We all remember those times in our pre-adolescent days when we woke up feeling like a giant red panda, right? Okay, perhaps not a red panda, specifically, but maybe some other woodland creature that smells and can be irritable. The commonality is that growing up can be tough. Pixar’s Turning Red provides another well-animated coming-of-age story, with plenty of specificity. Of course, the more a filmmaker can narrow down the experiences of a family, the more broadly relatable it often tends to be. Well, this film certainly puts that logic to the test, as director Domee Shi (Bao) and co-writer Julia Cho tap into some very culturally specific concepts, with the addition of some magic and young female angst.
Set in the early 2000s, when boy bands and virtual pets were still all the rage, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a Chinese-Canadian girl living two lives. In one life, she is a straight-A student who dedicates all her free time to her studies, working at the family business, and never disobeying her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei’s other life features the free-spirited attitude she has as a young teenage girl obsessed with the pop group 4*Town (their songs written by Billy Eilish and Finneas O’Connell). One morning, Mei discovers that she turns into a giant red panda anytime she becomes too excited or stressed. Soon enough, Mei will learn the shared history her family has with this unique occurrence and will have to find a way to maintain this new stage in her life with the help of her friend group.
Saying a film is unique for Pixar is a bit of a misnomer, as the studio has consistently found ways to move in new and interesting directions (even when it comes to their sequels). Sure, the basic framework may resemble something we’ve come to expect from the animation company when focusing on human characters – the importance of family, tradition vs. the new generation, learning to accept yourself, but Turning Red still finds Pixar angling for something new.
More specifically, the film’s stakes are focused on a teenage girl figuring things out. There’s not much of a looming threat in Turning Red. No villain is out to take Mei away. Even the nature of being a giant red panda doesn’t lead to the character having to keep this a secret from everyone for very long. Instead, this is a film about simply growing up and how that affects her social life and the relationship with her mother.
Turning Red is not hiding any comparisons that can be made to a young woman experiencing her first period. However, even with a dramatic and magical take on its metaphor, so much effort has gone into capturing Mei’s unique spirit. This film wants to delve right into this character by having her address the camera head-on, right from the start. Mei may leave out some key details, but as far as how she wants people to see her, it’s a refreshing change of pace to have a character at this age acting as one would.
This especially speaks to how Mei and her friends act around each other. The young love they have for 4*Town is only a means to show how they relate to each other, with zero judgment coming from the fact that they are each of a different ethnicity. While a sense of non-negative inclusion is nice to see throughout this movie, the more important ideas come from seeing Mei associating with Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) while dealing with this whole panda situation.
Once again, this film proves to be a winning example of economic storytelling in animation. The film doesn’t need to belabor the idea of accepting some magical circumstance. Instead, Mei’s transformation abilities become a vital part of the plan she and her friends come up with to reach their desired goal of seeing their favorite boy band in concert. Only further on does the film find ways to complicate how the magic works, though not in a bad way. Instead, Turning Red finds exciting ways to expand on how this family “curse” works and what that will mean for Mei and her mother.
Given that Turning Red is directed, written, and produced by women, it’s no real surprise to see the film hit on many creative choices and likely some particular details that reflect what happens when the subject being developed comes from a more personal place. While the idea of embracing puberty and stressing over one’s image at school are common issues for young teens, and certainly things adults can recall, I didn’t mind being aware that some aspects of this story were not for me to fully grasp.
None of this stops the film from being another reliably entertaining entry from Pixar. Turning Red is fast-paced, frequently quite funny, and clever in the ways it approximates a teenager’s life in 2002. Even Mei’s charming goofiness comes out through her and her friends in ways that end up quite satisfying. Similarly, the way we learn about what is driving Mei’s mother to put so much pressure on her daughter, while not a new concept, still feels earned in the big swings the film takes in its climax.
Oftentimes, at this point, it feels like many are judging Pixar based on whether or not their film makes the viewer cry and if it’s happening for the right reasons. Turning Red has such a specific focus that I’ll be curious if there are overwhelming results when it comes to that level of emotional reaction. As it stands, I can say there’s a good look at the familial and friendship-based love that is supposed to play a role in kid’s life as they begin growing into the person they’re going to continue to be. Having, in this case, a young girl learning to love the giant red panda inside her, well, that’s not necessarily a step everyone has to take, but it produces a lot of furry fun for this film, with a smart enough script to back it up.