While I adore Pixar’s output it’s long been aiming to achieve a specific goal – make the audience cry. This has led to some wonderful things, but particularly a contemplation of the afterlife on various scales. There’s the culturally focused Coco, the environmentally-conscious Wall-E, and perhaps its most ambitious contemplation of the circle of life in Soul. It’s shied away from a significant amount of other topics, focusing more on these adorably macabre ideas that are delivered in a beautifully imaginative package.
So it’s absolutely wild that Turning Red is a film all about puberty, specific family relationships (and their evolutions), and being a wildly horny teenager because you can’t control it.
Sometimes that’s the secret sauce to a great film. Director Domee Shi, who scored an Oscar win for her empty-nesting short film Bao, has recreated her specific experiences as a Chinese-Canadian teen in Toronto in order to tap into a universal tension underlying the transition from kid to adult. While most people experience body odor, wanton hair growing in places we aren’t used to, and that tingling sensation when we fantasize about people we find attractive, our lead character Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) displays these in a…different way. While her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), wonders if it might be menstruation (asking, “Did the peony bloom?” while Mei barricades herself in the bathroom), it is revealed that she’s stumbled upon her darkest family secret in the form of a giant Red Panda. Ming and her befuddled husband, Jin (Orion Lee playing the character as an exasperated Miyazaki dad), explain that the women in the family always deal with this during puberty. Mei merely has to not feel any strong emotion until the next red moon and then she can be freed, invoking a ritual performed by her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) and the most FABULOUS entourage of aunts I’ve ever seen to separate the panda from the girl and free her. This becomes difficult when the band 4*Towne announces a Toronto tour date on that fateful night, with Mei more concerned with raising money for a ticket (and getting to go with her equally horny and hilarious group of friends) than with banishing the panda.
We’ve all been in this situation. Sure, it might not have been as furry, but everyone has gone through the change that is equal parts finding yourself and body horror as we transition to maturity. Sometimes this period is painful (pun not intended, but I’m not mad about it), as it often is when you grow in a different direction than the one your parent had picked out for you, but these important deviations from our current paths are blissfully new and delightful when we examine them in later years. Embarrassing, sure, but meaningful. Pixar has taken a very bold step in acknowledging that boys aren’t the only ones that come of age, but to openly be having the body-positive discussion of menstruation is so wonderfully executed and will make this an important film in the lives of many young people going forward (no matter their gender identity).
The animation still manages to keep a heavy set of topics light on their feet, with each fuzzy hair on Mei’s panda torso lovingly rendered and adorably frizzy. It stands out against the real-world city of Toronto, the environment one that looks and feels like the smaller neighborhoods of any larger city (those of you that can’t connect with it should examine why you can be fine with Spider-man being from Queens when you can’t identify with a 2002 teen from Toronto). It’s delightful and grounded, a big departure from the bombast of films like Soul and Coco, and I very much adored it.
Another steady hand is composer Ludwig Göransson, who composed music for the Disney+ series The Mandalorian and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (one of my favorite scores of 2020). His delightfully bouncy score, mixed with moments of early-aughts pop bliss, combines with the animation to surprise me in ways I hadn’t expected. Many Pixar films have delightful scores (Soul won an Oscar last year for its Nine Inch Nails/Jazz fusion score), but this feels very specific in a way that I could only describe with you if we had a time machine (see, I’d have to have you sit in a tree with me and my friend so we could talk about girls we liked or use a split headphone jack to rock out to The Backstreet Boys). The pop music work is handled by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell. The two put together a few songs for the in-universe pop band, 4*Towne, and the jams brought back my youth in a way I hadn’t expected (“U Know What’s Up” is a canned-music banger). The whole album will be joining my vinyl collection eventually and I cannot wait for that.
Turning Red is a delightful film that’s going to make a lot of adults feel horrified and their children feel relieved. Rarely do we get a film that’s willing to discuss these topics, particularly menstruation (yes, boys need to learn about that as well and those that are uncomfortable with that can shove it up their ass because it gets confusing later in life if you aren’t properly prepared by the adults responsible for you), and I’m delighted that the subject of puberty has been handled by such a winning filmmaker. The film has, sadly, been shafted directly to Disney+ instead of getting the theatrical release it deserves. This does, however, make it more readily available to the young audience that needs it and the adults that need comforting while they process how poorly their puberty was handled. It’s a beautiful little film and one that will go down as one of the more important entries in the Pixar canon.
Turning Red is, as I said, streaming on Disney+.