What’s new, everyone? Directed by Domee Shi (Oscar-winning Pixar short Bao) in her feature directorial debut and written by Shi and Julia Cho, Turning Red, the latest movie to be released by Pixar, follows unabashedly dorky 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (played by Rosalie Chiang) in the year 2002 as she hangs out with her equally nerdy best friends, obsesses over the boy band 4*Town, and helps her overprotective mom Ming (Sandra Oh) manage their family temple in her hometown of Toronto (the place where Shi grew up in real life). Things go fairly smoothly for Mei until she enters a new phase of her life that sees her transforming Hulk-style into a huge red panda whenever she gets excited.
Ahead of the animated film’s premiere on March 11, I was keenly anticipating what it could bring to the table thanks to early critic reviews that had applauded it for being an allegory about girls encountering puberty. An Act 1 scene hits this nail on the head particularly hard when Ming mistakes Mei’s taking refuge in the bathroom to hide her first time shifting into a red panda for her daughter having her first period—so much so that Ming asks the mortified Mei in hushed tones, “Did the red peony bloom?” and then offers up numerous types of pads, including the regular, thin, and winged varieties.
What I just laid out is one of several beats that takes your average coming-of-age tale and infuses it with profound amounts of empathy and authenticity, dedicating all of it to what it means for adolescent girls to undergo growing pains—the periods, the mood swings, the intense crushes, the romantic and sexual desires, etc. For heaven’s sake, Turning Red gives us an onscreen portrayal of pads and tampons—materials you might see as the focus of a gag in a raunchy comedy or an important discussion in an indie coming-of-age film, but never see in a major-studio movie that seriously concentrates on maturing girls. Certainly no animated movies have dared to cover this subject, which our society has loved slapping a taboo label on. But if any studio is going to set its sights on destigmatizing menstruation in a fashion that appeals to both children and adults with a deft balance of engaging storytelling, colorful animation, and weighty themes, it’s undoubtedly Pixar.
Turning Red goes on to navigate with just as much heart and wit the mother-daughter dynamic between Mei, who is being tugged back and forth between her long-held aim of honoring her parents as a form of appreciation for the care they’ve given her and her newfound itch to unleash both the physical and figurative beast at her core, and Ming, who expects Mei to get high grades, steer clear of boy bands that are made up of (in Ming’s own words) “glittery delinquents,” and basically be her perfect little girl forever. In turn, Ming has a complex relationship with her own mother. After we learn all of its details, it helps to inform our understanding of where Ming is coming from and flesh out the cultural heft that comes with this story centering on a Chinese-Canadian immigrant family.
If this child-parent heaviness sounds familiar, it’s because Shi previously addressed it in Bao. Think about it. Both texts grapple with growing children who strive to tap into a sense of their personhood, parents who have to wrestle with their fear of their kids drifting away from them and not living up to the image they’ve maintained of them, and the impact all this development has on the relationship as a whole. Granted, one of the texts does have the added layer of a girl tackling her magical puberty, but they both contend with the same basic issues at their root.
I’ve heard a sector of men out there claim they had a difficult time relating to Mei’s story, which isn’t a surprising opinion at all. What I’ll say about this is that I’m a 23-year-old cishet man, but that didn’t prevent me from sympathizing with Mei one bit. While I may have never had a period, I can connect with her through the sheer levels of humiliation and confusion she feels on multiple occasions—some of which are caused by her mom in uproarious and terrifying moments that forced me to recall certain events in my own life where I had to endure the exact same emotions and think to myself, “Oh, just let a piano plummet out of the sky and crush me right now, please.”
Another top-notch aspect of the film are the vocal turns. Chiang injects Mei with an audial explosion of spunky awkwardness that meshes with the pubescent protagonist’s emotional arc, while Oh’s performance achieves both a fierce determination that sounds like Ming’s mature version of the rudimentary tenacity within her daughter and a maternal warmth that elevates Ming beyond the Overbearing Parent stereotype. Ava Morse, Hyein Park, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan bring their own irresistible charm to Mei’s lovably gawky, deeply loyal, 4*Town-loving pals, Miriam, Abby, and Priya, respectively. Two of the members of 4*Town are played by Jordan Fisher (depending on whether you’re into DCOMs and/or teen rom-coms, you may recall him from Teen Beach Movie and To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You) and Finneas O’Connell, the latter also having cowritten the 4*Town tracks in Turning Red with his sister Billie Eilish (the songs are actually pretty catchy, particularly “Nobody Like U”). There’s even a cameo by James Hong, whose warmhearted voice will be recognized by animation buffs as that of Mr. Ping, Po’s gander father in the Kung Fu Panda series.
The film is able to ground itself in its early 2000s environment without shoving the nostalgia in your face the entire time. The time period shows itself off most prominently through the boy band design of 4*Town, the flip phones, and the Tamagotchis. I may have been a preschooler at the time, but I still have vivid memories of those cultural icons hovering on the perimeters of my tiny little world. That’s why it’s so amusing to see Turning Red present them in this aughts-era throwback.
Something I detected while watching the movie were the anime nods woven into the visuals through enlarged eyes, sweat dripping down one’s face, spittle flying out of a mouth, or other broadly physical gestures. This made sense once I finished the movie and then put on Embrace the Panda: Making Turning Red, the accompanying Disney+ featurette that revealed Shi had drawn inspiration from Sailor Moon. It’s a relatively unconventional animation style that favorably contrasts with the photorealism and sleekness displayed in most of Pixar’s filmography. I’m all for the studio being more amenable to letting its animators experiment like this.
As a viewer who’s grown accustomed to watching content that unfolds in notable locales like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, London, and Paris, I found it quite refreshing to watch the events of Turning Red transpire in a Canadian setting that featured Toronto landmarks such as CN Tower and the Skydome. While I can’t personally speak from a Canadian perspective, I can definitely admire the geographic flavor that Shi brought to the movie and the gratification that Canadian audiences must be feeling over their home being represented in a film as mainstream as one that came out of Pixar.
Turning Red being only the first Pixar movie to bestow the directing credit solely to a woman (Brenda Chapman had to fight hard to get as much as a co-directing credit for Brave after Pixar bumped her off the movie) and the second Pixar movie to feature an Asian lead character after Russell in Up are important achievements as well, but they do signify just how often the studio has relied on the Pixar Brain Trust of Brad Bird, pre-sexual misconduct John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, and Pete Doctor to helm its work and provide it with the artistic polish that’s indistinguishable between the white men I listed off. It’s high time that the creativity pool is widened so that inclusive stories can be put out into the world and new voices can instill their own directorial flair in the projects.
Oh, and Ludwig Göransson kills it as the composer here. He’s on a roll, isn’t he? After Creed, Black Panther, The Mandalorian, Tenet, and The Book of Boba Fett (it was actually his assistant Joseph Shirley who handled the majority of the score, but Göransson himself whipped up TBOBF’s main theme), he can now add Turning Red to his oeuvre, marking it as his first time working on the score for an animated film. Like I’ve said before, Göransson is a flourishing whiz in the composing sphere, and I’ll always be excited to see what he dives into next.
The outstanding merits of Turning Red, however, do make me even grumpier over Disney’s decision to dump it straight onto their streaming service. I realize they did it because of Omicron at the time, but hey, that didn’t stop them from letting Spider-Man: No Way Home keep its theatrical release. Sure, it stands in a different category as part of the MCU, but shouldn’t Disney provide Pixar the respect it deserves by letting something as innovative as Turning Red come out in theaters for at least a few weeks? Remember that the last Pixar film to have a theatrical release was Onward, which got pulled from theaters early and directed to Disney+ thanks to the start of COVID-19 (yes, it was that long ago). Since then, all of Pixar’s subsequent movies (Soul, Luca, and Turning Red) have all been plunked onto Disney+, taking away the possibility for Pixar to haul in cold hard cash. The studio does need a way to show their projects are worth investing in, even with the pandemic hampering it, and the profits are much easier to measure via the box office than streaming. Hopefully, Disney will allow Pixar’s next film to come out in theaters.
We’re only two and a half months into the year, and Turning Red already has a high probability of being one of my top ten movies of 2022. Make sure you watch it if you’re in the mood for a perceptively and sincerely written coming-of-age journey from the fantastical viewpoint of a growing girl. Stream Embrace the Panda while you’re at it, because it will give you an insightful peek into the women-led team that created this film and the effort they put into it during the pandemic lockdown.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 95/100