Turning Red (2022) – Review
(3 / 4)
Between Turning Red and Soul, Pixar is giving mainline Disney a run for its money; it is refreshing to see the respect that Pixar has for its audience. Turning Red gives kids content with deeper and messier themes than most competing family animation on the market, and that is a good thing. Turning Red isn’t in the same tone or genre as works like Steven Universe. But they are alike in their portrayal of preteen lives that aren’t neatly sanitized and oversimplified, and that’s a boon.
The reason we have adults solo-watching content like Turning Red is because it validates their own childhood; Turning Red gives people the message they wish they heard as kids. Pixar’s founders drew inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in creating their storytelling formula. Turning Red proves that Pixar still holds to the Ghibli spirit of creating accessible, deep and mature animation for everyone.
Our protagonist is Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old girl navigating the world of 2002. She effortlessly balancing her close-knit circle of friends, her academic obligations, and her responsibility to her mother Ming Lee (Sandra Oh) and the temple their family maintains. But as she begins puberty and develops typical preteen angst, her balance is thrown off by the emergence of her “red panda”.
“Red panda” is not a euphemism for periods, despite what Ming initially suspects her daughter is experiencing. Her comedic, frantic attempt to explain pads to Mei is gut-bursting; further, it’s one that any girl in the audience past the age of 10 can laugh, cringe, and empathize with. But no, when Mei experiences strong emotions, she literally transforms into a giant red panda. Puberty is dealt with explicitly rather than being reserved to a pained metaphor, which is refreshing for Disney; as Mei undergoes the trials and tribulations of normal puberty, she experiences a parallel magical puberty. Amplifying the tension, her mother’s overbearing tendencies aggravate the difficulties for Mei in both her human and magical growth.
Mei’s repeated struggle to discover her own identity, outside her mother’s expectations, is the primary conflict driving the plot. Keeping the overbearing parent dynamic fresh from previous works is the appearance of Ming Lee’s own overbearing mother, Mei’s grandmother Wu (Wai Ching Ho). Grandmother Wu enters the plot to browbeat Ming over her failure containing Mei’s red panda; because of Wu, we start to relate to Ming and understand she is projecting her own trauma onto Mei.
Every female member of Mei’s bloodline, back to her ancestor Sun Yee, has the ability to turn into a giant red panda once they hit puberty. Originally a gift to allow Sun Yee to protect her daughters and village, this became an inconvenience in modern society. This unique interplay of intergenerational trauma and adolescent growth manifests in a layered conflict; the editing is well-done with a tight 100-minute runtime.
Turning Red is relatable to a wide variety of audiences; girls who are currently experiencing or have experienced the awkwardness of puberty, everyone from an immigrant family struggling with intergenerational expectations and trauma, and anyone who has wrestled with finding acceptance in the face of bigotry and shame.
Even if you can’t relate directly to these experiences, it’s easy to disappear into the film and empathize with Mei and her journey. You can feel her hurt when classmates mock her family and culture, her embarrassment when her mother causes an unmerited scene, and her rage when she does everything for her mother, grandmother and family, and only suffers for the effort.
As I’ve said, Turning Red portrays preteen life in the messy and nuanced way that it actually exists. The only villain in this film is the failure for mother and daughter to communicate healthily. When they talk with each other frankly, and Mei discovers that her struggles with Ming are the same struggles that Ming had with her mother Wu, they break the cycle of intergenerational trauma; Mei and Ming establish healthy boundaries that make their relationship stronger.
Turning Red isn’t perfect, and while it does a great job of making Toronto look as diverse as it really is, I wish the LGBT representation wasn’t a single brief moment in the background. But overall, Turning Red is a quality experience with solid writing, humour and pacing. With Domee Shi as part of their creative pool, Pixar is in better shape than ever.