Pixar’s animated films have been groundbreaking for more than just their stellar computer graphics. They’ve featured stories that tap into far more than mere distractions. This can range from learning to be comfortable with your emotions in Inside Out or handling your own existence with Soul.
Turning Red marks a real turning point in their best movies if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s a tale about a lesser-explored but highly relevant aspect of growing up. And it’s still a whole lot of fun.
The Canadian Kid
The story takes place in 2002-2003 Canada and concerns the 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Mei (Rosalie Chiang). She’s a chipper girl who can’t wait to grow up. She’s already considered adult enough to ride the city bus by herself and she only figures things will get better from here.
In addition to being devoted to her friends with their mutual love of the boy band 4-Town, she also strives to be the best. She is constantly trying to prove herself to her highly scrutinizing mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei isn’t that rebellious yet as she’s grown to understand that being the best is a crucial part of growing up.
The Unusual Change
What Mei doesn’t count on are the new emotions that befall her. She finds herself falling harder for the cute boy at the convenience store, going so far as to draw romantic artwork of him. When Ming finds this out, she embarrasses her daughter in front of all her peers.
Mei tries to remain calm but this tension eventually builds until she wakes up one day as a giant red panda. The only way to curb this transformation and become human again is if she calms herself. But as a teenager handling an over-protective parent and being boy-crazy, that’s not an easy task.
It’s only with the help of her quirky friends that Mei tries to control the red panda within her. However, as Mei continues to come to terms with herself, she realizes that she can’t keep this panda form of her’s contained. And, as it turns out, she may not be the only one in her family to have this problem.
The Overt Messaging
If you read that description or saw the trailers and assumed the movie is an allegory for a girl getting her period, you’re correct. However, you haven’t really cracked the code here considering how overt the film makes this element. Consider the first morning of Mei’s transformation when Ming assumes that her daughter has had her first period.
Ming, ever the prepared mom, bursts into Mei’s space with all the period essentials of pads, hot-water bottles, Ibuprofen, and tea. Pixar made damn sure that nobody would be misinterpreting the main message. However, there is something more to it than just the puberty angle.
The Generational Gap
As we soon learn, Mei’s problem has been a family issue for the longest time. It only hasn’t been spoken of because it was feared to be a taboo curse. Rather than meet this curse with an embrace, it is shoved deep down, a deeply harmful act that can’t continue.
As Ming’s rule over his daughter increases, it becomes about more than just being content with your period. There’s a battle of the modern for a film that takes place at the beginning of the 21st century. This battle becomes quite literal when Ming’s mother confronts her daughter and her obsession with boy bands.
A Deeply Personal Tale
You might be asking why Turning Red was set in 2002-2003 Toronto. One reason is that it’s a rather personal tale for director Domee Shi. She grew up in Canada during this time at the same age, making this story a highly relatable one for adults of that era.
The era is highlighted by a few nostalgic elements of flip phones, digital pets, and the prevalence of boy bands. While all those elements may make the film charming for adults in their 30s, theirs still a cross-generational message about understanding youth. It’s this framing that may make it easier for a parent to relate and a kid to feel comfortable.
A Fun Look
The animation style certainly takes a lot of inspiration from anime with rounded features and big eyes. One might even draw some comparisons to My Neighbor Totoro with the big and loveable furry version of Mei. It’s a uniquely distinct style that makes the film feel closer to a 2D film than a 3D one.
I also loved the scale of this film. Mei bounds around all of Toronto in her red panda form, hopping along roofs and darting through every nook of junior high. I especially dug her encounters at a concert which leads to a thrilling battle of giant monsters, where only music can save the day.
Conclusion: Turning Red
Turning Red is easily up there with the best Pixar movies. It blazes a trail for more interesting stories while also pushing CGI into new styles. It’s also just a whole lot of fun and has a rather moving message by the final scene about growing up and letting go.
In the years to come, it’s likely that Turning Red will be turning up on many lists of Pixar’s best. Its status will be recognized by a combination of being bolder with the writing, vivid with the animation, and touching in drawing on nostalgia to be more insightful for the future. Few animated films ever feel like they have such a perfect mixture as this.
Did you see Turning Red on Disney+? What did you think? Was it better or worse than Luca? Let us know in the comments below.
A profoundly moving, progressive, and hilarious coming-of-age animated masterpiece.
- Brilliant writing for a tale of puberty and generational gaps.
- Unique exagerrated style.
- Wonderfully hilarious.
- A bit manic.