Disney Pixar’s new film doesn’t shy away from depicting the highs and lows of puberty
It’s 2002, and 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is thriving in Toronto. She has a small group of close and supportive friends who all share her love of the boy band 4*Town. After school, she helps her mom run the temple that’s been in their family for decades. But Mei has started to have feelings she can’t control, fierce yearnings and desires. One morning after a particularly embarrassing night, Mei wakes up as a red panda.
Turning Red is director Domee Shi’s first feature after her award-winning short Bao. Like Bao, this new Pixar film is structured around the theme of family. But culture and identity are also primary themes: Who is Mei if she is not what her helicopter mom (Sandra Oh) expects her to be? The vibrant animated work is an exploration of Mei’s self-discovery.
There aren’t a whole lot of animated films (at least that I’m aware of) centered around girls dealing with puberty. Takahata’s Only Yesterday came to mind as I watched mother Ming bring out menstrual products for Meilin. While menstruation isn’t the main topic of Turning Red, the film is based on the visual metaphor of the red panda.
Meilin’s moments of humiliation and lust are depicted with exuberance. There’s a distinct anime influence here, most obvious when characters become excited — their eyes turn glittery and huge. Shi and the Pixar crew make Turning Red look unlike anything we’ve seen from the studio before, from the original story (co-written by Shi and Julia Cho) to the style of the animation.
There is much to appreciate in the film, even with the danger of secondhand embarrassment. A poppy electronic score by Ludwig Göransson accompanies the film, emphasizing the Meilin’s strong emotions. The 4*Town songs composed by Billie Eilish and her brother FINNEAS have the generic pop sound of boy bands from the time. It’s obvious much consideration and love went into Turning Red; there’s a contagious joy to the work as Meilin and her mother find further dimensions to appreciate about each other.
Turning Red debuts on Disney+ Friday, March 11.