Pixar’s 25th animated feature Turning Red hits Disney+ this Friday. One would think its owner Disney, never afraid to celebrate an anniversary, would be making something more out of that. Then again, Pixar seems relegated to a strange place of late. Its features used to be a big commercial draw in cinemas; Turning Red marks the third release in a row to go direct to a streaming service instead. Back in 2006 Disney purchased Pixar outright in a US$7.4 billion stock deal, because the quality of the latter’s films far exceeded those of the former. 16 years later and Disney’s own animated films have more than caught up, with the likes of Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Moana, and Encanto proving both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. It genuinely feels as if Disney is finding Pixar’s continued presence on the schedule to be an awkward inconvenience: surplus to requirements and unhelpful for corporate branding purposes.
Make no mistake: Domee Shi’s Turning Red absolutely deserves a theatrical release. It is a bright, colourful, and immensely satisfying animated fantasy that comfortably sits in the upper echelon of Pixar films. Like the best of the company’s features it is based on a simple and inspired premise: what if every time a 13 year-old girl becomes emotional, she transforms into a giant red panda?
It works because it is following a long tradition of “Jekyll and Hyde” narratives – you could almost describe it as “the Incredible Hulk for kids”, were the Incredible Hulk not already the Incredible Hulk for kids (something fans of superhero movies would do well to remember). It is certainly a joyful re-interpretation of the concept, in particular because Shi uses the set-up so well for allegorical purposes. Puberty, hormonal changes, emerging sexuality, menstruation – it all ties into the one big fluffy thematic stand-in, handled with integrity and told from a woman’s point of view. (It’s the best Disney film about periods since 1946’s The Story of Menstruation, if the studio is looking for a pull quote.)
Domee Shi is indeed the first woman to fully direct a Pixar feature film. She is preceded by Brave‘s Brenda Chapman of course, but Chapman suffered the indignity of being replaced in mid-production of her own screenplay and had to fight to be allowed on-stage when the film won an Academy Award. Shi, at least, was allowed to finish what she started, and hopefully will not be the last woman to direct a Pixar movie. Indeed the deft manner in which Shi portrays female adolescence and mother-daughter relationships ably demonstrates why Pixar needs more women developing their films.
Shi infuses much of her own Chinese culture and heritage into Turning Red, which gives it a lively and inspired background to the action. There is also a clear anime influence on the production: not only is protagonist Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) heavily inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, one of her best friends Abby (Hyein Park) is a walking Akira Tomiyama tribute. One of the best elements of the film is how it blends and contrasts varying cultures alongside each another, and it is good to see that play out in the casting as well (with a voice cast including both Sandra Oh and James Hong).
Turning Red is resoundingly funny, wonderfully expressed, and cleverly constructed. It takes a story that is grounded in one culture, but tells it in a way that provides relevance for all. Most of all it stands as proof of why we need more women writing and directing popular cinema: in a better world this female perspective and authenticity of women’s experience should not feel as refreshing as Turning Red does.