In front of Pixar’s Incredibles 2 (2018) was writer/director Domee Shi’s directorial debut Bao, a bittersweet story of parenthood and letting go. It’s not too surprising that Shi’s feature-length debut, Turning Red, follows a similar trajectory, just from a different perspective. Where Bao is about the inevitability of an empty nest, of a parent’s job to help their children grow beyond them, Turning Red is about finding yourself, stepping across the threshold from childhood into adolescence, and all the glorious complications that come along with it. Similarly imaginative and inspired as her work on Bao, Shi pushes the typical Pixar style into a unique direction, often blending several styles at once, yet never losing the visual center. The end result is a tale as lovely in construction as it is narratively in execution, each working together in an exploration of agency and individuality as they brush against familial tradition.
13-year-old consummate overachiever Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) obliterates mathematical equations, dominates the flute, and conquers French, all with her own particular winning style. That is, until it’s time to go home after school and work with her mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), at the Lee Family Temple in Toronto. It’s not that she doesn’t love working with her mother (cleaning, running tours, or dressing as the family’s spiritual animal, a red panda), it’s that who she is with her friends at school (spontaneous, rebellious, full of take-charge energy) doesn’t blend well with Ming’s helicopter presence. Things become worse for Meilin (also known as Mei) when she wakes one morning to discover that she’s turned into a giant red panda, only returning to her regular self when she can manage her emotions. If she thought her life was hard before this, it’s about to get worse. That is, unless she can address her deregulation and learn to find balance.
Let’s start by addressing the red panda in the room.
The screenplay from Shi and co-writer Julia Cho (Fringe) makes no allusions to what the panda represents regarding adolescence. It’s a period of incredible change, especially for girls. There’s a reason the phrase “Little Women,” the title of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, is so powerful: it refers to individuals who are not children anymore yet also not full-grown adults. Mei is one such little woman, loaded with all the responsibilities of adulthood and none of the fun of childhood. The transformation into a red panda (given a specific meaning and lineage, making it more than metaphor), is tied directly to Mei’s burgeoning frustration with her mother and the exhaustion of having to deny herself in order to maintain the illusion of cultural conformity. Smartly, Shi and Cho have set their film in the early 2000s when boy bands were all the rage, using the up-coming appearance of Mei’s favorite band, 4*Town, as the focal point for Mei defection of perceived identity into self-discovery. The red panda, as metaphor, and how Mei comes to terms with it is revolutionary and full of body positivity as keeping the secret of her transformation is quickly addressed (the teaser trailer makes that plain). To the surprise of no one, Ming and husband Jin (voiced by Orion Lee) knew the transformation was coming. Ming wanting to immediately help Mei suppress it; whereas Mei’s friends accept her immediately, loving her all the same. This is where Turning Red truly finds its footing, side-stepping a lot of tropes and expectations created from a lot of other films, by abandoning the secrecy, discarding the typical rejection, and zeroing in the rift of mother and daughter via their respective world views. For all of its very specific cultural notes, the clash between generations is almost entirely universal, making the conflict easy to recognize as an outsider and still as emotional. Even more so, the narrative has a specific emphasis on emotional regulation, which is to say, identifying and controlling your emotions without them controlling you. This is a key component to finding balance in real-life, something which the parenting technique called gentle or authoritative parenting focuses on in order to give children the words and tools to handle themselves whether overjoyed or, well, turning into a rage monster. It’s not compression or compartmentalization, but control.
What also helps Turning Red standout is the artistic style of the film. It’s not so bold as The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) or BELLE (2021) which broke animation conventions to fit within their specific narrative needs, but it’s not the typical Pixar faire, either. Unlike the main Walt Disney Studio Animation House which favors a lot of similar body structures, just with different animation maps, skins, and textures, Pixar always goes for something specific to the story it’s telling. This may be why so many Pixar films, in addition to their multi-layered narratives, are beloved by general audiences and critics alike. Turning Red is no different, leaning into the cultural styles of its central character, as well as personal preferences. This means when a 4*Town song starts, Mei and her friends start moving in typical-for-the-era dance moves (never thought I’d be laughing so hard at a panda backing it up in, well, ever), and when anyone sees something cute, the eye design shifts into something found in traditional anime (wide and a tad glossy). These visual shifts, along with the occasional fourth wall break from Mei, enable Turning Red to be malleable, filling the needs of the story without constantly relying on the rules of nature. One might presume a certain flexibility when dealing with a character who transforms into a red panda when under any kind of strain, and there is, but always within a set of consistent rules. This leads to a lot of fun without ever going too far, too fast, or too sudden.
Not to mention, what’s going to seal the film for a lot of parents in the audience with young ones is how perfectly Shi and Cho constructed 4*Town. I was 21 in 2002, so I remember very well the global domination of bands like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, 980, O-Town, and even the delightful satirical group 2Gether (with their hits “U + Me = Us (Calculus)” and “The Hardest Part of Breaking Up (Is Getting Back Your Stuff)”). I’m not saying that songwriters Billie Eilish & FINNEAS have what it takes in their song “Nobody Like U” to take 4*Town on the road, but there are likely going to be some 4*Townies singing this song and others come March 12th. I’ve clearly aged out of a lot of this type of material or music style, but, dang, did it take me back to the days of Total Request Live and some questionable adolescent choices.
Part of what makes Pixar such a beloved studio is that their films consistently push what animation can do in telling human stories, often through extraordinary or nontraditional means. Do you think we cried over toys nearly melting in Toy Story 3 or was it deeper? Something about the preciousness of life and how some are so callously cast aside when no longer of use? Do you think Inside Out is just about emotions Joy and Sorrow trying to help their person? Or is it about the complex nature of emotions, how they shape our perception, our actions and reaction to the world? Shi and Cho do the same thing here, presenting a mystical tale which helps explore family dynamics (the ones we’re born into and the ones we choose), the significance of self-love, the importance of personal agency, and gravity of emotional regulation. They do all of this and more with a song, a dance, and a touch of spirituality.
Available on Disney+ March 11th, 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.