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► Turning Red is available to stream on Disney+ from March 11. 

Mei Lee, a 13-year-old girl, works at her family temple in Toronto, helping to maintain the traditions of her Chinese ancestors while striving for the approval of her domineering mother. Then, one day, she turns into a giant red panda – temporarily, it transpires, as this transformation is caused by any display of extreme emotion and is reversed once Mei calms down.

This gift/curse is soon discovered by Mei’s mother (to whom it is no surprise) and her friends, who are delighted by this cute and cuddly power. Herein lies the central conflict of this 2002-set coming-of-age story: a mother who deems ‘the panda’ as a curse to be cured, and friends who feel it is something to be celebrated.

As with 2020’s Soul, Turning Red sees Pixar departing from its traditional viewership of young children, the film instead courting a millennial audience who have grown up with the studio’s films. Mei, as a young teen in the early Noughties, experiences a childhood of tangible things: Tamagotchis, flip phones and CDs, a generation removed from the digital natives of Gen Z.

There’s plenty for younger viewers to enjoy here too, though, not least the beautifully crisp animation, which diverges slightly from the usual Pixar style, taking notes from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s work for Sony Pictures Animation (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Mitchells vs. the Machines) with its use of jump cuts and exaggerated facial expressions.

Turning Red (2022)
Turning Red (2022)
© Courtesy of Disney+

Turning Red invites multiple readings of Mei’s special ability, some more direct than others. This is undoubtedly a film about puberty, about new, strong emotions and a growing awareness of sexuality, as represented by Mei and friends’ objects of desire, 4-Town (a perfect pastiche of the era’s ubiquitous colour-coordinated boy bands, with suitably infectious songs written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell).

One scene, in which Mei’s mother incorrectly assumes that Mei has had her first period, places the ‘red panda’ as a euphemism for menstruation. Equally, there are parallels between the panda – which must be suppressed to make it easier for it to be ‘cured’ – and queerness, particularly given that Mei gains a better understanding of her panda through the acceptance of her friends.

That Turning Red so successfully blends these teen issues with giddy humour, is due in no small part to director and co-writer Domee Shi, who also created the wonderful short Bao (2018). Her childhood in Toronto, combined with her Chinese heritage, informs a rich evocation of Chinese-Canadian culture, a firm foundation from which the film’s less autobiographical elements – giant red pandas and all – can burst.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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