If Pixar movies are, y’know, for kids (they’re not, of course, or at least not exclusively), then you have to admire just how adult their themes are. Mortality, obsolescence, our planet’s demise, emotional dissonance, abstract thought… and now, in Turning Red, menstruation, a topic that ridiculously remains taboo in much of cinema, let alone an animated family adventure.
Here, our hero is Meilin (newcomer Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian living in early 2000s Toronto. A dutiful daughter to her over-protective mother (Sandra Oh) and gentle father (Orion Lee), she works hard and keeps a low profile at school, goofs around with her three best friends (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, Hyein Park) and generally loses her shit whenever boyband 4*Town are mentioned.
Then biology throws Meilin a curveball – she starts turning into a big red panda whenever she gets emotional. Which, being 13, is a lot. And so Meilin tries to ashamedly hide her changing form from friends and classmates. Not easy when your mum turns up at school because you forgot your sanitary pads…
Twenty-five films in, this is the first Pixar feature to be solely directed by a female filmmaker - Domee Shi, who helmed the studio’s Oscar-winning short Bao - and its first with an Asian-led cast. It’s historic, then, and it’s also very good; not Inside Out and Soul good, maybe, but one of the stronger Pixar movies of the last decade.
OK, so it perhaps lacks a truly bring-the-house-down set-piece - although Panda Meilin racing home across rooftops as her mum pursues first by car and then by foot in the streets below has something of The French Connection’s famous chase to it. Meanwhile, the ending, though quietly emotional, doesn’t inspire outright blubs a la Up’s opening montage, or the climax of Toy Story 3.
But Turning Red is funny, thrilling, gorgeously animated, features spot-on boyband tunes written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas, and of course boasts that inspired concept, even if the original Teen Wolf movie did much the same thing 37 years earlier. What’s more, it packs a poignant message about accepting others and, crucially, yourself. “Let out the weird, messy, loud part of yourself,” says one character. Or, as Meilin works up the courage to tell her mum as she embraces her twerking panda with all of its urges: “I like gyrating.”
Turning Red is available on Disney Plus from March 11. For more, check out the best movies on Disney Plus streaming now.