I don’t think I expected to find “Turning Red” as funny and relatable as I did, something that made all the more sense when I realized the story was set in 2002, and that I was the same age as its 12 to 13-year-old characters in 2002. But even though Pixar Animation’s latest feature film, directed by Domee Shi (Academy Award winner for Best Animated Short for her lovely 2018 film “Bao”), features several hallmarks that feel specific to late 90s/early aughts girlhood, from the popularity of boy bands to the penchant for drawing secret, embarrassing fan art, I believe it would have resonated with me regardless, the same way that so many women have expressed in the last week since the film’s release on Disney Plus how much it resonated with them, regardless of their age, race, or geographical location. Shi’s film is rooted in Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian community, drawing on Asian culture and her personal experiences growing up there, but its themes of generational trauma and anxiety surrounding growing up are universal.
Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old girl who, as her voiceover at the top of the film states, was raised on the importance of honoring her family. This includes helping her mother Ming (a perfectly cast Sandra Oh) care for their family temple that honors their ancestor, Sun Yee, but also results in Mei working overtime to make her mother and father Jin (Orion Lee) proud. Because she wants her parents to continue to believe she’s their perfect daughter, she hides a lot of her interests from them that she only feels comfortable sharing with her friend group, like her crush on the local convenience store clerk, or her fanaticism for the boy band 4*Town. Even when Ming majorly embarrasses her, Mei holds in her true feelings about it, instead telling her mom through clenched teeth that everything is fine—and then exploding when she’s alone in her bedroom later.
Mei’s pent-up emotions are taken to a new level when she wakes up one morning and finds that she is no longer a human girl: she has transformed into a giant red panda. Initially, Ming believes Mei’s stress is due to her receiving her first period, but when she finds out what really happened, she reveals the truth: that Sun Yee was given the ability to turn into a red panda as a way of protecting her daughters, and every woman in the family since has had this ability; the panda comes out every time they get overly worked up or emotional. As a result, the family has a ritual that they perform that allows them to seal the red panda’s spirit away. But as troublesome as it is, Mei grows fond of her panda self, especially after she learns to better control it by thinking of the one thing that brings her peace: her friends.
The title “Turning Red” as a euphemism for menstruation is an obvious one, and one that Shi herself has confirmed (referred to Mei’s panda transformation as “magical puberty”). But there are layers to the metaphor that go beyond just that. There’s a long held view that women need to hide these messier pieces of them; not just their period, which is still considered a taboo thing to talk about publicly (as some of the backlash directed at “Turning Red” revolves around, as some parents felt it was inappropriate for a movie aimed at children to openly address such a matter), but also big emotions like anger and frustration. In trying to craft an outward illusion of everything being perfect and fine, as we see through both Ming and Mei, we repress pieces of our real selves. Ming and all her relatives before her have hidden away their pandas as a way of hiding away the evidence that they experience those messy emotions too, but the results of that manifest themselves in the way they interact with each other. Ming feels the same way toward her mother as Mei does toward her: an anxiousness brought on by the need to present themselves to each other as being as in control as possible, with Ming additionally appearing to view her daughter less as her own person and more as an extension of herself. If she raises a perfect daughter, then that feeds into her drive toward perfectionism too.
Shi realizes these concepts beautifully through her story, which alternates between hilarious and cringe-worthy (i.e.: a lot of the situations Mei gets into are funny, but the second-hand embarrassment we also feel for her rolls off in waves). Shi is the first solo woman director of a Pixar movie, and she was assisted by an all-female leadership team, and their perspective behind the scenes comes through on the screen. The hyper pace that the film kicks off with is initially a bit off-putting, but quickly and effectively places the viewer in the mindset of a 13-year-old girl who is struggling with her place: confident around her friends and peers, submissive and quiet around her parents. The story takes several unexpected turns (and fortunately, unlike previous features from Disney and Pixar Animation that center around a minority character undergoing a physical change, Mei doesn’t spend the majority of the movie in the guise of a panda) before ending up at a finale that turns the climactic villain battle on its head, with the characters working together to help one of their own, while further tapping into Mei’s Asian heritage. The messaging isn’t perfect (I won’t go into specifics to avoid spoilers) but Shi and Julia Cho, who co-wrote the screenplay, wrap everything up in a satisfying way.
“Turning Red” further emphasizes its preteen girl perspective through its aesthetic, with gorgeously rendered, stylized environments that are filled with light and pastel colors. The film’s score is composed by Ludwig Göransson, but it’s the pop earworms written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell for 4*Town that will likely stay with the viewer long after the credits roll, calling to mind 1995’s “A Goofy Movie” and its climax centered around a concert (and the now-iconic songs “Stand Out” and “I2I”). And the character designs are among Pixar’s best. Mei’s rounded features are cute, but there’s a sharpness to her that we especially see in her eyebrows that drives home the perception that she’s kind of a sweet kid, but also, like a lot of 13-year-olds, kind of annoying. This is carried through Chiang’s outstanding vocal performance as well, which alternates between being boisterous and insecure. The designs carry a strong anime influence as well, especially in their liberal use of big, shiny eyes.
“Turning Red” has a plethora of memorable supporting characters too, from Mei’s friends Abby, Miriam, and Priya—who all encompass a range of personalities—to Tyler, the boy at school who initially bullies Mei before being welcomed into her friend group. The warmth that comes from spending time with friends, the uncomfortable interactions with parents and family, and the messiness of all the emotions that come in-between: with “Turning Red,” Shi nails the specificity of an age and a time and a place, while normalizing things for girls that aren’t often depicted explicitly on screen (I, for one, cannot recall a movie where a character just casually named off a variety of female hygiene products, let alone in a movie geared toward young people). “Turning Red” may not be for everyone, but it’s going to be for a lot of people, and most importantly, for a lot of people who don’t often see themselves in media. That speaks not just to Shi’s prowess as a storyteller (which was evident with “Bao”) in her ability to craft a variation on a familiar coming-of-age formula that feels wholly unique, but also to the importance of handing the reins to a more diverse range of individuals to tell their stories without compromising their vision.
“Turning Red” is now streaming on Disney Plus. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated PG.