenanigans. Teens and adults will feel flashes of recognition. One of the great things about Pixar is that their stories almost always dive deep into whatever the subject is. The Toy Story pictures, for example, demonstrated a total understanding of the meaning playthings have in our lives. Turning Red is the same way about growing up. A core layer of truth runs throughout, and that truth makes the funny stuff funnier.

Appealing vocal performances and typically superb animation add to the enjoyment. As an extra bonus, you get a secondary theme looking at the Mei/Ming relationship – a bond that is loving, yet still impacted by the eternal clash between conservative parents and children seeking new experiences. Directed with palpable enthusiasm by Domee Shi, who previously made the sweet Pixar short Bao, Turning Red is an often uproarious ode to a time in most people's lives that is simultaneously awful and awesome.

out of four

Turning Red is rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.