13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chaing) strives to meet the expectations of her overbearing mother Ming (Sandra Oh), excelling academically at everything she touches, while hiding her growing obsession with boys, especially pop sensation 4*Towns, which she shares with friends Miriam (Eva Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). But when she awakens one morning to find herself transformed into a giant red panda, Mei learns of an “inconvenient” blessing bestowed upon them the female members of the family by an ancestor, that will require a once-off ritual in a month to eliminate. Along with a growing temper, the transformation gives Mei a greater need for independence, setting her on a collision course with her mother when 4*Towns play a concert nearby.
In truth, Turning Red is a difficult one for me to appraise fairly, because more than any other film I have seen recently this is one that is outside of my experience. And I don’t mean my lack of familiarity with anthropomorphic red pandas. Turning Red is a film for women very specifically, touching on themes of female pubescence, the changing relationship between mothers and daughters and the importance of sororal friendships. Which is not to say that I was watching a film in an entirely different language or anything, but Turning Red is a testament to a lived experience and emotional change that I can never adequately comprehend. But I know enough to know that is an important story told well, one I can appreciate even as I acknowledged that it is as much for my demographic as the bare-chested 4*Towns are (which is to say, only a little bit).
The overt symbolism of the piece is not exactly hard to spot, enough that when I was first made aware of the film I admit I guffawed rather sarcastically at the title. What could it possibly be an allusion to? Getting beyond this hint of sledgehammer allegory, Turning Red is a really good exploration of the beginnings of female puberty, that goes beyond what is a fairly heavy-handed substitution for menstruation (though the film doesn’t shirk from talking about such things in point of fact) in the manner that Mei changes into a anger-fueled red panda whose powers are tied to a monthly cycle. That’s only a jumping off point for a film that wants to do for the early stages of puberty in women what Inside Out did for mental health in young girls, or what Soul did for people a bit too obsessed with their dreams: to offer recognition, validation and a fairy-tale method of exploring a very difficult topic.
To wit: the perfect daughter in terms of following her mother’s likes suddenly changes. It’s not just the panda thing, Mei is just generally different: more argumentative, more inclined to form her own social circles (some of the best scenes are quiet moments between Mei and her immediate group of friends) outside of her family, more willing to be upfront about her own unique likes and dislikes and more drawn to the opposite sex. These points are alongside or pre-date the panda transformation, not caused by it: Mei is more than happy to casually flirt with boys in school in one scene for example, in a moment that indicates this is not new behavior. Turning Red follows us through this state of affairs with tact and grace, allowing its more extreme symbolic plot point to be an addition that focuses more on the fringe elements of this transformation: the mood changes, the anger with parents and a refusal to be be what the world expects her to be.
By the end the symbolism appears to change slightly, with hints of the panda aspect being a representation less of puberty and more of identity. At first I thought this might be an allegory for sexual awakening in terms of orientation, but aside from one very brief allusion to one of Mei friends being bi this doesn’t really land. One of the whole points of the films final message is Mei conscious choice to embrace what she is becoming, which doesn’t really track with the reality of orientation. Instead I would take it as a more general identity/personality theme: yes puberty brings with it very important biological changes, but the truly important ones are what kind of adult it turns you into. Mei is happy being academically proficient and being perceived as an obedient child, but that doesn’t mean that this is all she is, or all she wants to be: she also wants be what the panda represents, namely a little bit wild, a little bit devious and very much her own person. And that person wants to go see her favourite band and experience the kind of moment that marks the shift from child to adult (while the band is frequently played for laughs, 4*Town as a sort of sexuality gateway is not, with the group of friends resolutely deciding they are leaving the concert as women).
Turning Red is also about parenting of course. In this I do feel it falls down slightly, engaging in some well-worn cliches about the pestering nature of mothers compared to hen-pecked, quiet fathers, who stand idly by as their children get nagged into conformity by their mothers. Mei’s father (Orion Lee) is a side player in the film for the most part, save for one scene where he has a brief heart-to-heart with his daughter that bordered on trite, and placed him firmly in the “Consciously quiet witness” sub category of useless paternal figures in film. And, as for the mother, well this ties into a few other points I want to get into right now.
It’s also really worth nothing that Turning Red is a minority film along with everything else. Mei and her family are part of a Canadian-Chinese community in Toronto, who run the gambit between respecting their ancient traditions – their business is the running of a Temple – and milking it a bit for the tourists. Abbey is identified as Korean, and Priya appears to be of Indian descent. Turning Red doesn’t spend too long on this aspect really, but can be seen as an attempt to investigate the well-worn cliche of Asian families who are dramatically harsh with their children when it comes to education, expectations and life-mapping.
Turning Red certainly leans in to this concept as a reality, but its subsequent exploration of what happens when this parenting style hits the the wall of puberty and a radically different social and cultural environment to that which the perpetrators had growing up is undoubtedly interesting. It’s in the unstated similarities that we find the really interesting nuggets: Mei has 4*Towns as his fulcrum for adolescent rebellion, her mother had her relationship with her eventual husband, that drove a wedge between her and Mei’s disapproving grandmother. There are times when this is played for jokes – Ming decries Mei’s sudden penchant for rolling her eyes, then tries to pretend she’s not home when her own mother calls – but for the most part Turning Red takes a critical view, asking us to consider the hypocrisy so often prevalent in the parenting standards of those who chaffed under such things in their own lives.
The film skips along really nicely, with Pixar long past the point where issues of pacing or slow sections are something they need to seriously concern themselves with. Call it a genius understanding of filmmaking momentum I suppose, and Domee Shi is just the head of a very accomplished production. The film takes its time with what it wants to say but freshens things up every few minutes with the right action beat, or colourful montage to keep things from ever being in danger of being dour. By the time we hit the third act the similarities between Turning Red and a superhero origin story will also become more obvious (only in this case the superhero in question is essentially just a young woman) and Turning Red grabs that ball and run with it into a fun finale that involves an unlikely turn from 4*Towns and one of the best nods to kaiju movies/Ghostbusters cinema has come up with recently.
And of course it’s also got a very good understanding of the blend between comedy and drama. You’ll laugh plenty at Turning Red, whether it’s Ming describing 4*Towns as “glittery delinquents with their gyrations” (at the same time as trailers for Elvis come out, it makes you ponder on the fact that, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same), our actual look at 4*Towns themselves (there’s the cute one, the sporty one, the one who speaks French and the other two “who are also talented”) or the recurring appearance of the school security guard, consistently exasperated by Ming’s efforts to remain close to her daughter physically. While not on a level of something like The Mitchells Vs The Machines, Turning Red insures that the seriousness of its subject matter does not translate to a dour lecture on female adolescence and how to handle it.
Pixar continues to demonstrate its A-tier ability with computer generated imagery in Turning Red, with enough here to make clear their continuing efforts to innovate and excel. Mei’s panda form looks amazing: one wonders how much work has gone into the creation of fur so realistic looking you’ll want to reach out and give it a squeeze. But Turning Red goes beyond that, in creating a digital entity that might be an especially larger red panda on the surface, but which moves, emotes and feels like something closer to a physical form than a lot of code. Sticking this creature into sunglasses or clothes might seem kitschy at first, until you actually see it happen. And there are plenty of other neat visual touches as well: an early Bond-like slow-montage of Mei’s father cooking food; an otherworldly trip into an ancestral fever dream; and that whole finale, where the Toronto Skydome proves an able backdrop to an unlikely, but visually engaging, showdown with the shadows of repressed maternal anger. I seem to say it every time, but I suppose I will have to say it again just one more time: you don’t need me to tell you that Pixar makes movies that look good. Very soon they will have been doing it for three decades.
Given my initial thoughts on the film, I felt like it might be appropriate to hand things over to a female perspective when it comes to a conclusion. Here’s my better half Ashling on the film:
When you are a kid and you go through this change or any change, it can be terrifying despite all the preparations you think you have made and what those closest to you have made. You may think you are the epitome of calm but sooner or later, we all crack and hey, time for the title! Turning Red captures the worry, the angst and the emotions of growing up perfectly. We can identify with Mei and her friends (even with the bully Devon to an extent) all are that little bit scared, that little bit anxious and that little bit excited too and sometimes those emotions can cause us to clash with those who think they are doing the best and what is actually the best for us. While this film will definitely connect more with a female audience, there’s lots in there for boys too. The message, it’s OK to be different and feel strange especially if there’s a lot of change happening. Cry if you’re scared, hug it out if you’re unsure, engage with your anger and show it in as healthy way possibly instead of locking it away (something that (slight spoiler) her mother goes on to praise her for doing later), laugh manically and talk about your dreams loudly – for Mei and her friends, it’s seeing 4 Town. The main thing is being true to yourself and while it’s good to have family close, keep your friends closer – of course they’ll judge you (only slightly so!) but they’ll always know what to do to pick you up when you’re feeling down.
Turning Red comes highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).