(Domee Shi, Julia Cho, Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, et. al | PG | 1hr 40min | Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Overview: Mei is on the cusp of womanhood. And while navigating puberty is difficult for any girl, Mei’s ancient family connection to red pandas makes everything even more complicated.
Verdict: There’s always a certain coming-of-age element to Disney/Pixar films, but no movie does it better, perhaps, than Turning Red.
At the heart of the story is Mei, a very spunky thirteen-year-old girl who splits her time and affections between her group of friends, family, and deep love of pop boyband 4*TOWN. Her relationship with her family, particularly, is tied to their Chinese heritage, with Mei assisting at the family’s Shinto temple.
And just when it seems established that Mei has it all, her world gets turned upside-down by the onslaught of puberty. Suddenly, she is very keenly aware of boys and doing battle with surging hormones. The twist: All the women in Mei’s family, once reaching womanhood, are gifted — or cursed — with the ability to transform into a red panda when the emotions become too strong. And it is in this way that Turning Red presents its most important theme: Change.
Mei’s body is changing, and so are her relationships. It doesn’t shy away from how difficult those changes can be, as Mei struggles for a place outside of her parents’ influence and among the world of teenage fandom, all while learning to hold space for every facet of herself, past, present, and future. And while it could have been easy or safe for the filmmakers to focus on these changes through only Mei’s lens, these difficulties are also highlighted amongst her parents and friends — and that’s a nice touch.
The story is Turning Red’s biggest strength, particularly as it involves frank discussions about puberty, particularly as it affects girls. To have menstruation freely discussed as something not to be ashamed of was very refreshing, and makes Turning Red the sort of film that may become rite of passage viewing for pre-teen girls.
Similar to Disney’s other recent release, Encanto, Turning Red also deals with certain dysfunctions within the family unit and how open and honest communication can only help to heal relationships that are fracturing, especially generationally.
But the movie also weirdly serves as a love letter to early 2000’s fandom culture. Set in 2002, Mei nurtures a beloved Tomagotchi virtual pet, embarks on a relentless quest to see her favorite boyband in concert, uses such phrases as “bomb dot com,” listens to burned CDs, and attends parties where the Cha-Cha Slide is the dance of the night. Elder millennials will surely look at these easter eggs and long for the nostalgia of their own adolescence.
With a score by Ludwig Göransson and catchy breakout song ‘Nobody Like U’ penned by chart sensation Billie Eilish, Turning Red’s music underscores all around the biggest points the film sets out to make. The animation, as well, is masterful, providing even winking at the anime style.
The pitfalls of the film are few and far between, but exist. In the style of Coco, Luca, and Encanto, Toronto, Canada is the most recent Disney/Pixar international destination that serves absolutely no purpose to the story, save being the setting.
Apart from seeing a box of Tim Hortons TimBits on the kitchen table and the word “Hoser,” there’s nothing overtly Canadian present, and it comes across as a baffling choice setting in some recognizable location instead of some nondescript town.
Some of the situations and language may be a considered slightly “edgier” than the other Disney/Pixar films, so parents may want to screen the film first before watching with younger viewers.
But all the same, Turning Red may be the most important movie Disney/Pixar has ever released. It’s the first piece by the Pixar studio, specifically, to be directed by a woman, and the first one to directly speak to the unique circumstance of being a teenage girl. And it has red pandas!
And who doesn’t love red pandas?
Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte
Turning Red is currently available to stream on Disney+
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