Pixar has introduced to us some of the most memorable characters and stories that have stuck with us from childhood into adulthood. Excitement surrounds every new movie they release and will continue to do so because of their willingness to break boundaries and venture into the unexpected. Turning Red, Pixar’s first feature-length film directed by an Asian woman, absolutely fits that mold.
Pixar’s latest adventure, directed by Domee Shi (the same director as the Oscar-winning short film Bao), follows thirteen-year-old Mei Lei as she navigates her life in Toronto. Mei is an ambitious young girl wavering between being a dutiful member of her family and the wants and desires of a teenage girl, which for Mei and her band of friends is popular boy band 4*Town. One day, Mei suddenly transforms into a giant red panda when she experiences what any middle-schooler would consider a traumatizing moment. She soon learns that her family lineage comes with one unique caveat: at moments of great emotion, she turns into a massive red beast.
Turning Red accurately captures what it’s like to be thirteen, with all the awkwardness and weirdness that comes with the age. I don’t know about you, but middle school was a monumental and at times traumatizing time of life. You start to grow up, hormones start to rage, you develop deeper interests, that classmate of yours starts to look a lot cuter, angst begins to build and bubble and so much more that comes with the teenage territory. The movie captures all this energy and throws it into the smart and original metaphor of these emotions taking on a form of their own. In Turning Red’s case, the form is nonetheless a big, fluffy red panda. The analogy isn’t too hard to get, but Pixar does well at successfully executing the idea while still being light, hilarious and kid-friendly. While the theme of maturity might be too deep for younger kids to understand, the story is still able to successfully appeal to children.
At its core, Turning Red is a coming-of-age story about growing up, but it also showcases the importance of friendships. For Mei, her friends are her undying support system. While their bond lies in their love for a boy band, they ultimately are a group of young girls that just love each other. Their group friendship is an authentic depiction of the relationships formed in adolescence. When Mei’s friends find out about the panda, they embrace and empower her through feelings of confusion and uncertainty, helping Mei to work through the complex emotions and situation at play.
Friendships are not the only interpersonal workings dissected in the film. Turning Red also homes in on the dynamics between mother and daughter. When Mei starts to see the panda as more than just a curse, her mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sanda Oh) urges her to suppress the beast as she and the other women in their family did. This is Ming Lee’s way of showing she is not ready to let go of her little girl, because what parent is ready to do that at the end of the day? Embracing change means saying goodbye to something forever, but if you think about it, nothing stays the same forever. Change, in all its messiness and beauty, is an essential part of the human condition.
It came as a surprise to me as headlines of criticisms of the film started to pop up in the news, which included comments like “Don’t watch if you don’t want your kids learning about menstruation”, “It encourages rebellion amongst children”, and “this movie is insanely inappropriate”. I believe these statements missed the point. I see it as a film that encourages passions, inspires strong belief in yourself and validates the crazy and insane feelings that come with getting older, helping maturing children to see that their thoughts and emotions are natural and valid. Especially for young women, Turning Red explores the real, universal and sometimes frightening transition to young womanhood. And yes, getting your first period is part of that experience. Watching this movie made me wish I had these types of stories when I was younger but makes me hopeful in thinking of the weight it will have on others today and in the future.
Growing up is a tough and often fraught part of life. Thankfully, Turning Red will be there to help kids through their own journeys of self-discovery and maturity. It’s a sincere observation into the bizarre world of puberty and the awakenings that come with it. Having an on-screen representation of issues and ideas that are normally unexplored in children's movies, such as the more challenging parts of pubescence, is a much-needed change of pace. Turning Red is a renegade that encapsulates the forthcomings of young adulthood, in all its cringe-worthy glory.
Stream it on Disney+ today.