Review: In Pixar’s Turning Red, a Teenager Learns to Harness—and Appreciate—the Beast Within

When you’re a 13-year-old girl, there’s nothing quite as dramatic—or traumatic—as being a 13-year-old girl. Hormones are raging, bodies are changing, there’s so much you don’t know about who you are, who you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to be, and even the slightest misstep, whether you realize you made it or not, can make you a social pariah across an entire middle school. It’s daunting, to say the least.

A far cry from Andy’s coming-of-age journey told through his cowboy and astronaut toys in Pixar’s beloved Toy Story franchise, the animation studio’s latest feature film, Turning Red, is an homage to all things adolescent girlhood, from the crew of close friends who come to mean more to you than your own family to the cult-like obsession with boybands to that unforgettable moment when your first period arrives. Directed by Domee Shi (an Oscar winner for the short animated film Bao, truly a gem) and set in early-aughts Toronto, Turning Red follows a tumultuous few weeks in the life of Asian-Canadian 13-year-old Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), daughter of an unassuming father, Jin (Orion Lee), and a vigilant but loving mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). She lives to please her parents, to achieve perfection in anything she does in order to make them proud and bring honor to her family. After school, she helps her mother run the temple they live behind, one that honors their ancestors and the family’s connection to China’s red panda.

But at school and in the privacy of her own room, Meilin fully embraces her contemporary (and burgeoning) teen-hood with friends who let her be herself, including their shared obsessions with both the cute boys at school and the biggest boyband around, 4Town (featuring genuinely catchy songs penned by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell). Meilin is living her best life, balancing both worlds and rocking it. That is, until something strange happens when all her pent-up energy finally has nowhere else to go except to burst out of her in ways both surprising and scary: overnight, Meilin turns into that ancentral animal she knows so well, a red panda. And not just a child-sized version of the furry, bushy-tailed beast. She’s huge, she’s clumsy, and she’s caught in a loop: the more worked up she gets, the more the beast comes out; the more the beast comes out, the more worked up she gets.

It’s next to impossible to hide the fact that one has metamorphosed into a giant red panda, so of course soon her overbearing mother finds out, along with her whole school, too – though the two have very different reactions. Turning Red runs a healthy hour and 40 minutes, and its only sin may be that this is just a touch too long for a film whose lessons—as heartwarming and meaningful as they are—need to be. Over the course of the film’s runtime, Meilin is confronted with her family’s take on the change in her (elders are called in, it’s a whole thing…), has to figure out how to make it to an epic 4Town concert with her crew (there’s a hustle, and it’s adorable), and of course has to look deep inside herself to finally decide, once and for all, how to deal with the beast within. Any one of these threads could warrant its own film, but Shi (who shares screenplay credit with Julia Cho) weaves them all together so that by the end of this charming adventure, we’re fully in love with Meilin, even her beastly sides.

Much has been made of the importance of filmmaking as representation, allowing those of certain backgrounds, traditions and experiences to tell their own stories. Those who lament that this inherently limits a work’s effectiveness are missing the point entirely. Quite the opposite, in fact: by creating narratives, particularly on the scale of Disney animated films, that feature people who don’t look, act or experience the world the way you do, one is gifted a glimpse into the many ways our fellow human beings walk through the world day in and day out. Even if that weren’t enough (and it is more than), Meilin’s experiences, colored as they are through her culture and hometown, are at least universal to the half of the population that menstruates and experiences puberty from the female perspective.

Personally, the aspect of the film that most moved me, is the imperfect but unconditional bond between Meilin and her mother, Ming. Though I’ve only been one (as opposed to having raised one, too), it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the teenage years are hard, and especially trying on the mother-daughter bond. Shi gracefully (and entertainingly) explores this complicated dynamic in a way that any daughter with a mother will recognize instantly; when Ming’s mother (Wai Ching Ho) arrives, the lineage—and the significance of it—only deepens, as we understand Meilin as a long line of strong, defiant women who each found their own way through their beastly years with the support of those around them. That Meilin’s journey looks different from her mother’s or her grandmother’s is not, in the end, the issue. It’s the whole point.

Turning Red is now streaming on Disney+.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone