Toronto plays itself in Pixar’s funniest film since Inside Out

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | March 10, 2022

Turning Red
Opens March 11

Not since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has a movie so defiantly Canadian hit the market aiming to world domination. Sure, Pilgrim failed miserably at the box office (settling instead for becoming a cult classic). But Pixar’s latest, Turning Red, reminds you constantly that it’s set in Toronto: there’s the CN Tower! Chinatown! That smarmy centre-of-the-universe attitude!

Directed by Domee Shi (ostensibly, if not officially, based on her experiences growing up in Toronto), Turning Red is easily the funniest Pixar production since Inside Out — and only a little less insightful, without the full-of-itself attitude of Soul. As usual with the animated powerhouse, the fun and games smuggle in some poignant observations about human behaviour — in this case, early teendom and the often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters.

Turning Red is more Looney Tunes than your average Pixar entry. The story is set in a dark era — the early aughts, when Rogers Centre was called SkyDome, and vapid boy-bands were huge (wait a minute…), and focuses on Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) — a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl ready to take high school by storm. A proud nerd and overachiever by any measure, she has a tight group of friends and a solid relationship with her parents. Mei’s got the world on a string… or so she thinks.

A growing interest in boys and a spike in the intensity of her emotions trigger physical changes well beyond the typical ones: every time Mei gets over-excited, she turns into… a cuddly red panda. Turns out the women in her family have been blessed (cursed?) with this gift for thousands of years, and the only way to get rid of the animal inside is through a ritual one month after the panda’s emergence.

In the meantime, Mei has no alternative but learn to keep her emotions in check. Her relative success, plus her growing appreciation for her alter-ego, put her on a collision course with her loving, but controlling and tightly wound mother (a superb Sandra Oh).

The strong setup is aided by well-defined characters that flirt with stereotype but are anything but. The film doesn’t just hint at menstruation, it actually goes there in classically delightful fashion. When Pixar caters to young girls (Brave, Inside Out), it delivers in spades. Sadly, it’s not all that often.

While the top half generates genuine belly laughs (mostly from Mei’s increasingly embarrassing situation), the second half hits a bump when the mother-daughter conflict starts to unfold. Thankfully, Turning Red has a knack to extract itself from sticky situations using comedy without challenging the film’s inner logic.

As messages go, the idea teens should embrace their emotions to control them (as opposed to repressing them and becoming a time bomb) is very “modern parenting” — but worth listening to.