Since their first movie, the groundbreaking Toy Story way back in 1995, Pixar has been excellent at using fantastical worlds, strange characters and creative plots to tell stories deeply grounded in relatable human emotions. Love, loss, death, loneliness, family, friendship, growing up, the bond between a parent and their child; they have tackled all of these things, some of them more than once, each instance comes with a new spin. The parent/child relationship is explored again in their latest entry, Turning Red (now streaming on Disney+). This time, the filmmakers add puberty to the mix.
Meilin is a thirteen-year-old girl in Toronto in 2002. She lives two lives: hanging out with her friends talking about boys or obsessing over their favorite boy-band, while also staying close to her tough, tradition-oriented, mother. She always chooses family responsibility over fun and friendship. Then, one day, puberty hits and Mei’s emotions get out of control. In her family, that means she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda.
Pixar has dealt with the mother-daughter relationship before, in 2012’s Brave, about a princess who inadvertently turns her mom into a bear. There are certainly similarities, though that movie was set entirely in a fantasy world. Turning Red is more realistic, using fantasy to express the difficulties a girl faces in the process of becoming a young woman.
There are no witches or magical forests here; it is just the story of someone beginning the long and painful journey from childhood to adulthood, trying to navigate the challenges of growing up and deciding who they want to be. The difference is, instead of the regular hormonal changes that everyone else goes through, Mei needs to prevent herself from getting overexcited or she will instantly turn into a giant red panda.
There is mythology here as far as why this happens to her and how to get rid of it, yet the movie is less interested in its genre elements and more interested in her learning how to balance the two sides of her life: dedication to her family, including schoolwork and helping with the family temple, and having fun with her closest friends. The love Mei gets from her mother (demanding, full of expectation, but also genuine and kind) versus the love Mei gets from her three friends (loyal and encouraging) is really what this story is about. The fantasy stuff and the comedy are definitely there. Still, as always, Pixar succeeds because of how they make the spectacular so personal and familiar.
One thing Pixar has always been good at, whether they are dealing with people, robots, fish, toys or any other kind of protagonist, is making their issues relatable. I will never be a thirteen-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl whose emotions cause her to turn into an adorable furry animal. However, Turning Red had no trouble getting me to feel the ups and downs of Mei’s experiences. The more specific something is the more universal it can become.
Director/cowriter Domee Shi (in her feature-length debut) has created a world of traditions, values and history inside of a silly family adventure movie. Mei, her parents and her friends come off as fully thought-out people, easy to believe and fun to watch. It doesn’t matter if you have ever been like Mei; anyone who has gone through puberty and/or struggled with where their priorities lie between their family and their friends should notice something they recognize here. Plus, there is a cute red panda and some funny gags. Turning Red may not quite be top shelf Pixar, but it is a pretty good example of what they do better than everybody else.
3¾ out of 5
Rosalie Chiang as Meilin
Sandra Oh as Ming
Ava Morse as Miriam
Hyein Park as Abby
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Priya
Tristan Allerick Chen as Tyler
Orion Lee as Jin
Directed by Domee Shi
Screenplay by Julia Cho and Domee Shi