Based on director Domee Shi’s upbringing in Canada during the early aughts, Pixar’s Turning Red encapsulates the era right before teens fully lived on the internet. It’s quite the nostalgia punch back to middle school with flip phones, sneaky note passing, and boy bands. But what’s most remarkable, aside from finally having more coming-of-age content that takes place outside of the ‘80s, is how timeless the sudden changes from kid to puberty hit.
Everyone’s had to endure the moment their parent or caregiver realizes they aren’t a child anymore, and it’s never pretty. There’s a moment in Turning Red’s first act where you get Ratatouille’d back to that nightmare core memory. You’ll be screaming at the screen hoping the film’s lead Mei (Rosalie Chiang) is just having a bad dream when her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) discovers what she hides under her bed. It’s the most stressful case of sympathetic secondhand embarrassment that’s too real. And that’s before Mei turns into a giant red panda.
Shi, along with co-writer Julia Cho, give us an endearingly comical exploration of a teen girl’s journey navigating every messy bit of entering adolescence. At a cultural level through Mei’s Asian-Canadian family, the movie speaks to the societal molds that women have been expected to fall in step with that don’t entirely change even when East meets West. Whether through cotillions, bat mitzvahs, or quinceañeras, womanhood usually comes with an expectation of making sure the proverbial Pandora’s Box comes delivered wrapped with a bow keeping the true nature of it tucked away. For Mei, that true nature just happens to be that part of her family history is that sometimes female descendants can transform into a giant red panda when their emotions overwhelm them.
Mei authentically represents the generation that began to break away when she immediately embraces her inner panda with pride. Her mother has other plans, attempting to prepare Mei for a traditional course of action to suppress it. Her mother’s fierce overprotectiveness isn’t played to enable domineering parent tropes, but deconstructs them. The teen angst jumps out and Mei rebelliously pushes back in secret. Instead, she leans on her friends Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) to embrace the changes she finds herself going through—even when Mei begins to realize living her truth recklessly as way to see her favorite boy band might unleash a familial fury like she’s never seen. On her hilarious journey to utilize her panda powers to get herself and her friends to a 4*Town concert (a perfect pastiche of the boyband hearthrobs of the era), Mei lets herself stumble through awkwardness with boys and clashing emotions between who she is with her friends versus the perfect daughter she is at home. In spite of the fantastical bent, it touches on feelings that are all too real
Life among the teens in Turning Red is depicted with an earnest realism, even when it deals with the “gross” stuff of puberty, like menstrual pads or horny-ness. Is a girl’s metaphorical sexual awakening really shocking compared to, say, movie scenes where parents find their son’s crusty socks, or the countless films that center boys’ coming of age through their virginity bets? Women have long had to extend themselves to empathize with depictions of youth in global cinema that centered the male gaze. A teen turning into a big red hormonal bundle of energy on her road to self discovery shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to empathize with in comparison. Spiritually, Turning Red has more in common with A Goofy Movie, dealing with parent-child relationships while they grow up, get their first crushes and just have to make it to the concert, OK? (The 4*Town song created for the film by Billie Eilish and Finneas, the latter of whom voices one of teen heartthrobs, is definitely an earworm.)
Turning Red is a stellar accomplishment from Pixar that enriches and diversifies the kind of coming-of-age stories so often depicted in movies and other mediums. Despite constraints put upon its creatives when it came to tackling certain subjects, Shi still manages to deliver a deeply personal picture. The music, the fashion choices, the divide between school and home life... it’s all there, like cracking open a notebook with gel pen memories from a box somewhere in storage. Through Mei, her friends, and her family, we get to see how affirming love can be so empowering, especially when breaking generational rituals together—and how we truly need both our real and found families to honor ourselves in the ways our ancestors weren’t able to.
Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+.
Wondering where our RSS feed went? You can pick the new up one here.