Coming-of-age films are defined by what it means for their young characters to grow up. And, like the experience itself, no one story about growing up is the same as the next. It takes a special kind of film to capture the growing pains of a young person as they transition into adulthood. Turning Red, Pixar’s heartfelt and hilarious film, examines that journey through the lens of a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl who finds out that growing up may be a smelly beast — literally.
Still, it’s a journey that everyone takes on their path to self-discovery. And, for Pixar, to tell such a story with such honesty is not only refreshing, but also allows everyone to feel seen and heard and know that, in the end, everything will be alright.
Inspired by director Domee Shi’s childhood, Turning Red follows Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chaing), a confident, albeit dorky tween who greatly reveres her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) and loves her friends. While one may think seeking such approval is dangerous, Mei claims she doesn’t have that problem and that she can balance out ‘honoring thy parents’ and being herself. Breaking the fourth wall, Mei openly expresses she’s unafraid of being judged as she proudly points to her Tamagochi she carries around and the “I love math” sticker that graces her flute case. She embraces all labels, whether that’s an overachieving dork-narc, a major weirdo, or a mildly annoying entrepreneur.
Still, as long as Mei has her friends, best buddy Miriam (Ava Morse), the stoic goth Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), or the super hyper Abby (Hyein Park), nothing can stop her — not even the super popular brace-faced kid Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen). But, with the support of her friends and their love of the boyband 4*Town, Mei navigates the uncharted waters of adolescence while also serving as the “perfect daughter.” But, after one night of embarrassment and a frighteningly red light thunderstorm nightmare, Mei wakes up and is shocked to discover that she has transformed into a giant red panda. Moreover, she learns her ancestors have a shared history with the species and that what was “once a blessing is now an inconvenience.” Because any strong emotion will release the panda, and the more she releases it, the harder it is to keep at bay. Therefore, Mei must participate in a ritual that would keep the red panda repressed. And keeping emotions in check during a period of uncertainty when your all-time favorite boy band is coming to town for a concert won’t be easy.
Credit to Shi and co-writer Julia Cho for penning a script that allows audiences to connect to its characters with a resonating and grounded story that is open and honest about a “taboo” subject like puberty. With very few films would dare approach such a topic, Turning Red speaks so candidly about it because Shi’s unafraid to get into the messiness of it all.
While Turning Red’s themes may be about friendship and family, a large part of it is about self-discovery and all of the good it can do despite all of the messy changes occurring in real-time. Part of its charms and humor is that all of these characters learn just a little more about themselves. For example, Mei finds out that growing up isn’t easy — it’s messy and complicated. And, while things may change, Mei can rest easy knowing that everything will be okay as long as she has the support of her friends and mother.
What’s more remarkable about Mei’s friendship is that not only does it represent the diversity of Toronto, Canada, it also subverts the tropes that are typical of those friendships that are generally depicted as catty in films. They are each other’s support systems and rally around their friends in their time of need by singing 4*Town’s greatest hits. With Turning Red, we get to see female friendships as they should be, celebrating the bonds of their “ride or die” convictions. All four are fearless in their efforts to defend one another. Also, we get to see that friendship in its purest form when we see Mei and her friends record themselves goofing off and laughing together on video.
Turning Red’s Ming also subverts the preconceived notions of tiger moms being one-dimensional or entirely toxic. Although seen as overprotective and strict, Ming’s reasoning comes from a place of love any parent has for their child. As Mei excels in school, Ming sees her daughter’s good grades or reverence as a means to glorify her daughter. But, at the same time, it clouds her judgment and makes her oblivious to her daughter’s quirks. And once the red panda transformations start, that’s when we see a shift in their dynamics. Mei wants to be with her friends more, while Ming considers the detachment to signify losing her daughter.
Shi uses these red panda transformations as a metaphor for these bodily changes that occur during puberty and the pent-up anger that stems from internal — or in this case — generational trauma. The pudginess and odors that come with being a giant red panda aren’t meant to be shameful but a means to represent the frustrations of the changes that occur during puberty. And the size difference reflects all of the anger and sorrow of not being able to live up to incredibly high expectations. When viewed side by side, it makes for an interesting dynamic that reveals a lot more to their relationship. So often, I saw myself in Ming and Mei because I shared similar experiences of changes in the parent and child relationship.
Turning Red encapsulates the East meets West experience and the generational traumas that come with honoring your parents too much while sacrificing the development of your identity. The language of how parents never wanted anything like the red panda transformations or how the blessing became more of an inconvenience portrays the immigrant experience. While the mounting pressures of trying to be the perfect daughter and how it adds to the psychological damage serve as a serious wake-up call to some mothers, who may be unaware of how their high standards and expectations are hurting the ones they were meant to protect.
Throughout the film, Mei’s family constantly tells her that the red panda must never be released, and the only way that she can become a “woman” by their standards is to go through with the ritual to keep the beast at bay. As Mei feels isolated and alone — with it getting worse with 4*Town performing in her city the day of the ritual — it is her friends who rally around her in her time of need. When they realize it is their friendship keeping Mei’s panda in check, the four put their entrepreneurial heads together to hustle Mei’s panda to make the “loonies” to go to a 4*Town concert. It’s a savvy move on their part, especially when we see how they expand their enterprise from photo-ops to selling t-shirts.
Mei also represents that change in family traditions because now her rebellion takes the form of her embrace of the red panda and openness to transform into it despite her family’s warnings. She’s tired of living up to be the image of a “perfect daughter” by giving her mother top grades, performing temple duties, and living up to her expectations. Because Ming puts her daughter on such a high pedestal and unknowingly raises her to put pressure on herself, she doesn’t see the dangers of what her daughter could become or that she could repeat the same mistakes of her past. It’s a kind of conflict that serves to better these characters as they discover the importance of finding one’s identity on your own.
That makes Turning Red a literal coming-of-age film that contains the right amount of Pixar magic and relatable storyline. While any strong emotion would release the panda, it’s a means to visualize the frustrations and hilarity that comes with it. But, what started as Mei’s “curse” soon becomes a path towards finding herself. Though one can sympathize with the frustrations and pains of feeling isolated and alone during a confusing time, it’s even more painful when both parties feel completely helpless.
Turning Red is the closest Pixar has come to releasing an anime film. The influences aren’t in just the expressive starry eyes as they happily gush seeing pictures of 4*town gracing teeny bop magazines, cuddly cats, or anything else that’s cute. It’s also in its visually stunning action piece that puts even the best anime fight scenes to shame. Above all, Mei, Miriam, Priya, and Abby’s friendship is reminiscent of Sailor Moon, where the girls live by the “ride or die” code are reflective of their support system.
Shi also crafts a beautiful love letter to her hometown of Toronto, Canada, which serves as the setting for Turning Red. While some recognizable landmarks like the CN Tower and the Skydome appear, Shi also throws in a few subtle pieces of slang and Easter eggs that Canadians will surely pick up on if they look and listen carefully. The diverse culture also plays a role in the film as it is meant to reflect upon Shi’s experience growing up in the city.
Ludwig Göransson’s score captures the spirit of coming-of-age films through its cheerful melodies and understands darkness that comes with an uncertain future with the dark melancholy beats. Watching Mei come to her own as she fully embraces her inner beast is incredibly freeing. But, there’s also a sadness that comes with Mei’s efforts not to lose her mother’s approval.
Additionally, Turning Red’s authenticity doesn’t just come from Shi’s experiences as a child. It also stems from its all-female leadership that contributed to this story and visual language about growing up and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Drawing from those voices surely only adds to the film’s genuineness as the film would feel like it misunderstands the situation had a men written or directed it. So, with Shi co-writing and directing — another milestone as she is the first woman of color to direct a feature on her own — Turning Red is a pic that mothers and daughters can surely connect with.
Don’t mistake Turning Red’s diminutiveness as a slight when compared to some of Pixar’s previous and more ambitious efforts. Shi’s feature debut is a visually stunning and emotional coming-of-age East meets West film that blends Pixar’s story-driven styles with anime influences. Turning Red is also full of heart and humor, which brings levity to the film as it talks honestly and openly about the growing pains of puberty. The way that Shi tells this story is so much more than just another film about growing pains. Because at its core, Turning Red is about the relationships we share and how they help us on our journey of self-discovery.
Overall Grade: A