"Turning Red" is delightful Pixar panda-monium set in Toronto
Pixar animated comic fantasy featuring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Wai Ching Ho, Orion Lee, James Hong and Finneas O’Connell. Written by Domee Shi and Julia Cho. Directed by Domee Shi. Streaming begins Feb. 11 on Disney Plus. 100 minutes. PG
Cartoon factory Pixar has been pumping out predictable product for so long — “Cars 3,” anyone? — that it’s been difficult lately to get excited about the widgets rolling off the conveyor belt.
“Turning Red” delightfully stops the slide. This feature debut by Toronto writer/director Domee Shi, an Oscar winner for her 2018 short “Bao,” is the blast of creativity that Pixar needs and that everyone can love.
The first Pixar film set in Canada and the first to be solely directed by a woman, it’s also the best Pixar film since “Inside Out” (2015), for which Shi was a story artist. “Inside Out” went inside the mind and emotions of a young girl for a unique and empathetic adventure.
“Turning Red” has similar interiority, but it goes one supernatural step further: it morphs beastly bodily changes into literal animals.
Situated in the Toronto of 20 years ago, a place and time fondly recalled and vividly recreated by Shi and her team, the film is a comic fantasy about the mental and physical vexations suddenly visited upon 13-year-old Meilin Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang.
Intense emotions unleashed by the onset of puberty and menstruation transform Meilin into a giant red panda, due to an “inconvenient genetic thingie” in her Chinese Canadian family.
Stricken with fear, shame and confusion, Meilin calls herself “a freak” and “a gross red monster.” But her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), and father, Jin (Orion Lee), know better. They’ve been keeping a secret from her.
Meilin is the latest female member of the Lee family to come under the ancient spell of Sun Yee, a red panda-loving ancestor. Seen as both a curse and a blessing (the menstruation metaphors are abundant), the spell can be reversed in a ceremony conducted under a red moon, which will happen in a couple of weeks or so.
In the meantime, Meilin will have to learn to live with the reality that she could turn into a giant red panda at any time. This is especially hard for an eighth-grader as disciplined as her: a goody-goody neat freak attired with sensible spectacles, sweater and skirt, Meilin is used to excelling at whatever she attempts, always under the authoritarian eye of Ming, who accepts nothing less than perfection.
Cue “Tiger Mom” jokes, but if you think Ming is tough, wait until you meet Grandma (Wai Ching Ho), whose sudden arrival is one of several sharp turns in this pinball-machine of a plot, which in its slightly scary third act resembles a cross between “Godzilla” and “Ghostbusters.” Shi co-wrote it with Julia Cho (TV’s “Halt and Catch Fire”).
Fortunately for Meilin, her monstrous new form only temporarily fazes her besties: take-charge Miriam (Ava Morse), oh-so-serious Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and excitable Abby (Hyein Park).
After wondering for a second if maybe Meilin has turned into a werewolf — this may be a sly shout-out to the Canadian werewolf saga “Ginger Snaps” — they happily embrace the new and more rebellious Meilin.
The four pals hatch a plan to make money from Meilin’s plight: they’ll charge their classmates to party with Meilin, who prove all too eager to have photos taken as they dance with the cuddly giant.
Meilin and her pals need $800 to buy four tickets to see 4*Town, the adored superstar boy band (think New Kids on the Block or *NSYNC) that’s coming to town for a concert at SkyDome, as the Rogers Centre was known back in 2002.
(The band sings catchy love ditties such as “Nobody Like U” and “U Know What’s Up,” written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, with Finneas playing one of the 4*Town dudes. Bonus: the songs are actually OK.)
One of the most entertaining things about “Turning Red” is its many shout-outs to Toronto and Canadians. For once, Toronto isn’t playing another city. The CN Tower is in many scenes and TTC streetcars (the old, shorter kind) trundle along squeaky-clean roads.
We see Daisy Mart shops, Tim Hortons doughnuts, a bobble-headed moose, Ontario licence plates and colourful Canadian dollars. We hear a reference to Céline Dion and see a blue jay — the avian kind, not the baseball kind.
“Turning Red” eschews the usual fantasy tropes about monstrous transformations, which often involve the changed person being unable to speak — such as the mom who becomes a bear in “Brave,” a lesser Pixar film of a decade ago. Meilin remains every bit the chatterbox when she’s big and furry.
Best of all, everybody just accepts the fact that Meilin is different, which speaks to the virtue of Toronto’s genuine diversity: the many hues of people we see in “Turning Red” are the same as what we see in real life.
If everybody has their own look, then nobody looks strange. A giant red panda can fit easily into a place like this.
This empowerment also applies to being proudly female and pubescent, no matter whether you’re a panda or a person.
“I’m 13!” Meilin growls. “Deal with it!” 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)