Pixar films have been evolving in positive and negative ways over the years. When the animators and storytellers are allowed, they can tell exciting tales that feel timeless. Then sometimes creativity is bogged down with the need to drag out some old toys to put on a show for a quick buck. It’s when Pixar removes the shackles of established franchises that it truly shines, sometimes.
Turning Red is a bit of a mystery. It does not have as many impactful moments free from the dialog as other Pixar flicks, but at the same time, the journey of the film’s protagonist (Meilin) similarly hit the heartfelt notes. It’s a story about a child and her parents coming to terms with the struggles building up to adolescence.
The character designs follow what we’ve seen from the past couple of Pixar films. Stills of the cast don’t do them justice. When everything is in motion, Turning Red is oddly calming to watch. The world, like red pandas, feels soft. The lighting throughout much of the movie is warm and soothing. Meilin’s panda form is adorable and admirable on a technical level, considering the massive amount of fur and fluffiness.
Meilin is the center of this story. She’s an overachiever dedicated to honoring her parents and the traditions of her ancestry. She balances her duties to her heritage with her life of being a thirteen-year-old girl in Toronto.
Outside of her family’s home and temple, she is the typical teen girl. She’s loud, sometimes abrasive, silly, but determined to succeed academically. However, we quickly see how her obligations to her homelife clash with her desire to be an independent person alongside her friends Miriam, Priya, and Abby.
There’s quite a bit to relate to when it comes to both Meilin and her parents. While watching Turning Red, I thought back to my early teenage years when we’d go around the neighborhood and local shops being loud and seeing how far we could push our rapidly fading immunity from consequences that came with childhood cuteness.
Meilin is her true self around her friends, as many of us are. However, though good-naturedly, the strict regiment handed down by her mother (Ming) and unquestioned by her father (Jin) is trapping Meilin’s inner self, and it can become destructive if bottled up too long. Fitting into a family’s predestined image of you can be stressful, and that decision on whether to appease your folks or yourself is on display quite often here.
Domee Shi crafts a loving relationship between Meilin and Ming but leaves Jin by the sidelines for nearly the entire movie. He does show up for small 10-20 second spots to show he cares about his family. However, if he were removed, there’d be little impact except for a bit of a backstory close to the film’s conclusion. Even then, he wouldn’t have had to be present, given the lack of development within the plot.
Shi’s way of depicting the child/parent dynamic brought a smile to my face. Rather than having Meilin be rebellious right from the start like the average teenager trope, we see that she genuinely cares about her family and the dedication they show to make sure she is the best person she can be … within a very tight box of expectations.
Through an extreme act of overprotective parenting, Ming accidentally sets into motion an ancestral power that she’d worked hard to watch for the signs of its arrival. It turns out that Ming’s desire for Meilin to be perfect was, secretly, a way to control and monitor the inevitable transformation of her daughter into a giant and mighty red panda.
Yes, the metaphors are plentiful for what the inner panda represents, and Domee Shi does not shy away from the awkward talks girls will have with their mothers when puberty sets in motion. Upon Meilin’s first transformation, Ming produces a large box of feminine hygiene products for what she thought was her daughter’s first visit from Aunt Flow is funny. Of course, stockpiling a vast assortment of tampons is what you would expect from Ming.
The jokes about this specific change in a young woman’s life are quickly abandoned, but the allusion to puberty remains for the rest of the film. Some are subtle, some not so much. However, none of this is distracting from our main character’s journey.
From this point on, the movie fast tracks a lot of the plot. Meilin uses her desire to see the boyband 4*Town and her love of her friends to control the transformations into the red panda. From there, Meilin and her posse use the red panda as a tool to garner money for concert tickets through a montage. Here we see our heroine come to terms with her authentic self. Although burdened, Meilin is happy and can see the positive sides of the changes she’s going through.
What is oddly absent is more in-depth knowledge of who her friends are. Miriam is Meilin’s best friend, but Priya and Abby feel tacked on. This is a shame because I like Abby’s hyper personality. She’s a stubby force of nature which reminded me of something out of The Brak Show.
Had there been a bit of a rift in the friendship with Miriam wanting to use Meilin’s new ability in one way, but Abby or Priya wanting to go another route, I feel the friendship dynamics could have been explored better. Instead, what we get is all three friends accepting the red panda without question, and they all go along with whatever the plot needs them to do. Then, of course, there’s the obligatory split between the friends before they reunite during the finale.
Turning Red also doesn’t shy away from objectifying the boys in the film. The young women have overblown moments when it comes to certain young men, but rarely do they interact in any meaningful way or with extended dialog. The absence of male characters aside from an object of lust, a bully, a father, and the 4*Town gang, this is an all-female show.
There is a hint that one male character may be gay, but it is never explored beyond a moment where that person openly gushes for the boyband and perhaps a specific member of the group late in the film. Given this character’s constant reappearance throughout Turning Red, I suspect that much of his growth was cut to ensure this movie could play in certain countries.
Although the movie does skirt along some questionable lines regarding lust, a topic that feels entirely foreign for a Pixar movie, adult jokes are not absent from the studio’s previous releases. The difference is that there is no subtlety here when the subject of the feelings a teenage girl may have for a boy.
Domee Shi, thankfully, keeps the awkward moments like this either to a minimum or are so overblown that they’re comical, except for a scene early on involving a seventeen-year-old store clerk. That section of the film stuck out in a weird way that was, thankfully, never brought up again.
Where Turning Red shines is in its depictions of early teenage life. How we fight against our changing bodies as we start to become our person while unwittingly hurting our parents. We need that freedom to be us, although we still rely on them for shelter, guidance, and love. It’s a feverish dance of selfishness and dependence, of love and accidental destruction.
The rollercoaster Ming and Meilin are on is a universal one. We all have to fight inward and outward changes while also trying to maintain some sense of what we perceive normalcy to be in our teenage years. Naturally, we want to rebel, but we don’t want to lose the things we love that anchor us to the past. Shi hits this nail hard and gives us a giant monster battle climax.
In the end, Turning Red was far more memorable than any other recent Pixar film that I can recall. Aside from some possible restrictions put on the creative team by Disney, I believe this film is the most reflective of the human experience since Inside Out. Of course, it isn’t perfect, and it stumbles in some weird areas, but I would recommend Turning Red, especially to those parents who have kids approaching their teenage years.
I sat with my daughter to watch this. She certainly was entertained; the subtext was beyond her at this age. But as I observed Ming and Meilin, I could see both my successes and missteps when raising a child. It made me want to be a better parent and not repeat the same things I experienced in my childhood when my personality was busting forth like a giant red panda.
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