You can tell Pixar’s “Turning Red,” a charming new animated film now streaming on Disney+, was directed by someone who grew up in Toronto. Academy Award® winning director Domee Shi includes such staples of city life as a TTC pass and the CN Tower, but it is her reference to the Skydome, the original and only proper name, of the arena now known as the Rogers Center, that cements her Hogtown bona fides.
Meilin Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), the movie’s main character, is a free spirit in a traditional family. She likes to dance, hangout with her friends and she especially loves the boy band 4*Town. “Ever since I turned thirteen,” she says, “I’ve been doing my own thing.”
She is navigating the line between dutiful daughter to mother Ming (voice of Sandra Oh) and nonconformist. “Number one rule in my family is honor your parents,” she says, “but, if you take it too far you might forget to honor yourself.”
Everything changes for Meilin one morning after she has a nightmare and before you can say, “Poof!,” she changes into a giant red panda. Hearing a commotion upstairs, Ming investigates. “You are a woman now and your body is starting to change,” she says through the door to her obviously upset daughter.
When the truth of the situation is revealed, Ming is not surprised. Turns out the panda transformation runs in the family, usually following some kind of emotional episode. Unless Meilin wants to be a shapeshifter for the rest of her life, she has to listen to her parents. “There is a darkness to the panda,” says Mei’s father Jin Lee (Orion Lee). “You only have one chance to banish it. And you cannot fail, otherwise you’ll never be free.”
A special ceremony can cure her of the plight, but it must be performed under the red moon, which is one month away, the same night as the big 4*Town show at the Skydome.
“Turning Red” is an imaginatively animated movie that will make your eyeballs dance. Toronto is lovingly recreated and the characters have personality to burn. Mei’s alter ego, the giant red panda, is equal parts terrifying and adorable, a metaphor for puberty come to life, writ large. Topped off with great voice work from Chiang and Oh, it’s a Pixar worthy effort that can sit on the shelf next to the classics like “Up,” “WALL-E’ and “Toy Story.”
The coming-of-age story is equally well handled. The importance of family is a key message, like it is in many kid’s movies, but it is Shi’s sensitive (and very funny) lessons of asserting and being true to yourself that set it apart. Mei feels smothered by the overprotective Ming, but she sticks up for herself, even if it is scary. “I’m changing mom,” she says. “I’m afraid it will take me away from you.”
“Don’t hold back, for anyone,” replies Ming. ”The farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.”
It’s more touching and more nuanced than you might expect from a film about a young girl who changes into a panda, but “Turning Red” is that movie. It is unafraid to be silly, serious and heartfelt, often at the same time. It’s a lovely, insightful portrait of the chaos of being a kid and how respect, family and friends (and a little boy band music) can help smooth out the wild ride. Oh, and Toronto has rarely looked better on screen!