Moviegoer: Turning Red

A teen girl finds out puberty is literally a beast in this sweet movie

By Diana Beechener

 Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang in her feature debut) is practically a woman. At 13, the Transportation Department of Toronto declares her an adult and that’s good enough for her. She’s an academic whiz, a proud feminist, and still finds time to hang out with friends and run a temple with her mom.

         But Mei’s mom doesn’t see her little girl as an independent entity yet. In fact, Ming (Sandra Oh: Invincible) isn’t a fan of Mei’s friends, refuses to listen to Mei’s music, and goes ballistic when she finds out that Meilin has a crush on a boy. Assuming that the boy corrupted her child, Ming makes a horrifying scene in front of Mei’s classmates.

         The incident is pretty traumatizing, because the next morning Meilin wakes up as an 8-foot red panda.

         It turns out that all the women in Meilin’s family have a curse—when they reach their teens, they turn into giant unruly red pandas. But Meilin isn’t sure it’s a curse. As both mom and teen wait for a red moon so they can banish the red panda, Mei learns that her new ability might just be something she wants to hang on to.

         Once again Pixar makes a metaphor about growing up both hilarious and painfully real. Just as every teen thinks their parents are like so embarrassing, there isn’t a parent in existence that wouldn’t admit that parenting an adolescent isn’t sometimes reminiscent of corralling a feral animal. The brilliance of Pixar is finding a way to validate both views—in Turning Red neither Mei nor Ming is wholly wrong, but both have a lot to learn.

         Director and co-writer Domee Shi is no stranger to delicate family dynamics. Her debut short Bao won an Oscar for exploring empty nest syndrome via adorable anthropomorphic dumplings. Here, Shi shines by fully fleshing out just how weird and awkward it is to grow up, especially if you’re close to your parents. Shi infuses the movie with little quirks and details that make Mei’s journey through puberty more than a smelly red panda joke.

And while one might not think a movie about turning into a panda is infused with realism, Turning Red is filled with little moments that brought up memories for your over-the-hill reviewer and her movie companion.

Shi has a knack for making both Mei and Ming do horrible, cringe-worthy things without ever making them cruel or stupid. They’re both trying their best and failing spectacularly as they do. The best part is Mei is only half aware of the changes. One day she thinks boys are gross, then a boy smirks in a way that sparks obsession. It’s not enough to coo over him with friends, Mei has to draw him—as a merman! By letting her leads be weird, Shi brings out the wonderful and the truth in adolescence.

         The story is also wisely set in 2002, which eliminates the specter of smartphones and social media—as well as the myriad ways those things can change how kids grow and develop. This is not a story about social pressure. It’s a story about growing up and realizing you may not agree with all of your parents’ opinions anymore. As Mei begins to spend more time with friends, she realizes there’s a distance growing between herself and her mother. The problem isn’t the distance, but finding ways to bridge it without regressing. That’s easier said than done for both parties.

          In the grand tradition of all Pixar films, the serious story is somewhat balanced by a heaping help of silliness. There’s plenty in Turning Red to keep younger audiences entertained while older ones learn lessons about maturity and communication. But while this movie tells a worthy story filled with fascinating specific cultural details and universal truths, it doesn’t hit at the heart of the subject as ruthlessly as Luca or Toy Story. You won’t need to bring the tissues—which may be a relief to some Pixar fans—but lacking a tear-jerker moment is just a tiny ding on an otherwise impressive film.

         This weekend gather your family—and make room for any red pandas—and enjoy Turning Red, a film about embracing family and giving each other some space at the same time.

Turning Red begins streaming March 11 on Disney+.

Good Animation * PG * 100 mins.