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‘Turning Red’ review: Toronto-based Pixar movie an absolute joy from start to finish

Animated coming-of-age movies are a dime a dozen. They’ve been done so often, in fact, that it’s tough to come up with something original, and they usually end up following the same predictable formula. Characters tend to be just as dull — even those meant to be comedic relief — and we’re able to guess plot points an hour before they happen.

Enter 13-year-old Meilin (Mei, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), the central figure of Pixar’s Turning Red, who, within seconds, becomes one of the most enjoyable and lovable characters the studio has ever put out. She’s a nut, a typical teen, fixated with boy band 4*Town and her self-image. She also has to contend with her “tiger mom,” Ming (Sandra Oh), who obsesses over her daughter’s every move, her grades, her after-school activity, her… well, everything.

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Things start changing for Mei, in a big way, and we’re not just talking about puberty. After an intense dream, Mei transforms into a huge red panda. With echoes of ’80s movie Teen Wolf, Turning Red follows Mei as she learns to navigate life with her unique curse, which slowly turns into a blessing as the movie moves forward.

What do you mean by ‘blessing’?

Is it even a coming-of-age movie if you don’t look deep inside yourself to discover who you really are? Transforming into the red panda helps Mei see who she is and releases her from all of her inhibitions. She’s less concerned with meeting everyone’s expectations; she’s funny and the life of the party. The message of the movie — to be yourself and let it be known who you really are, to hell with everyone else — comes through loud and clear, and it’s heartwarming.

Will this movie resonate for everyone or is it meant for an Asian audience?

There has been some (now-deleted) discourse on social media about how “exhausting” the movie was for a lone white male critic, and how the movie isn’t as resonant for non-Asian folks. This, of course, is bunk. The movie is so incredibly fun, and so moving, and so sincere, I’m not sure how anybody couldn’t enjoy it. I already can’t wait to watch it again.

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Obviously, given that the main family is Chinese, and director Domee Shi (Bao) is of Chinese heritage, the story may hit more relevant points for people of Chinese descent, but it’s asinine to suggest that non-Asian people can’t identify with the movie. If you’ve ever been a teen, if you’ve ever struggled to fit in at school, if you’ve ever tried to grapple with your parents’ expectations, if you’ve ever had to choose between friends, if you’ve ever had a crush on a pop star, then I think you’ll be fine with Turning Red.

How’s the cast?

The cast is a joy. Each and every single one of them. Standouts include Mei’s group of friends — scene-stealers, all — and Mei’s many aunts, who come barging onto Mei’s family’s property in a very memorable and hilarious scene. Credit to the animators here, as the outfits, hairstyles, glasses and every other teensy detail are simply spot-on.

What about the Toronto love?

As a born-and-raised Torontonian, I am clearly biased, but the city is presented in such a wonderful light, I felt so proud and overwhelmed with each shot of the CN Tower or the city skyline. As Turning Red is based in the early 2000s, the Rogers Centre is still called the SkyDome, a nice touch that’ll tickle city denizens. Little touches like the Spadina streetcars, the Daisy Mart and even the tops of certain buildings in Kensington Market really capture Toronto and its sometimes-elusive beauty.

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So what’s the bottom line?

Turning Red is non-stop fun, from start to finish. There’s nary a dull moment, and it’s so highly entertaining in every way: dialogue, animation, plot, message. For a directorial debut, Shi has really turned in a top-notch product. People of all ages, young and old, will love the movie, and it should instantly become a family classic on holidays and at gatherings. It’s not an everyday thing to shed tears both laughing and crying, but you will at Turning Red.

‘Turning Red’ is now available to watch on Disney+.

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