For 80-85% of its length, Pixar’s Turning Red is an absolutely delightful coming-of-age story, brightly colored in both its palette and its characters. If it goes off the rails at the very end, and I’d argue it does that a-plenty, it’s still well worth viewing.
The film centers on 13-year-old Meilin (Mei) Lee, a Canadian-Chinese girl living with her family in the temple they take care of in Toronto’s Chinatown. Mei is seemingly the perfect daughter: she gets straight As in all her classes, plays the flute, and sacrifices after-school fun with her three “besties” to rush home and help her mother (Ming) clean the temple and give tours. But as that “13-year-old” foretells, trouble looms on the horizon. She and her best friends are obsessed with a boy band called 4-Town (despite having five members), the local boys are also suddenly of interest with one in particular the subject of Mei’s mildly racy doodling, and Mei is finding her emotional swings tough to handle or understand. In short, puberty has struck.
And the metaphor for that puberty is the giant red panda Mei transforms into whenever her emotions get the best of her. The first time it happens, it’s played for laughs but also with a wonderful sense of warm empathy for young girlhood, her mother asking through the bathroom door, “Did the red peony bloom?” as her terrified father nervously backs away and out of the picture.
At first the red panda appearance horrifies and embarrasses Mei, even after her mother explains it’s a “blessing” that has run through the female side of the family for ages, ever since their ancestor, whom they worship in the temple, asked the gods to give her the shape-shifting ability. But then the film takes a wonderful turn as first her close-knit gang (in a simply lovely scene of true friendship) and then the rest of her classmates find out. And soon Mei and her besties are, unbeknownst to her parents, “releasing the panda” as a money-making scheme to afford tickets to the 4-Town concert coming to Toronto’s Skydome in a month or so. Though of course the lies, and the unbridled fun, will eventually have to be paid for.
As noted, Turning Red is fantastic for nearly the entire time, with a slew of wonderful elements.
One is how the red panda moves from a simple metaphor for puberty to a broader metaphor for one’s wilder and darker side, all those elements of Mei she’s repressed in order to be a good student and good daughter. And then becomes even richer in the revelation of it being a family “curse/blessing”, which keeps her connected to the family – its traditions and culture (particularly the matrilineal ones), allowing the symbol to work in a more complex vein than such symbols often do, especially in movies for younger audiences.
The relationship with her friends is wholly endearing and feels entirely true to a young girl’s adolescence, at least as far as I can tell (granted, I am a guy, but one who grew up with a sister only a year older and who has also taught multiple years of middle school – I know teen hormones male and female, believe me). Pixar has always done a great job with relationships and that holds true here, with several of the friends scenes guaranteed to bring a lump to your throat and make you recall just how vitally important such friends were to you at that age. And the boy band portrayal is pretty perfect, almost annoyingly so, because, you know, boy band.
The film also (mostly) does a good job navigating the tricky line between realistic portrayal and stereotype. Mei’s mother could easily have been a cardboard “Tiger Mom”, and the movie does skirt along that edge, but never arrives there thankfully. We never see her mother really pushing her, asking about grades, forcing her into extracurriculars, etc. So we’re left to assume the “good girl” pressure Mei feels is from her mother yes, but maybe much of it in Mei’s head as well. Ming’s overbearing nature is mostly played for humor in scenes more embarrassing than pressure-filled, as when she loiters behind a tree in the schoolyard to keep an eye on Mei.
Nor is there any real sense of anger or bitterness in the relationship, at least in the early part (more on that later).
The humor, until that final section, is often laugh out loud. And the colors are bright and joyful throughout, with the visual having a bit more of a manga look to them than the usual Pixar, throughout but especially toward the end.
As excellent as Turning Red is, and if it’s not top-tier Pixar second-tier Pixar is still great, it does have some issues. While it’s nice to see the mother-daughter relationship avoiding the Tiger Mom stereotype, when the anger explodes (almost literally) between them, it comes more than a little out of left field. Sowing some earlier seeds would have helped the ending feel more true.
Similarly, the film is a bit muddy in its portrayal of the women – on the one hand (outside of Mei’s grandmother) they’re introduced as typical overly-loud extended “aunties”, but then they seem a bit cold and unconcerned with Mei’s true desires, then it flips again. It’s not the changing portrayal that’s an issue — people are complex — but that it all happens too quickly and too minimally. More time spent with the extended family would have gone a long way to making the movie earn its emotional aims. The same issue arises with Mei’s father. And while her girlfriends are wonderfully conveyed as a group of friends, that’s less true individually, though they are distinctive.
Then, of course, there’s that ending. Both my wife and I loved the first 3/4s of the movie — funny, heartwarming, true to life, good to look at, spot on in its evocation of time and culture and early adolescence. I don’t want to give too much away, but for both of us, the film went completely off the rails in the last 20 minutes. Way, way off the rails. Like, the train jumped the rails, turned into a bus, and then into a Ford Pinto. Everything got too big (literally), character turns were unearned, and the film took a truly shockingly nonchalant attitude toward destruction and potential mass death. To give just one specific example, at one point Mei tells her mom, “My panda, my choice.” In a time when Texas has passed a law deputizing private citizens and putting a bounty basically on women who have abortions, another state is trying to restrict the freedom of movement of women to travel for health care, and a law has just been proposed to criminalize treating ectopic pregnancies, which don’t even lead to birth but do kill women, “My panda my choice” is distressingly, painfully, infuriatingly tone deaf. Some may react more positively to the close — there are certainly some funny and heartfelt moments, some nice callbacks/references to other genres/films, and some may even find the “my panda my choice” a rallying cry rather than a trivialization. But for us, honestly, the entire last 20 minutes feels like a writers’ room pitch session where someone spits out a funny, great, over the top idea, everybody has a laugh, and then they all nod their heads at just why it doesn’t work, and they can’t do it. Unfortunately, that last step never happened.
Despite all that, I still highly recommend watching Turning Red. It’s not up to the standards of, well, Up or Wall-E or Toy Story, but certainly up there with Luca or Brave and better, I’d say, than Onward or some of the Cars movies. For the vast majority of its run time, it’s a funny, warm, eye-dampening, throat-lumpening depiction of early adolescence and family. I hope Pixar continues to explore more young adulthood/mature themes as they broaden their scope.
I’ve been enjoying the (manufactured) controversy over on Twitter: “13-year-olds don’t write fanfic!”